Pulling a Meiji in the Arctic?

In alternate history one cliche is for a polity, society, or culture to “pull a Meiji”, referring to a rapid modernization and industrialization, the archetypal case being Japan under Emperor Meiji in the late 19th century, when Japan ascended to become one of the great powers. Such points of divergence are ever-fascinating: a backward oppressed nation becomes wealthy and powerful. In my science-fiction alternate-history setting, my short story “Black Sky Hallows” implies the Inuit have flourished far more than they have in real life.

Obviously this wouldn’t be too comparable to what Japan did under Meiji, but a much better analogue would be what places like the Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have done with the windfall wealth from oil, or, to use a closer-to-home example, what some Native American nations have done with casino development.

More Travel, more Development of the Remote World

Travel in my alternate timeline has become cheap, easy, and luxurious, opening up even the most remote parts of the world. Economic prosperity has made the world flush with excess capital. A culture of exploration is in full swing; there’s a prestigious and fervent drive to use that excess capital to unlock the full potential of the Earth’s remote regions, concomitant with the drive upward toward space. Leisure time has expanded immensely, to the point where only a small minority still work jobs at all, let alone 40-hour-a-week jobs tethered to specific locations. That’s a recipe for an immense expansion of vacationing, a horde of billions adopting the lifestyle now confined to the upper class: nigh-constantly roaming around the Earth in search of their next sight and sensation.

The High Arctic as a new Travelers’ Paradise

In particular, consider the territory of the Inuit, stretching from Greenland in the east through northern Canada to Alaska in the west. Much of it is very scenic, more than suitable for a wide variety of recreational developments, especially skiing, snowboarding, and winter sports in the mountainous parts of Baffin Island, Greenland, and a few other ranges elsewhere. The High Arctic isn’t the first place we think of when it comes to skiing, but that’s mostly because of how remote and undeveloped it is; as people who ski without the benefit of marked trails or a resort can attest, the actual terrain is suitable enough.

Indeed, if extremely cold is how you like your winter-sports environment, the Inuit’s territory in the Arctic is one of the best places in the world for you to ski, snowboard, or whatever. The average winter temperature in the region is around -20 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s too cold for many, though I’m sure it would attract a niche, especially among those who’d like to ski in never-ending polar night or with a few hours of twilight around noon.

More importantly, the average temperature in the spring and autumn is much colder than any part of the temperate world, still being in peak winter mode at a time when more southerly regions are already experiencing breakup, or haven’t gotten much snow yet. Summer in the region is still chilly but nevertheless well above freezing, featuring spectacularly long days, even midnight sun. Vigorous summer sports are viable, and I’d argue very enjoyable, in such weather. The uppermost parts of the region are glaciated, and might still be skiable in the summer.

Political Prerequisites

So if capital flowed into the region and developed ski resorts and various recreational accommodations in picturesque areas, an economic explosion might result. As things are today that might exclude the Inuit from the bounty, but imagine a scenario where a liberal government in Canada grants complete autonomy to the native inhabitants of the High Arctic, complete with ownership of the actual land and all the associated rights, respecting indigenous sovereignty. Each local group would get its own traditional territory, and so on and so forth.

The point is that the political setup in my timeline evolves so that the Inuit can do whatever they want with their own land, which includes capturing this boom in recreation and tourism, enriching themselves far beyond even the wealthiest casino-operating Native American tribes of our time. Perhaps the closest analogue to what I’m thinking about is what’s hoped for the Squamish Nation’s real estate development in Vancouver.

Concurrent with this is a major national revival among the Inuit, infusing their language, culture, and traditions with fresh vigor, adapting themselves to the modern world without becoming Western. Like the Arab oil sheikhs of our time they make a point of retaining their traditional dress and aesthetics.

Obviously little development along these lines has occurred in real life, but who’s to say what would happen in an alternate history under very different circumstances? In particular, when cultures revive and modernize it often happens for no discernible rhyme or reason other than a mass act of will to summon a better future for themselves, a resolution to achieve great things; Germany after the Napoleonic era underwent this process, becoming the pre-eminent power in Europe long before Otto von Bismarck largely fulfilled the nationalists’ goal of political unification.

Flipping the Script for an oppressed People

The end result in my science-fiction setting is a world where the Inuit of the Arctic’s more picturesque locations become much like the Arabs of the Persian Gulf, a wealthy elite, as traditional as they are sophisticated, presiding over a much larger population of guest workers and transient tourists.

And this disparity might be large indeed. Despite their prominence on a world map of land and sea area, there aren’t exactly a huge number of Inuit; there’s currently estimated to be 148,000 of them in the world today. Though, like the smaller Native American nations, this makes it easy for even a modest windfall to enrich them per-capita, it might encourage some measure of natalist sentiment. On the other hand, unless their birth rates are truly stupendous, (as in 10 per woman or more) they’ll be a small nation no matter what, so more likely they’ll forego the quantity game altogether and play the quality game, with the upper-class norm of modestly higher birth rates than the general population prevailing.


Anyway, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about how in my setting the High Arctic might bloom into a well-serviced hub of travel, tourism, business, culture, and population like any other part of the Earth. Ski resorts, beach resorts, futuristic arcology-like structures, kayaks, sailboats, yachts, glacial skiers, fine cloudberry wine, and more will dot the pristine landscapes and seascapes, a place opened up by the bounty of my timeline’s 20th century for the masses to live, work, and play in.

After all, for too long the vast majority of the human population have been denied the use and enjoyment of vast swaths of our own planet; why should we continue to suffer so? Let’s rectify that void in all our lives, if not in reality yet then at least in the visionary futurism of science fiction. Let the North blossom!

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