The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
In 2018, Thomas Vildersboll founded Inland Ice, a premium water company that bottles freshwater melted from the vast expanse of ice that covers most of Greenland. In exchange for an exploitation license, Inland Ice pays the Greenlandic government royalties on every liter of meltwater it collects. Vildersboll sells his water in stylish bottles meant to accompany gourmet meals like a fine wine. The company boasts that the ice used to make its product “has been encapsulated for more than 100,000 years—completely isolated from any contact with layers of soil, and was formed long before the first human being set foot within the Arctic Circle.” For this reason, the marketing material claims, Inland Ice is “in an exceptionally rare category as the purest unprocessed water on earth—with a taste that fully matches its uniqueness.”
Inland Ice need not worry about its supply, because water gushes from the island’s interior. An adviser to Greenland’s government told me she thought of the water as an infinite resource, not like an oil reserve that will eventually run out or fish stocks that must be carefully husbanded.
The Greenlandic ice sheet stretches 1,500 miles long by 680 miles wide. At its thickest point, it stands nearly two miles high. The ice sheet loses 250 gigatons of water each year, enough to fill about 100 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. But even at that astonishing rate, water will be jetting out for the foreseeable future.
Bottled water is a growing global industry, and Greenland, betting that the trend will continue, is inviting companies to tender for water rights.
The current ice melt is a testament to the astounding power and speed of climate change. But for Greenland’s government and entrepreneurs such as Vildersboll, it is a business opportunity. Bottled water is a growing global industry, and Greenland, betting that the trend will continue, is inviting other companies to tender for water rights. The government is even restructuring its outmoded trade policies, creating small cracks in an economic system that has kept Greenland financially dependent upon Denmark, its former colonizer and present-day suzerain. That bottled water will be the revolution that delivers independence to the world’s largest island remains unlikely. But the sale of meltwater has helped further open Greenland to the outside world as this nation searches for financially viable paths to independence.
Denmark exercised colonial control over Greenland and its indigenous population from 1721 until World War II, using the island to hunt whales and seals, trade with the Inuit, and proselytize. After Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, the United States built military installations on Greenland to defend it from the Germans, and at the war’s end it even offered to purchase the island from Denmark for $100 million in gold. Denmark refused, and in 1953, the colony became an official county with representation in the Danish parliament. Over the decades that followed, Denmark gradually devolved powers to Greenland. Today, the island is an autonomous, largely self-governing country of the Kingdom of Denmark. But Copenhagen controls foreign affairs and defense policy and, crucially, pays about $500 million in annual subsidies to Greenland.
That block grant is contested in both Copenhagen and Nuuk, the 18,000-person coastal town that serves as Greenland’s capital. Many Greenlanders deem the subsidy necessary but worry that it has fostered dependence. In Denmark, some consider it a form of reparation for past colonial abuses, including the destruction of indigenous ways of life; others see the annual payment as an unreasonable expense to maintain geopolitical influence in the Arctic. For now, the block grant covers more than 50 percent of all public expenditures in Greenland. As such, the money is indispensable to the island’s public sector.
Subtler traces of Danish rule are omnipresent, too. Until the introduction of home rule in 1979, the Royal Greenland Trading Department, a Danish state enterprise, held a strict monopoly on trade to and from the island. The monopoly was long considered an example of Denmark’s “benevolent” colonialism, ostensibly protecting the traditional Greenlandic way of life from the alleged corrupting outside influences that might arise from freer trade. Today the colonial-era company has divided into several successor companies under Greenlandic control. But geographic quirks have allowed parts of the old monopoly system to survive.
Greenland is 50 times the size of Denmark, but 80 percent of its surface is covered by ice. The island’s 56,000 inhabitants are confined to coastal settlements, none of which are connected by roads. Shipping is thus essential to most Greenlanders’ well-being. The Royal Arctic Line (RAL), one of the successors of the colonial trade model, is not wrong to call itself “Greenland’s lifeline.” The freight company is wholly owned by the government of Greenland and, like its colonial predecessor, benefits from an exclusive concession for all sea cargo transported to, from, and within Greenland. RAL’s only connection to mainland Europe, however, is to Aalborg, Denmark, making shipping to and from Greenland too costly for most companies based outside of Denmark. And so, unsurprisingly, 63 percent of all Greenlandic imports still originate in Denmark.
Sugary drinks have not masked colonialism’s bitter aftertaste, nor have they instilled a true sense of national belonging.
The effects of this strange arrangement can be felt across Greenland, not just in the high prices of imports but in the products themselves. Alongside cuts of muskox and reindeer, grocery stores carry organic vegetarian meatballs from Scandinavia. In Ilulissat, a town of 4,413 people and a popular tourist destination 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, trampolines dot people’s gardens, just as they do in the suburbs of Copenhagen. Faxe Kondi, a Danish soft drink, is even more ubiquitous in Greenland than in Denmark, where it faces more competition from Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
Sugary drinks have not masked colonialism’s bitter aftertaste, nor have they instilled a true sense of national belonging. In a recent poll conducted by the Universities of Greenland and Copenhagen, 67.7 percent of Greenlanders favored independence from Denmark within 20 years. To get there, the island will need to be able to finance its public budget without support from Copenhagen. “We want to rid ourselves of the block grant because we want independence,” Greenland’s prime minister, Kim Kielsen, told The Economist in 2018. Since the establishment of home rule 40 years ago, the government has identified many different paths to financial independence. Most, including oil and mining projects, have not yet panned out—even after oil transports were exempted from RAL’s monopoly on shipping. That is because oil remains largely unreachable under deep seabeds, and Greenland has only limited labor and processing capacity to devote to uranium and rare-earth minerals, let alone to handle the potential consequences for its environment.
In recent years, it seems the government has set its hopes on the country’s rich water resources. The government in Nuuk has tested the purity of the water and identified the best places to collect it in bulk. Based on chemical, physical, and microbiological analyses, the Ministry of Industry, Energy, and Research claims that the Greenlandic ice sheet is the “most pristine freshwater reservoir in the Northern Hemisphere.” Locals intuitively know this—Greenlanders have consumed meltwater for centuries—and visiting backpackers are advised that they can drink any water so long as it is moving. An informational leaflet for prospective water companies shows a woman leaning over the edge of a boat, holding a plastic jug into a stream. Bulk collection for commercial purposes is slightly more complicated, but even the water collected in this way requires little processing before it can hit the world market.
Armed with glossy brochures, government representatives have been traveling the globe to entice companies to apply for the five available licenses. According to the pitch, quality drinking water is becoming scarce and “pure meltwater running off the Greenlandic Ice Sheet provides the solution.” Cultivating the bottled water industry will surely come at an environmental cost, given the potential carbon footprint of ships traveling to and from remote Greenland and the fact that most bottled water relies on petroleum-based plastic for packaging. But the Greenlandic government is understandably pushing ahead. In May, a team from the ministry led a group of international visitors to the sites where the water is supposed to be collected.
Whether the project will in fact rake in enough licensing fees and taxes to help plug the hole in the government’s budget remains to be seen. At one of the five locations in the current bidding process, meltwater runoff averages 4.16 gigatonnes every year—far more than a company such as Thomas Vildersboll’s Inland Ice, which markets itself on exclusivity, is likely to collect. The government will have to look for companies willing to create a cheaper, mass-market product.
Greenland’s embrace of bottled meltwater is part of its mounting effort to reach beyond Denmark and connect with the wider world.
Several recent legal changes, designed to attract foreign companies, have boosted the government’s optimism. Authorities in April approved a cooperation agreement between RAL and the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip. The agreement allows the two companies to share vessels, and it creates shipping links that connect Greenland to Iceland and, indirectly, to new international markets. Still more important, earlier this year the government enacted a law exempting companies licensed to collect meltwater from RAL’s monopoly on seaborne trade—a crucial step to expanding bulk water exports.
The evolution of the shipping monopoly is just one of the big changes afoot on the enormous island. In November 2018, the Greenlandic parliament voted to expand the airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat, neither of which has runways long enough to handle transatlantic flights, with financing from the government. The government has also expressed interest in establishing a representative office in China by 2020, and the United States announced in May that it planned to open a permanent diplomatic presence in Nuuk soon.
Greenland’s embrace of bottled meltwater is part of its mounting effort to reach beyond Denmark and connect with the wider world. Greenland remains remote from just about everywhere. But consumers may be seeing bits of it on supermarket shelves soon. And—who knows?—maybe after that, an independent Greenland, too.