I’m jammed in a middle seat on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Ottawa, looking for creative things to occupy my mind to avoid assaulting the large passengers on either side of me who insist on occupying the middle arm rests. One possible way to improve the shining hour would be to draft a Middle Seat Manifesto (MSM) that would outline for my oafish starboard and port colleagues on this flight the fact that the window seat passenger has the window to lean on and the aisle seat passenger has the AISLE in which to skew their bulk. The middle seat passenger has NEITHER a window nor an AISLE for expansion and, as such, should by the power of the MSM be entitled to both MIDDLE arm rests until and unless they willingly give them up for fair consideration or legal tender or just because.
We perennial middle seat assignees must unite. We must organize. We must seek space and justice at any cost. Strength in ourselves, middle people of the airways, will mean strength in our ability to negotiate bilaterally, multilaterally. Oh my goodness … I think I’m having a panic attach of claustrophobia. Where are my meds? Diversion … need a diversion.
So I start to fiddle with the entertainment system. Park the MSM revolution for now … and, from the little screen in front of me, I learn that we three amigos — me and these two trained bears from the Moscow Circus I’ve drawn as seat mates — are almost ON the Arctic Circle at 12,000m above Iceland, on a routine transatlantic flight. How exciting!
And that gets me to thinking about how maps and flat renderings of a spherical planet — the ubiquitous Mercator project in particular — have seriously skewed our perspective on just about everything, especially the Arctic. My guess is that there are many people who have been to the Arctic, en route from one place to another, following the shortest “great circle” route. Europe, Russia and Asia and the Orient are always “over there” in our heads, when in truth the shortest distance to these places is actually “up there” on a globe or a polar projection map.
Controversial Arctic ethnologist and writer, Vilhalmur Stefansson — born William Stephenson in Arnes, Manitoba in 1879 — had an idea that this message needed to be disseminated back in the beginning years of the last century, that the Arctic would become the crossroads of the world because of the shorter “great circle” routes from place to place crossing near or over the pole. As such, his books like My Life with the Eskimo and The Friendly Arctic (among many other reports and publications) saw the Arctic Ocean more as the busy Mediterranean and challenged conventional notions of nationhood as he thought about how the Arctic might be developed and about who might collaborate with whom, nation to nation, as a result of proximity to the pole.
Flip to 2012. The ice cap is melting. The Northern Sea Route over Russia is busier than ever. Commercial traffic in the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is increasing every year as the shipping season gets longer. Russian airspace, officially opened (or re-opened if we go back to dirigibles and pre-revolutionary days) to western carriers in 2001, is regularly criss-crossed by long haul flights from North America to Asia and the Orient. China is building icebreakers and sending official delegations to places like Iceland to talk about shipping in what is becoming the oceanic hub of global commerce — Iceland, who knew? Vilhalmur Stefansson, that’s who.
If Stef dreamed about a political structure to manage and expedite all this activity on and about the Arctic Circle, it might well have looked like the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum of representatives from the eight Arctic nations — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), the Russian Federation, the United States and Canada —created in a declaration signed in Ottawa, Canada on September 19, 1996 … and not a moment too soon, for there is much work to be done in this part of the world.
Oh, oh … window man has his hand in my pocket and buddy in the aisle seat has his sleepy head on my shoulder and he’s starting to drool. Back to the MSM. Maybe I should take a leaf out of the Arctic Council playbook and try negotiating with these galoots. Or not. Maybe we should share a drink and talk. Maybe not. Next time, I’m shipping myself air cargo. Where’s that call button? Onward!