NARSAQ, GREENLAND – Mariane Paviasen had greeted dozens of geologists, researchers and maybe even a few mining executives when they touched down on the Bell helicopters used by Air Greenland to ferry visitors to this remote part of the world. But in 2014, Paviasen traded in her practiced welcome pitch for a less agreeable disposition, after she decided to oppose a rare earth mining concession granted to an Australian company called Greenland Minerals, Ltd. (GGG), just five miles from her home in Narsaq.
Motivated by the radioactive uranium deposits that would inevitably accompany the prized rare earth varieties to the surface in the extraction process, Paviasen mounted a slow but steady campaign of resistance, culminating in the historic parliamentary election of 2021 that brought the Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party to power in the arctic nation and Paviasen herself to public office.
GGG’s controversial Kvanefjeld project was cancelled immediately by the new parliament and a second ban on uranium prospecting and exploration was passed soon after. The move elicited attacks on Greenland’s right to self-determination by the multinational mining concern, which argued that the concession cannot be abrogated by the constitutional government because it preceded Denmark’s granting of home rule status in 2009.
October will mark the first of IA’s four-year government mandate at the crossroads of what Zane Griffin Cooper, a PhD candidate at U Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication who spoke to Silicon Icarus, calls the “data-energy-resource matrix”, or the “entanglements between data infrastructure, energy production and resource extraction”, silently shaping the world’s socio-economic landscape at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution.
Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, Sam Altman and Bill Gates are among the many investors in another mineral staking project using proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) technology to identify deposits of nickel, copper, cobalt and platinum for electric batteries and other ‘clean energy’ products. The joint venture is located about 650 miles north of Narsaq and has been making headlines in recent weeks as hundreds of people, including geologists, geophysicists, cooks and pilots, descend on the southwestern coast of Greenland to scavenge for mineral samples.
“There isn’t much current mining that’s happening in Greenland,” Copper explains, pointing out that despite its long history of mineral extraction, the present round of extractivism is still in the initial prospecting stages. After spending part of the summer in Greenland working on his dissertation, Cooper observed how mining companies are “positioning themselves as ‘stewards of the green and digital future’,” and driving the frontier narratives so reminiscent of colonial expansionism in their quest for capital.
More significantly, he notes that the governments of the US and the EU are just as invested in such imaginaries, seeing the arctic nation as their best chance to curtail China’s dominance in the rare earth mineral industry, and thus placing Greenland at the center of the Cold War revivalist doctrine, which has been slowly re-infecting the Western body politic over the last decade.
Down to Earth
Greenland’s unique place in this emerging geopolitical contest has been gestating for literally millions of years. The world’s largest island “is geologically very, very old,” Cooper explains, accounting for its “many deposits of complex minerals,” like Terbium and Lanthanum – two rare earth elements used in solid state devices and electric car batteries, respectively.
From the 1,000 pounds (1 ton) of rare earth minerals required to manufacture a single wind turbine to the massive mineral demands of the data center industry currently flourishing across the remnants of Paleogene-era volcanic plains stretching from Scotland to southwest Greenland known as the North Atlantic Igneous Province, dependence on the extraction of non-renewable resources represents the first fault line in the prevailing narratives surrounding our “clean” digital future.
Clever marketing terms like “cloud computing” and the ubiquitous “world wide web” have fostered the mistaken perception of the Internet as some kind of ethereal, immaterial entity floating above us rather than a physical reality with very definite and destructive relationships to geography and land use. This fantasy helps to diffuse the potential for social unrest and solidarity with any resistance movements transnational companies might encounter along the way, making recent events in Greenland all the more important.
Paviasen’s unlikely rise from Air Greenland greeter to IA party MP is both the result of her own unshakable commitment and the legacy of an anti-uranium mining movement from the late 1970s, which galvanized Greenlanders under the slogan Uranium? No Thanks (Urani? Naamik) and led to the establishment of a quarter century-long ban on uranium mining. Motivated by the specter of generational cancer and deformities caused by exposed uranium ore, the campaign managed to gain strong support in Denmark as well, helping to exert pressure on Danish authorities.
Some Greenlanders still sported old ‘Urani? Naamik’ bumper stickers on their vehicles when the original uranium mining ban was lifted in 2013 under the auspices of “economic development”, but the memory of those days had been diluted by the passage of time and the innocence of newer generations. Nevertheless, Paviasen and her network of concerned citizens managed to reignite the flame of a nearly-forgotten cause and placed it back at the center of the young country’s political discourse to the chagrin of people like Greg Barnes, an Australian geologist and original proprietor of the Kvanefjeld field, which he sold to GGG sometime in the early 2000s.
According to Barnes, Donald Trump’s widely-reported remarks about “buying” Greenland in 2019 were the result of a meeting he had with official representatives of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) at the site of his rare earth Kringlerne project, weeks before Trump’s flippant comment.
Contrary to what the name implies, rare earth minerals are quite abundant within the Earth’s crust, but almost never found in pure form. Separating the seventeen or so elements that comprise this mineral category requires a difficult and expensive process, which is currently dominated by Chinese firms. Barnes, who has a US$38m stake in the Kringlerne site, used the meeting to lobby for American investment by suggesting that its deposits could bypass China’s processing industry.
Predictably, China’s own investments in Greenland are being weaponized by Paviasen’s political enemies, who are not limited to the local opposition party. Germany’s former deputy Minister of Defence and Atlantic Council Fellow, Friedbert Pflüger, has floated the idea that the “very presence of Chinese companies in Greenland could be used as justification” for a military intervention by the Asian power.
Bringing the Heat
Greenland’s entire population could fit inside Soldier Filed in Chicago with room to spare. Almost 90% of its 56,000 residents are native Inuit, with the remainder mostly consisting of Danish transplants and other Nordic peoples. Denmark’s colonial tutelage has not disappeared entirely and despite the granting of home rule privileges, the European country still controls Greenland’s foreign policy and defense.
Mining of natural resources is only one aspect of the geopolitical implications most of us ignore when it comes to the erection of the cybernetic enclosure. In addition to the direct link between information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and the minerals required for its construction, the operational layer that sits atop this infrastructure also produces “externalities”, which affect the physical environment around them.
Data centers have proliferated across the North Atlantic due to the cost advantages lower temperatures afford these heat-intensive structures. Iceland, in particular, has become a popular destination for data centers and Bitcoin mining operations, specifically. Greenland has also attracted its share of data centers, which are fast-becoming an important part of the entire region’s economic landscape.
Cryptocurrencies are among the most well-known layers operating on top of the world’s ICT infrastructure and are often accompanied by some of the most fanciful narratives about technology, effectively obscuring their inescapable relationship to the land, while simultaneously bringing these “land relations” into sharp relief.
“At the end of the day [cryptocurrencies] are a computing practice”, Cooper asserts, highlighting that proof-of-work varieties like Bitcoin are especially adept at revealing the fundamental ties between digital technologies and geography, describing a particular idiosyncrasy within the Bitcoin community, which takes “pride with working close to the metal; working close to the machine; feeling the heat”, and indulging in the “materiality” of cryptocurrency mining, that can veer off into cult-like territory.
Meanwhile, the “significant geographical footprint [and] deep negotiations with communities” as well as the energy sector required by computing practices, in general, are often glossed over by the mass of Bitcoin adherents with trite stories about ‘freedom’ and juvenile notions of upending the status quo. At the industry level, however, the messaging is always tailored to the geographical area where its mining operations are located.
Cooper contrasts the marketing styles between two of the most popular Bitcoin mining company destinations at the moment to show how this plays out in the real world: Iceland and Texas. The former hosts quite a number of Bitcoin mining operations, but chooses to downplay their presence and avoids mentioning them in any promotional literature targeting potential clients for their data centers. Texas, on the other hand, leans heavily into the romantic frontiersman image that is practically indistinguishable from a Marlboro ad campaign.
Neither deal with the geopolitical realities that are boiling under the surface and which are simply a continuation of Western hegemony and control of natural resources. Greenland caught the Atlanticist power structure off guard, but it is still too early to early to know what strategy the US and EU will take to regain their footing in the mineral-rich arctic nation. Less uncertain is the fate of Greenland’s Inuit people should they cave to the designs of the transnational mining companies and their agents.
Distilling the Propaganda Ore
Myanmar is in the midst of a rare earth mineral-driven catastrophe. China’s largest source of the coveted elements, Western media is busy painting the rampant pollution, population displacement and violence as a product of Chinese malfeasance despite the fact that Myanmar’s rare earth mines are critical parts of the supply chain for Apple and Samsung components, among other major electronics manufacturers.
Tesla, General Motors, Volkswagen and Mercedes depend on the rare earth ores that are extracted from the Southeast Asian country as much as the Chinese companies that are on the ground doing their bidding. Separating the valued minerals from the waste elements is a process almost as complicated as distilling the political narratives that serve the various competing interests vying for their pound of the Earth’s flesh.
Climate change features among the most salient propagandistic tools used to either instigate conflict or promote development. In Greenland, for instance, the melting ice caps are merely said to uncover new, “pristine” natural landscapes ripe for mineral exploitation and data center construction, whereas in places like Myanmar, where China holds an uncomfortable slice of the pie, the environmental crisis is weaponized against the advancement of its interests.
In the next installment, the origins of the parallel efforts taking place at the pinnacle of Western financial institutions will be explored, and how the language of climate change is used to re-write the rules of global capital flows in order to fit within the political framework slated for the cybernetic enclosure and allocate the natural resources these systems require.
Zane Griffin Talley Cooper is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Cover Photo: Kvanefjeld project protest in Greenland