The Magazine

The Depopulation of Greenland

Will the last one to leave turn out the Northern lights?

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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A few weeks ago, Palle Christiansen, Greenland’s minister of finance warned that his country was facing an existential threat from immigration. Yet unlike the far-right politicians of Europe who take up this theme, Christiansen was not fretting over foreigners coming to his country’s shores, but about fellow citizens leaving. 

The Depopulation of Greenland

Photo Credit: AP, Lief Josefsen

For the past three decades, Greenland has been growing increasingly prosperous and inching away from its colonial sovereign, Denmark, toward full independence. But prosperity has also led more and more educated young Greenlanders to take up opportunities elsewhere. Greenland’s encounter with globalization is a case study in how unpredictable the forces of modernity can be. On the one hand, globalization offers the tantalizing prospect that Greenland will soon be able to afford independence. On the other hand, it presents the unsettling possibility that Greenland as it has existed for the last century will simply cease to be.

To understand Greenland’s uncertain future, you have to understand its past. Greenland was rediscovered by Europe when Hans Egede, a Norwegian missionary, came ashore in 1721 and began living with the native Inuit peoples. Norway passed its claim on the island to Denmark, which, because Greenland had little to offer of economic or strategic value, remained something of an absentee colonial power. The Royal Greenland Trading Company, Denmark’s state-controlled proxy, rarely turned a profit. For the Danish crown, Greenland was a minor expense worth keeping for purposes of imperial prestige.

When Denmark was occupied by the Germans in 1940, the United States agreed to protect Greenland in exchange for basing rights on the island. (In 1946, Secretary of State James Byrnes suggested that America ought to purchase it outright.) Through all this time Greenland had remained mainly undeveloped. With only a handful of villages of more than 1,000 people, Greenlanders mostly lived rustic lives. Hunting and fishing were the primary economic activities. In 1966, Greenland had a population of 41,000 and a total of 1,500 motorized vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, fire engines, buses, etc.).

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a movement for independence took hold among Greenlanders. It was a reaction to Denmark’s attempt to join the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union. Worried that the EEC treaty would grant other countries access to their fishing grounds, Greenlanders voted against joining the EEC in 1972 even as the rest of Denmark voted for it. Seven years later, in 1979, Greenland was given its first taste of self-government, and its first significant decision, in 1984, was to leave the EEC.

In 2008, Greenlanders voted overwhelmingly to assume home rule. They created their own parliament and took control of domestic politics and their budget. The island’s only residual tie to Denmark is foreign policy. And money: the Danes send their wards an annual subsidy of $660 million—roughly $11,000 per Greenlander.

Greenland’s theory of independence is based on the idea that one day this allowance will be unnecessary. The island has extensive mineral reserves, which are just beginning to be tapped. An assortment of international conglomerates are prospecting for platinum, gold, copper, iron, and nickel. In 2005 a Swedish company established an olivine mine. A Canadian firm is building a $1 billion molybdenum mine on the eastern half of the island while an Australian outfit is considering a lead-zinc mine in the north. Alcoa is planning an aluminum smelting operation on the west coast. All told, the Greenlandic Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum expects seven mines to open by 2015, creating 1,500 jobs. The island could be financially self-sufficient in five years.

And then there are the oil prospects. If offshore oil is found—the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are some 31.4 billion barrels off the northeast shore—Greenland could become very rich, very fast. The country’s Raw Minerals Directorate says that a single oil strike would likely generate about $1.9 billion a year in revenue. 

So Greenland seems headed for complete independence. The question for people like Christiansen is whether there will be any Greenlanders left to enjoy it.

Greenland is, of course, a misnomer: Whatever the country’s charms, it is still a rock mostly covered with ice. In the largest town, Nuuk, the mean temperature in December is 17º Fahrenheit; in July, it’s 46 degrees. 

Greenland has always had more people going than coming. In the past, tribal ties were enough to keep Greenlanders in Greenland. But globalization has made emigration easier and more attractive.

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