Dr. Jean Louis Etienne


“The South Pole is where all the meridiens of all the countries come together. It is the land of international peace.”

When one first sees Dr. Jean Louis Etienne, crossing the internal street of the Hotel de Region Rhone Alpes as one of the illustrious guest speakers invited to Ilymun 2020, one sees a man getting on in years, with a simple appearance and a sharp face. If one looked closer, one might notice the small spring in his step, and the twinkle in his eyes. Jean Louis Etienne is one of the most renowned french explorers of the 20th century, being the first man to cross the arctic and plant the french flag on the north pole all by himself, dragging his sledge behind him. But, as he pointed out during his speech at the opening ceremony, a few days later the point on which he had planted his flag to mark the north pole had drifted elsewhere. It would be somebody else’s job to find it again.

Before his exploit, Jean Louis Etienne was a surgeon, passionate about his work, and with the remnants of a childhood dream to lead an expedition. He didn’t quite know what an expedition was as a boy, but it sounded exciting, and fueled his dreams as a country lad, training (at first) as a carpenter. It was in manual work that he explored his creativity, and learned english! As a surgeon, he offered his services to those who were going on expeditions, sailing around the globe, or affronting the Himalayan mountains. Then, when he approached his fortieth birthday, he set out on his own personal expedition, which would end up making headlines around the world. Although his first plan was to go back to medicine afterwards, he never did. For the rest of his life, and still today, Jean Louis Etienne describes himself as an ‘entrepreneur d’expéditions lointaines’; an entrepreneur of distant expeditions.

For his speech at the opening ceremony relating to the theme, ‘Water, a thirst for change’, Jean Louis Etienne covered his life story, the story of his expeditions, and then went on to talk about water related issues, mostly in the arctic. Every so often he would ask for the next slide of his slideshow, showing photo after photo of beautiful arctic landscapes and snow-dusted men with frosty eyebrows and their sledge dogs: his companions on his dream-inspiring expeditions. Later on he would address the territorial committee to set down topics for the issues they would then debate, bringing his precious knowledge and mesmerising photos to the quiet rows of delegates. He also talked to the first vice-president in charge of Transborder Affairs of the region, Etienne Blanc, about issues more closely related to the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes such as the melting of Alpine glaciers, and the scarcity of freshwater. Finally, Jean Louis Etienne was more generally interviewed by the heads of written and audiovisual press, as a key guest speaker of the conference. Even for those who only saw him from afar, it was obvious that Mr Etienne has around him an aura of energy and passion, a passion for the world around him and its protection. Many would accuse his generation of destroying the world around them, and leaving the younger generation present at Ilymun with the consequences. If Jean Louis Etienne’s warnings were not heeded by the former, they certainly had a resounding impact on the latter. It is to be hoped that his presence and knowledge will not only have animated the conference, but remain as a permanent mark for those who were present during the rest of their lives as the generation that needs to put things right.

Perhaps one of Jean Louis Etienne’s most impactful speeches at the conference was the one given in front of the territorial committee, during which he addressed the silent rows of delegates and shaped what would happen during lobbying and the debate which would follow his departure. The issues to be debated this year are arctic waters, and transboundary waters. The four topics introduced by Mr Etienne were of vital importance to both: navigation, oil and gas reserves, fisheries and tourism. He highlighted the arctic’s natural resources, and how these were being put at risk by climate change and human activities.

For navigation, Mr Etienne talked about ice-breakers, and the importance of strong ships made for service in these dangerous and wearing waters. He spoke about the opening up of the North-East passage due to the ice melt, and how, coupled with the North-West passage, new commercial and transport opportunities were being opened up via new navigational routes across the arctic ocean. With his superior experience of arctic waters however, Mr Etienne warned of how dangerous navigation in the far north could be. He gave the example of Russian icebreakers, and the type of technology arctic vessels had to be equipped with. We are still far from having conquered the exciting new arctic trade routes, and this area of the globe reluctant to give in to our efforts to construct technology to confront it. As proof, Jean Louis Etienne pointed out to the delegates that “What is important to understand is that, even if the ice is melting, if you have a piece of ice in front of you you cannot go through.”. The conquest of new territory in the arctic could then also depend ton how fast the concerned and interested parties manage to develop and construct the correct technologies that will guarantee safety and efficiency in these waters.

It was also pointed out that gas and oil resources in the arctic are also cause for territorial concern. The melting ice is uncovering new reserves and opportunities for fossil fuel exploitation in the arctic, which many countries are now vying for the control of. An example of this is in Greenland, which is gorged with minerals (zinc, iron, uranium), fossil fuels (oil and gas fields), and energy sources (renewable, fossil, nuclear..). According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost ¼ of the world’s undiscovered petroleum resources lie in the Arctic : 13 percent of its oil, 30 percent of its natural gas, and 20 percent of its liquefied natural gas (see graph). Greenland’s ice melt facilitates mining operations and reduces their cost; already many countries such as Russia (which highly depends on hydrocarbons) have invested and heavily rely on the Arctic’s resources. Overall, the shallow waters of the arctic areas situated on the continental plateau mean easy access to the oil and gas reserves beneath. Again, Russia is one of the biggest actors in the sector with is gas reserves situated on Siberian peninsulas. Russia also has the technology to transport frozen gas aboard its icebreakers through arctic trade routes to buyers across the globe. Mr Etienne also pointed out the importance of geopolitics with regard to these gas and oil resources.

The topic of fisheries in the arctic ocean, and who should have access to what was also brought up as a key concern for the territorial committee. With new expanses of water freeing up each summer, the fishing opportunities have grown and have attracted the eyes of many a nation’s fishing fleet. However, these hungry eyes must be diverted, and the areas freeing up each year must be protected. A disaster like that of the arctic ‘donut hole’ must be avoided at all costs. In the 1980s in the Bering Sea, American and Soviet fleets, who initially fished in their respective waters, discovered the Arctic “donut hole”. Outside of national jurisdictions, it was legal for them to fish pollock in great quantities as they were in international and unregulated waters. Soon, fishing fleets from Japan, China, Poland, South Korea and more arrived and began to extensively fish pollock in the region. Now, over 25 years later, the fish species has yet to recover. Mr Etienne brought hope to ease the fear of these dangers though, bringing to light a world first which took place under a year ago concerning this domain. In an effort to prevent this kind of human idiocy happening again, an agreement was signed by the powers most present in the arctic waters (such as Canada and Russia) that banned commercial fishing across much of the Arctic. This will safeguard an area about the size of the Mediterranean for at least the next 16 years, hopefully allowing species and ecosystems to adapt and recover.

Finally, Mr Etienne mentioned the growing tourist industry which operates around the arctic. Although he was careful to announce that the prices were “very high”, he spoke about the new trends and popularity surrounding arctic cruises. This could be explained partly by the opening up of a world that most are unfamiliar with, and the desire therefore to see a new area of the planet with the reputation of being untouched and unknown. The reality of this however is that the arctic has been touched, perhaps more so in some respects than any other area of the globe. As multinational tourism and the industries attached to it turn their eyes northward, like the issue of the fishing fleets there is now a race to put in place the correct measures to control this new activity in an organised manner, to avoid any further damage caused.

This speech obviously influenced the territorial committee’s delegates, as the resolutions they put forward after lobbying concerned all of the topics mentioned, and showing that those present had taken on board the warnings of caution and care needed in the handling of territorial issues in the arctic.

During his opening ceremony speech, he insisted on the importance of the words “persevere” and “explore” in his life. During his filmed interview (available on Youtube @ilymun!), he reiterated this deep philosophy, with the importance of “Remettre le rêve à la surface” (bringing dreams back to the surface). It was very inspiring for those of us able to interview him as he was able to merge all of his passions (manual work, exploring, medecine, nature..) in his adventures to this day! He stressed the crucial issue of water in his striking point : “ON PEUT FAIRE UNE GRÈVE DE LA FAIM MAIS PAS UNE GRÈVE DE L’EAU” (you can have a hunger strike but not a water strike). To remedy water issues like climate change, he believes “CHACUN DOIT ÊTRE EFFICACE SUR SA ZONE D’INFLUENCE” (we each have to be effecient on our own scale). It was truly a privilege for the Press Team and all of ILYMUN to be enlightened by his wisdom!

Hannah Vanoosthuyse and Isabel Beurois



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