If the kerfuffle over the president’s abrupt cancellation of a visit to Denmark recently were just another case of ruffled feathers — his and, to a lesser extent, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s — it would be relatively harmless. The list of people not offended or victimized by his hypersensitive outbursts doesn’t extend far beyond the bullies and tyrants of the world: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. So, by default, Frederiksen is in good company.
But Trump is just a small part of a much larger and more consequential story.
His sudden expectation that Denmark should sell Greenland to the United States was, in the prime minister’s estimation, an “absurd” idea, which she casually brushed aside, preparing, one assumes, to discuss more substantive matters with the president, or at least bestow the honorifics of a normal state visit. Easily offended, Trump said she was “nasty” and cancelled the whole thing.
The Trump whisperer in the matter of purchasing Greenland, according to the website Salon, was U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. Cotton, in fact, said he had broached the idea some months ago with Denmark’s U.S. ambassador, and that it has traction with the Republican Party.
There’s a military component to this notion. The Thule Air Base, an American installation 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, provides surveillance, missile detection and fighter capabilities from a northern vantage point that is strategically important to U.S. defense (and, certainly, offense).
However, those assets are already there. More alluring, it seems, are the nautical passageways opening up as the Arctic warms and its seas become more navigable, and natural resources that have been buried for millennia under glaciers and permafrost but are becoming more accessible as those barriers melt away. Greenland’s mineral resources include iron ore, lead, zinc, uranium, diamonds, gold and “rare earth” minerals that are used in innumerable modern technologies, including computers, rechargeable batteries and cellphones.
Then there’s oil and natural gas. Ownership and control over what, beneath all that ice, is the world’s largest island, would increase U.S. access to abundant fossil fuel resources at the top of the world. The Arctic supposedly contains 412 billion barrel oil equivalents (BOE) — 13% of the world’s untapped oil reserves — and 30% of its as-yet-undiscovered natural gas reserves. As energy companies resort to fracking and oil-sands extraction to squeeze every drop from known and available sources, the Arctic beckons irresistibly.
And with climate change working its magic, those riches will be there for the taking.
There’s something quite literally perverted about capitalizing on the destruction of the natural systems that support life on the planet, to facilitate a new burst of those same, ultimately self-destructive pursuits. It’s akin to addiction. On a human, personal level, we now recognize substance abuse as a “disorder,” a compulsion that drives people to continue an activity that imperils their very lives. With substances like opiates and alcohol, we know the dependence is, perhaps among other factors, chemically induced.
What’s behind the drive to continue plundering Earth’s crust and delving beneath her seas to extract resources that we know we mishandle? At first, presumably, it was the “rush” of development, our instincts toward imagination and invention, the quest to be masters (and comfortable ones, at that) of our own fate. But now that we’ve begun harvesting the injurious fruits of exploitation, is it merely greed? Stubbornness? Willful blindness?
This isn’t a distinctly American or corporate compulsion. Oil, diamonds and uranium will attract all manner of plunderers. Russia’s planning to push in with ice breakers.
At this point, of course, we must deal with reality. Some 440 billion tons of ice have melted away or crashed off Greenland’s coasts — an estimated 58 billion during five days this summer. The seas are rising and will imperil low-lying island nations and American coastal states. Yet there’s the potential to use the new realities to our advantage, for example, employing rare-earth minerals in the batteries of electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, shortening trade routes from port to port, again to conserve energy.
But who will champion such ideas? Trump and his Republican cohort of climate-change deniers weren’t lusting for Greenland so we could make better car batteries.
For better or worse, a new region of Earth is becoming available to us. We need a generation of leaders, in all nations, with the vision to say “yes” to the right uses of it, and the courage to say “no” to the wrong ones. That’s not our situation at the moment.