Finnish Lapland: authentically inauthentic or something altogether more wicked?
August 16, 2022
By Michael Mortimer
When we here in the U.S. think of the Arctic Circle, we often conjure images of snow, reindeer, Santa Claus, and probably some sense of pristine, snowy panoramas with lonely wandering white bears. But what you would likely be surprised to discover, as I certainly was, is that Finnish Lapland, above the magical line of 66 degrees, 30 minutes North, is a heavily—heavily—managed place.
The myths we hold dear
What we might imagine to be an authentic place, free from the trappings of modernity, is actually a place of profound inauthenticity. The vast forests are regularly managed, and have been for many tens of decades. The trees are of about the same age, evenly spaced, more like fields of crops than natural forests. Reindeer herders, for all their vaunted centuries-old cultural heritage, have resorted to tourism, inviting visitors to feed tame-ish reindeer by hand on their farms. The indigenous Sami people find their culture and language slowly but steadily slipping away within the framework of the modern nation-state of Finland. Outdoor recreation sites are often within earshot of roads. The capital city of Rovaniemi is the capital of inauthenticity. Nearly the entire city was burnt to the ground by retreating German forces during WWII, and what stands today is modern steel and glass, bereft of any historic charms. Finally, the busy travel destination of the Santa Claus Village (yes, the official hometown of Santa Claus) is an almost tragic parody of the authenticity of what once might have existed in Lapland, at least in our imaginations.
The many industries of the far North
But setting all this aside, once you dispel the original myths you arrived with, you are faced with something I think much more interesting—a highly contested and rapidly changing landscape. Mining, peat harvesting, reindeer herding, wind power, forestry, cultural heritage, indigenous rights... It’s all there, smooshed into a much smaller area than you might expect. Oh yes, the human legacy is pervasive. It’s a (very) high latitude example of the Anthropocene, where one quickly learns that concepts of pristine condition, authenticity, and cultural integrity are merely constructs, all subject to reinterpretation through the indelible lens of human activity. It is not just a question of human presence, though. It is one of control. And it is hard to miss. The forests, the wildlife, the rivers, the livelihoods—all of it is controlled. But a challenge to that control is coming. And that challenge goes by the name of climate change.
Bracing for climate change
Climate change will impact this region profoundly. It will shorten the snowy season while paradoxically bringing heavier, more intense snowfalls. Warmer temperatures and rainfall will lead to ice depositions on snow that will prevent reindeer from successfully browsing during winter. It will alter pest insect emergence regimes, affecting everyone and everything that lives there. New pathogens may appear. It will create more flooding as new rain and snow regimes test waterways and human infrastructure like never before. And demands for and commitments to renewable energy will see wind turbines growing much faster than any of the trees in this cold place, sparking every manner of dispute.
And all of this is wicked. A situation without simple, stable solutions—or even line of sight to solutions, perhaps. There is a profound sense of “us” versus “them.” Reindeer herders versus every other land use. Sami peoples versus the Finnish state. Traditional versus post-modern lifestyles. Rural values and local identities versus urban cosmopolitanism and the role of Finland as a global citizen. Renewable energy versus wildlife and cultural heritage. Reverence for the past versus the necessities of the present. All of this “versus” business exacerbated by the Russia/Ukrainian conflict and the need to eliminate dependence on Russian carbon fuels.
Plentiful learning opportunities for students of sustainability
Understanding the change that is afoot, the competing land uses, the trade-offs, the consequences of decisions, that is both an authentic and compelling Lapland narrative. It makes for a fantastic learning opportunity for our students. A case study unfolding in real time. We plan to dig even deeper with our visit next year, going farther north above the Arctic Circle, expanding our study of competing land uses and stakeholders, and exploring even more of this unique high-latitude landscape. If you want authentic, go to your grandmother’s house for dinner. But if you want to experience a wicked socio-environmental land use conflict unfolding in a place that is at once exotic and familiar, then join us in Finland in 2023!
Dr. Michael Mortimer is the Associate Dean, Washington, D.C. Area, and Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.