Greenland Rising

In Longreads

FIVE YEARS AGO, after Mininnguaq Kleist became Greenland’s national badminton champion but before he officially became a philosopher, well before he took the helm at the Office of Self-Governance, he discovered secession theory: the study of whether one country has, or doesn’t have, the moral right to break free from another. At the time, he was a master’s candidate without a thesis topic. He’d been frantically searching for six months, and the problem was getting almost as bad as his first philosophical crisis, when he’d tried to apply the Aristotelian ideal of the good life to every little thing in his real life and ended up paralyzed, staring into a theoretical abyss. Mininnguaq’s discovery of secession theory, like his discovery that not every action can be moral, was a revelation.

“I found arguments that are never used up here,” he says. Over the next year he wrote his thesis, “Greenlandic Autonomy or Secession: Philosophical Considerations,” at his university in Denmark, the colonial power that has ruled Greenland for nearly 300 years. He wrote it in Danish, and he pushed arguments that beat back the colonizer using his own rules, even as they ran slightly counter to those laid out in the nineties by the father of modern secession theory, Duke University philosopher Allen Buchanan. “According to him, you have to be wronged to justify it,” Mininnguaq says.“Denmark has to wrong Greenland in a really bad way before we break away. I don’t agree with that part. Sometimes you have to view this as a marriage: adults, consenting people, divorcing of their own free will.”

I first meet up with Mininnguaq in the Kangerlussuaq airport, a building on the tundra of western Greenland that feels like a ski lodge in the Alps: lounge chairs, huge windows, a cafeteria with trays, rich tourists in Gore-Tex. Mininnguaq lopes in with a badminton friend, Kim, a handsome Dane with an iPhone who happened to be on his inbound flight, and we sit in the cafeteria and reminisce about their sporting years. “He always beat me,” Mininnguaq says. “Except in our last match.”

Among his friends, Mininnguaq goes by “Minik.” He’s 35. He wears horn-rimmed glasses—“my old-school Ray-Bans,” he calls them—and brown hipster kicks with thick blue laces. He has black hair and aquiline good looks that locked up the teenage-girl vote during his one, failed bid for political office, in 2007, when he ran to represent Greenland in the Danish parliament. He lives in a trendy part of Nuuk, Greenland’s 15,000-person capital city, where he recently blew thousands of Danish kroner on a tube stereo system. He invites friends over and they just sit there and listen to it. It sounds awesome.

To its natives, Greenland now officially goes by the name Kalaallit Nunaat—“the Land of the People.” As a colony, it’s been part of Denmark since 1721, when Lutheran missionary Hans Egede showed up and started saving souls. The first Danes taught the Inuit that Hell was very hot rather than very cold. They taught that communal living—shared food, shared hunting trips, shared wives—was sinful. They taught that rocks and birds were not endowed with spirits. Greenlanders had no bread or concept of bread, so Egede translated another pillar of Western belief—the Lord’s Prayer—to fit Greenlandic reality. “Give us this day our daily harbor seal,” they prayed.

After 290 years, Greenland is oddly, lopsidedly modern—Scandinavian by design but not always by nature. Kim, whose wealthy family runs an electronics chain in Nuuk, is on his way to mainland Europe, where he went only a few months ago, hanging out at the Cannes Film Festival on Russian yachts with beds that rotated 360 degrees—“just for the views,” he marvels. Minik, meanwhile, is heading up the west-central coast to Upernavik, a thousand-person town with no sewage system, where, several mornings a week, the streets are lined with yellow bags of excrement waiting to be picked up by sanitation teams.

Upernavik is the first stop on the second leg of a road show led by the Office of Self-Governance, a department local authorities set up at the beginning of 2008 to bring independence—or at least the idea of it—to the people. It’s now early September 2008, and by November 25 he wants to have reached nearly all of Greenland: 57,000 people spread out in 57 villages and 18 towns across an area of 836,000 square miles, three times the size of Texas and 50 times the size of mainland Denmark. November 25 is the date of an islandwide vote, a referendum on divorce from Denmark. If it passes, then on June 21, 2009, the summer solstice, Greenland will wake up to a new reality. Not secession, exactly, but a big step in that direction.

In chemistry, there’s the concept of activation energy: Add heat, get a reaction. In Greenland, there’s the reality of global warming: Add heat, get an independence movement. Warming is melting Greenland’s ice, which is extending its shipping season and revealing massive oil and mineral deposits, which is making possible a mining boom and the royalties that go with it, which is convincing Greenland’s people that eventually they may not need the $600 million in annual subsidies they get from Denmark—more than $10,000 a person. Which is convincing Greenlanders that soon they may not need Denmark at all.

Climate change means oil finds and zinc mines and also better fishing: cod, herring, halibut, and haddock migrating north as the ocean warms. It means disaster tourists: people coming to see glaciers slide into the sea. (Since 2004, cruiseship arrivals have jumped 250 percent.) It means farming: potatoes and broccoli and carrots growing where they didn’t grow before, more grass for more sheep. It means gushing rivers: an endless supply of freshwater that Greenland proposes to sell to a thirsty world. Of course, it also means doom for distant countries like Tuvalu and Bangladesh, which may go under because of Greenland’s melting ice cap. The cap covers 81 percent of the island, and if it melts entirely—something that’s unlikely to happen before the end of this century—global sea levels could jump 20 feet. Since 2003, the cap has shrunk by more than a million tons, so much that the underlying bedrock rises four centimeters each year, like a ship slowly unweighted of its cargo. The land is rising faster than the sea.

It is climate’s role in the independence movement—the possibility that people could be set free by embracing a crisis, that for all the countries destroyed by global warming, one will be created—that’s brought me to Kangerlussuaq. Before we board our next flight, Minik introduces me to a pack of Greenlandic politicians, two women and three men, who are part of his revolutionary road trip. They wear backpacks and street clothes: jeans, fleece, tennis shoes. One man carries a video camera. I wonder, for a moment, if I’m staring at people for whom global warming serves a higher good.

THE FIRST MEETING takes place inside the community sports hall in Upernavik, and its high point is a funny story about a whale. It’s told by Jens B. Frederiksen, the leader of the Democrats, the only one of Greenland’s four major political parties arguing for a “no” vote in November. Frederiksen was a policeman here in the nineties, and the story goes like this: The police chief gets a call from a citizen. The citizen is a fisherman. He’s caught a whale. He doesn’t know what he should do with this whale. The chief says to the citizen, “Put it in the boat. We’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

Put it in the boat! Take care of it tomorrow! The crowd, roughly 60 people, roars with laughter. Minik doubles over. I try to get my translator to explain why this is so funny, but he doesn’t understand why I don’t understand, and the moment passes.

Frederiksen is the most controversial politician here, a punching bag for nationalists. He speaks Greenlandic, but his ancestry is mixed. His party has the support of many ethnic Danes, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the population, but it’s still one of the island’s smallest. Earlier this afternoon, he and I walked around Upernavik—past the white crosses and artificial flowers of its hillside cemetery, past an unmarked liquor store, past wooden houses painted in beautiful primary colors—while he explained his party’s unpopular stance.

“We want self-governance, too, but we don’t have the economy right now to go forward,” he said. He ticked off the basic services that Greenland hopes to take over: policing, education, immigration, mining, courts. Thirty-two areas in all. This will require money—if not Denmark’s, then somebody else’s. We crested a hill on Upernavik’s main, paved street, where teenagers congregate, blasting hip-hop from their cell phones, the boomboxes of Greenland.

“Yes, we want oil,” Frederiksen continued. “We will jump and be happy when we find oil. I also really hope to win the lottery but can’t count on it.” His argument isn’t about nationhood. It’s all about the numbers—pure economics—and that may be why hardly anyone is listening.

Even nationalists agree, however: As colonizers go, Denmark has never been all that bad. In Canada, Inuit were given numbered dog-tag-like IDs because they had no surnames, and they were moved to barren islands to reinforce sovereignty claims. But in the Danish colony, the crown declared as early as 1782 that the Greenlanders’ welfare should “receive the highest possible consideration, [overriding] when necessary the interests of trade itself.” Denmark established paternalistic rules about alcohol and intermarriage, and even its most controversial program—an effort in the sixties to move families from traditional villages to centers like Upernavik, where services could be concentrated—was meant to improve lives.

In the Upernavik sports hall, we’re at nearly 73 degrees north. The small town is seasonally frozen out of all ship traffic, sits on treeless tundra 600 miles from the capital, and yet has this: a gym with a digital scoreboard, a hundred-foot-high ceiling, and long wooden beams five feet thick. Upernavik has a Swedish- and Danishstaffed hospital, a price-subsidized Pisiffik supermarket, a strong cell-phone signal, and paved streets—not the mud tracks one finds in the Inuit towns of Canada and Alaska. Nearby, a mountaintop has been lopped off, turned into a mesa: Upernavik’s airport, its link to the world. The airport has a handicapped-accessible toilet.

This is what the Danes did. They harvested whales and fish and some coal, but they gave back homes and schools and hospitals. In 1953, they gave full Danish citizenship to every Greenlander. They gave students like Minik a free education at the university of their choice in Europe or North America. And they did it all with the smug certainty that Greenland could never manage on its own.

During the meeting, I watch Minik watch the politicians. He’s supposed to be impartial—his office’s job is to inform, not persuade—and in his presentation, he’d simply delivered the facts. Up for the vote on November 25 is “self-governance”“namminersorneq” in Greenlandic,“selvstyre”in Danish. Though not full independence, it’s a big step beyond the limited home-rule system in place since 1979, which gave Greenland authority over a handful of government ministries. As agreed to in principle by Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Greenlandic premier Hans Enoksen, Greenlanders will have a recognized right to self-determination. They will take over responsibility for almost everything but foreign affairs and defense. At first they’ll keep the $600 million annual grant from Denmark, but as petroleum and other mineral revenues go up and up, the grant will go down and down. Until it hits zero. Greenland can secede anytime along the way. It could take decades.

While Frederiksen talks, Minik grimaces. He’s standing alone in the back of the hall, near a table with coffee and tea and crumble cake. “Remember this,” Frederiksen says: “The Democrats did not say ‘no’ to self-governance. We just said ‘no’ to this agreement.” Minik crosses his arms and mouths words to himself. When Kuupik Kleist, the popular leader of the pro-independence Inuit Brotherhood, speaks in favor of self-governance, he allows himself a smile.

“We would like to take care of ourselves,” the politician says in his booming voice, and everyone claps. “If we want to reach something, we should be ready to sacrifice something.” This idea—that Greenland may suffer after it takes over, but that a little suffering is worth it—isn’t one that every leader will voice out loud. Now only Minik is clapping.

The next afternoon, the politicians set out for a day trip to the tiny whaling village of Kangersuatsiaq, where they will sit in a red community center and rehash their debate in front of a new audience. Minik and I follow in a 22-foot fishing boat piloted by Upernavik’s mayor. We motor inland, cutting through waves at 25 knots. The temperature drops ten degrees as we move closer to the ice cap. We skirt a sheer, 3,000-foot-high cliff of dark basalt that drops straight into the fjord, staying away from its base to avoid rockfall.

Minik, bundled in a black Arc’teryx ski jacket, points out young guillemot birds—relatives of the puffin—floating in the water. They’ve just left the nest. They’re too fat to fly, so they have to just bob there for a few more hours or days until they’ve lost weight, and we have to weave around them. A pattern develops. Every time we pass a bird, Minik points it out, and then he giggles maniacally as it vainly flaps its wings.

MY LODGING IN Upernavik is a yellow two-story house just off the main street. I found it by e-mailing a guy who told me to call some other guy, who sent an Inuit woman to meet my flight. She put my bag in a taxi, drove me to the house, wrote down the number of kroner I owed her (450, about $90), and then handed me a key and left. A few hours later the door opened again, and the woman ushered in my surprise roommates: a young Dutchman and an older Dane, both scientists with GEUS, the Danish geological survey. So it was that I got my free helicopter ride.

The scientists had come to retrieve an instrument left on the ice cap at 76 degrees north—some 200 miles and two hours of flying time away. It’s a ten-foot-tall metal tripod with a hard drive, a solar panel, and various sensors meant to track glacial melt, but it stopped working, and the patch of glacier it was monitoring isn’t all that interesting anyway. Still, GEUS is spending tens of thousands to get it back. Chartering a heli in Greenland is pricey, and it’s increasingly hard to do, because miners book them all. But any kind of flying here is expensive and fraught; a typical commercial flight can easily become a triple-layover ordeal. At the moment, the Land of the People’s premier, Hans Enoksen—who planned to join Minik’s road show in Upernavik—is fogged in somewhere to the south. So, instead of hanging out with Enoksen, learning why Greenland should be free, I end up going on a side trip with the Europeans, hearing all about why it should not.

The helicopter is a single-rotor Bell 212 painted an immaculate Air Greenland red. One morning, just after dawn, we climb in and it lifts us above the town, above the fjords. Out the window are fog banks and empty islands, then a single iceberg in a windswept bay, then hundreds of icebergs, then thousands. The pilot, a Norwegian, flies between them, yards above sea level, before we climb again and follow the ice cap north. Where glaciers are calving, spilling into the ocean, the seawater has frozen over during the night. On the ice cap itself, the surface is heavily crevassed and endless, a pattern of thousands of parallel cuts. I look out and see blues and grays and whites and browns, the red of the
rocks, the orange of the rising sun.

I share my window with a Dane who heard about the helicopter’s free seats. His name is Nikolaj, and he’s a lab tech at the Upernavik hospital. He and the pilot also co-own a kayaking business that rents out boats, drybags, satellite phones, and polar bear protection in the form of .30-06 rifles. During the summer just ended, 15 foreigners came, including two Israelis who camped out on an island for a month.

We stop for a mandatory refuel in the village of Kullorsuaq—the only sign of life is the howling of sled dogs—and I quiz Nikolaj about the hospital. The doctors are all foreigners, he says. “They come for one month at a time. Obstetricians, maybe one week. It’s like a vacation for them.” I ask what he thinks about the referendum. “People here are spoiled,” he says.“They don’t give a shit.They have no idea how much things really cost. Housing. Boats. Fishing. Everything. They don’t understand that, without support, it could never be.”

The pilot suggests that Greenland should stick with Denmark and keep the oil money. I wonder aloud if Denmark is really so willing to give up 98 percent of its territory, so enlightened as to give up all that oil. “That just tells you something about the Danish people,” says one of the GEUS guys, proud of his country’s selflessness. We spend 90 minutes on the ice cap, long enough for the tripod to be taken apart and stuffed into a wooden crate. Then we fly back to Upernavik just in time for me to make the next leg of Minik’s road show.

That afternoon, Enoksen catches up with us on the way to Uummannaq, a 1,300-person island town that’s famous here as the home of Sisissoq, a metal band that sings in Greenlandic about the slaughter of African mammals. The next afternoon, I watch the premier take part in a four-on-one smackdown of Jens Frederiksen inside a firehouse-red high school. The school’s main hall is bright and angular and modern, with vaulted ceilings and walls of art—triptychs of icebergs, a painting of bananas and grapes. Enoksen is stern and primal, slowly pumping his fist in the air as he speaks.

The leader of Siumut, the party in charge of the home-rule government since it began in 1979, Enoksen is a former town grocer who was elected in 2002 after serving as Minister for Fisheries, Hunting, and Settlements. He is the first premier who wasn’t educated in Denmark, who doesn’t speak Danish or English. He’s not especially good at politics: In Nuuk, a rival minister is challenging him for leadership of Siumut, and some of his appointees are facing a corruption scandal. But in the villages, he is loved. Every summer, he pilots his fishing boat alone up the coast, checking in on community after community. He wants self-governance to be his legacy.

Enoksen hires a blue powerboat the next day, and we head off to visit villagers. We pull out of Uummannaq’s harbor, past its heli-pad and heart-shaped, 3,800-foot landmark mountain, and into a broad channel between sheer cliffs of stratified granite. After a while he turns to me. “The American ambassador in Copenhagen has been very supportive of self-governance,” he says, Minik translating. “Much more than any before him.” I tell him I’m not surprised. In 1946, the American government was so impressed with Greenland’s strategic potential that it secretly tried to buy the island from Denmark for $100 million. The U.S. military still runs Thule Air Base, a Cold War–era installation in Greenland’s far north. Now that we’ve learned Greenland has a lot of oil, U.S. companies are buying up exploration blocks near Disko Bay, about 100 miles southwest of us. I wonder if giving up Denmark means embracing America. Not necessarily America as overlord, but America as capitalist ideal. Americanism—complete with the vagaries of the free market. I put the question to the premier: For Greenland, doesn’t independence from Denmark simply mean dependence on foreign corporations? He’s heard it before.“If oil is discovered, foreigners will come no matter what,” he says. “But after we vote ‘yes,’ they will be working for us.” He pounds his fist against his chest three times, then raises it to the sky. “This is what will change under me,” he says.

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TO VISIT ONE of the sites that will fund Greenland’s future, the Black Angel zinc mine, I again motor out of the Uummannaq harbor, into the same broad channel, but this time the boat captain is Danish, and he’s working for the British. We leave the channel and cross a choppy stretch of open water, then hug another set of cliffs. We enter a long fjord, where we wave at fishermen and slow down to watch a village woman butcher a seal on a rock. The fjord narrows and the water becomes glassy. Two hours after leaving Uummannaq, the namesake Angel rises before us: a Rorschach blot of ghostly black zinc, 2,000 feet up, on the side of a mostly white cliff.

I’ve wanted to see Black Angel since I heard about it at the first annual Greenland Sustainable Mineral and Petroleum Development Conference, which was held in May 2008 at a Radisson in Copenhagen. The mine’s owners, British firm Angus & Ross, hadn’t tried to hide the fact that they were profiting off global warming, which caught my attention. Otherwise, the conference had been a parade of speakers—mostly white and male and middle-aged, nearly all in blue or white dress shirts—discussing Greenland’s tough logistics and “world-class commercial terms.” If you could get there, the speakers said, Greenlanders would let you drill anywhere.

There was a presenter from Alcoa, which plans to dam two West Greenland rivers and build one of the world’s largest aluminum smelters—360,000 tons a year. There was a GEUS presentation about Greenland’s petroleum prospects: On the west coast, eight oil leases were just sold off to firms including Chevron, Exxon, Canada’s Husky Energy, and Denmark’s DONG Energy. On the east coast awaited the 19th-richest of the world’s 500 known petroleum provinces: an untapped Gulf of Mexico in the North Atlantic. There was a presentation about water exports. Bottled-water buyers know next to nothing about Greenland, a speaker explained, but what they do know is promising. “Their knowledge of Greenland is limited to ‘ice’ and ‘cold,’ ” he said.

Angus & Ross CEO Nick Hall showed photos of Black Angel and explained its history. The zinc deposit, one of the richest on the planet, was discovered in the thirties, explored in the sixties, and mined between 1973 and 1990 via tunnels dug near the Angel high above the fjord, reached by cable car. Then it was abandoned. His company took over the lease in 2003, when zinc prices were about to rise, and in 2006 two geologists on a day hike discovered a deposit as pure as the original at the edge of the retreating South Lakes Glacier. Until now it had been hidden by a wall of ice. Along with the extended shipping season, it was, Hall admitted, the “upside of global warming.”

When I arrive at Black Angel, the mining camp is nearly empty. It’s the end of the summer work season, the beginning of a global recession, and credit is drying up while zinc prices are falling. Australian Tim Daffern, my host, quit a successful consulting job to run operations at the mine—and now he’s hanging on by a thread. Black Angel will bounce back in January 2009, and in April Angus & Ross will even expand its holdings to include the Nalunaq gold mine, in Greenland’s far south. But at the moment I’m witnessing the danger, for him and for Greenland, of betting everything on the commodities market.

The camp is a series of prefab buildings on a man-made plateau, surrounded by the crumbling concrete and rusting machines of the original operation. Next to the harbor is a cable car to the mine—purchased secondhand from the Swiss ski area Disentis—that will span the mile-wide fjord. The buildings contain bunkrooms and a lounge with comfortable couches, a wide-screen TV, and a Wi-Fi connection. Inside the lounge, Daffern tells me his company’s game plan.

They’ll start with the two tons of zinc left in the original mine: the support pillars, mainly, which they’ll replace with cement pillars. “That’s enough for five years of mining,” he says. Next they’ll focus on the deposit at South Lakes Glacier, which is certain to keep retreating—they commissioned a study by GEUS and some British scientists to be extra sure. South Lakes will buy them another decade. A third deposit could buy two more years, a fourth three more—glaciers shrinking all the while. “Anywhere the ice retreats,” Daffern says, “we’ll explore.”

Daffern’s predecessors dumped their tailings in the fjord. The waste was 0.2 percent lead, 1 percent zinc, and it rusted before it could sink into the anoxic depths. Every spring, a rush of melting water spread the waste farther. It was ingested by blue mussels, and fish ate the mussels, and seals ate the fish, and on it went up the food chain. After 17 years of mining, it took another 17 years for the fjord to recover. The home-rule government has toughened regulations—mining companies have to put money in escrow to cover possible clean-up costs before they can get a license—and Daffern promises to do things differently. He also promises, just as everyone did at the mining conference, to hire as many locals as possible.

Daffern and I take a walk in the rain, climbing above the mining camp until we have views of the entire fjord, the fog banks, the seracs of the Alfred Wegener Glacier. I venture into an old mine shaft until its slope steepens and becomes a sheet of ice. Daffern points out another shaft where they found bags of chemicals that had been dumped and then sealed in by a bulldozer sometime in the eighties. When we return, we eat an incredible, five-course lunch prepared by the camp cook, a guy named Johnny, who is Filipino.

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ON DAY SEVEN of the tour, after seven meetings in seven villages and towns, the politicians relax in a government guesthouse outside the Qaarsut airport, waiting to go home. The flight isn’t until 4:30 P.M., and we have the entire day off. There’s a buffet with muesli, yogurt, and fresh-baked bread. The TV is on; we pull out cell phones and laptops and flip through the newspaper. Then the premier walks in and announces that a
hunter’s boat is ready to take us on a quick visit to the village of Niaqornat, population 68, more than an hour up the Nuussuaq Peninsula. Going out again is masochism. Only Minik and I agree to join him.

The open boat is maybe 15 feet long. We hop in at a gravelly beach below the airstrip, timing the surf so our feet don’t get wet. Minik puts his laptop in a plastic bag. He and I keep low out of the biting wind, but the premier, wearing jeans, thin gloves, and a baseball cap, stands in the back of the boat, watching the coastline zip by.

The water is smooth, and there are beaches the whole way; above them,slopes rise steeply to 6,000-foot summits already covered in snow. We pass seals and house-size icebergs and finally loop into Niaqornat’s natural harbor. The village is stunning, on a spit of low-lying land between an oceanside turret of rock and the white peaks of the peninsula. There are bright wooden houses but no cars. There are racks where villagers are drying junk fish for the sled dogs and strips of halibut and seal for themselves. Open boats and icebergs share the harbor. The sun is shining. It is, for once, the Greenland of my imagination—and perhaps that of the premier’s as well.

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The meeting is held in the schoolhouse, and a quarter of Niaqornat shows up, if you count the baby. To make a projector screen, they flip a big map of Greenland and hang it over the blackboard. Above the map are classroom diagrams depicting everyday items and their Danish names: balloon, spaghetti, anorak, radio, king, pizza, cigarette. As the premier talks, I check out a poster showing eight local whale species and their specs: weight, top speed, length, amount of time they can hold their breath, etc. A man in a T-shirt that reads DEEP SEA SHARK FISHING asks about money, and Minik flips through some slides I haven’t seen before: projections of mineral revenues skyrocketing into the future. One shows the oil blocks that Greenland has already sold to foreign firms. They’re just on the other side of the peninsula.

We have lunch in the home of one of the premier’s supporters, a great hunter whose walls are decorated with narwhal tusks and walrus skulls and pictures of dead polar bears. He lays out dried, jerky-like whale meat, then serves us cold narwhal skin, which his daughters and the premier slice into chewable chunks. His CD collection and computer are in the corner, along with his daughter’s pet gerbil. His teenage son walks in with a premade sandwich and sticks it in the microwave. The premier gorges on narwhal.“If we did not eat what the sea gives us,” he says, “we would not be here.” When we reach the dock to meet our boat, the village has gathered to see us off, and someone has distributed little Greenlandic flags, which the citizens wave back and forth until we’re out of view. A few months from now, Niaqornat will become one of a handful of villages to vote 100 percent in favor of self-governance. The referendum will pass by 75.5 percent across Greenland, but in tiny Niaqornat, there will be no doubters. Just in time for the solstice, at the start of this new era, the premier will lose his job to Kuupik Kleist. That won’t do anything to change the drive toward independence: Kleist’s party wants it even more, and Kleist’s partner in the new governing coalition, Jens Fredriksen, will also get on board. “We have one goal,” he tells reporters. “The ultimate independence of our country.”

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EARLY IN OUR TOUR, Minik worried that he was forgetting much of the philosophy he’d studied.“I’ve been too much into politics,” he told me. But during our last conversation, he becomes a philosopher again, pondering not just the morality of secession but the means to this end. We’re in Ilulissat, Greenland’s big tourist town, where we have a final layover. Nearby is the fastest-sliding glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, Sermeq Kujalleq, which spits 35 trillion liters of ice into Disko Bay every year.

I spend the early evening on the boardwalk of the Hotel Arctic, a cliffside landmark that happens to be hosting the Nordic Council’s Common Concern for the Arctic conference: European dignitaries in nice suits fretting abstractly about the warming north. Peering into a bay full of icebergs at sunset, I hear one of them chat up an attractive blonde by rattling off facts about the coming doomsday. His tone is solemn, his voice almost a whisper. “I don’t mean to scare you,” he murmurs. It’s the first time I’ve heard someone try to use climate change to get someone else into bed.“I really don’t mean to scare you,” he says again. She doesn’t look scared at all.

Upstairs, Minik and I order hamburgers and stare at the lights of Ilulissat. We contemplate the future. “It’s so strange,” Minik says. “The more the ice cap melts, the more Greenland will rise. These other countries are sinking, and Greenland is rising. It is literally rising.” Below us, the dignitaries file into their banquet. “We know Black Angel was really bad for the environment the first time,” Minik continues.“It ruined the fjord. Is it OK to ruin three or four fjords in order to build the country? I hate to even think this, but we have a lot of fjords. I don’t know. That’d be utilitarian philosophy, wouldn’t it?”

He shakes his head.“We’re very aware that we’ll cause more climate change by drilling for oil,” he says. “But should we not? Should we not when it can buy us our independence?” I look at him. I can see he doesn’t really know the answer, either.

First published in Outside.

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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.