" 'So what are you going to do to me?' is the traditional response of people doing things in Antarctica that other people don't like."
'I can be bold to say, that no man will venture farther south than I have done, and that the land which may lie to the south will never be explored.'
Captain James Cook
These remarks sound silly now. But remember that Cook (and Huxley) were two very intelligent people; these errors they made are not something we should condescend to. They stood as it were in the foothills of a giant mountain range, and foreshortening made it impossible for them to see how high the range was going to get. We can't either, and we are going to be making many more of what we can call 'Cook's errors'; there are things that are going to happen that it is too early to imagine now, even though after the fact they are going to look inevitable and obvious.
What we do when we make a scenario is judge by our personal value system, what we would like to see happen, and what we fear might happen. We also try to project what we think is 'most likely' to happen, but here's where we are most susceptible to Cook's errors, because we hide from ourselves what we want and don't want, and pretend those desires and fears are not in our calculations when actually they are.
So it's better simply to put our cards on the table, and talk about what we want to happen and what we don't want to happen, and leave the idea of what is 'most likely' alone.
Just one scenario
- which will be a mix of these two elements, my hopes and my fears. First, the global context: the earth's human population is about eight billion. The environment is staggering under the impact of this many people, their consumption habits and technologies. Some basic non-renewable resources are running low or running out; global warming is causing more violent weather and destructive storms, droughts etc.; food shortages are looming; and political tensions as a result are very high.
People in this future are therefore beginning to think that they are going to have to do something. They're even beginning to wonder if the present world order can endure. The possibility for change therefore exists in a way that it hasn't for a long time. This process is fueled by desperation, but nevertheless a lot of progress is being made. You could perhaps call it a kind of historical race, between multiple catastrophes for the human race, the Earth and its other species, or the invention of some kind of sustainable society within the physical constraints of the biosphere.
In Antarctica specifically we see these developments:
The ice shelves are melting faster than expected, including the Ross Ice Shelf, which turns out to be more sensitive to small rises in ocean temperature than anticipated. On the other hand global warming has increased the precipitation on the continent itself, so that there is more snow and more ice. All the ice on the continent is speeding up. There is the danger that whole western Antarctic ice sheet will detach, which would raise sea level by about seven meters.
Birds and marine life populations have sharp fluctuations from time to time but are all relatively stable. The fisheries too are stable, because the food issue is so significant that the Antarctic Treaty nations have used satellite information to track all fishing vessels in the Southern Ocean. Boats without transponders are illegal, and these pirate boats are identified by satellite, located and tracked, and the governments of the United States and New Zealand have led the way in fielding a rapid deployment force to go out and stop the pirates. In a world of eight billion we are working beyond the long-term carrying capacity of the planet, and if one third of our food sources were to be destroyed by overfishing, there could be a population crash among humans the like of which has never been seen.
There are about thirty thousand scientists a year in Antarctica. Each scientific team in Antarctica includes amateur assistants who are there both to help the scientists and to learn more about science. People are theorizing the concepts of 'non-quantitative science' and 'science as a humanism,' and it's an important part of the long ongoing process of science's scientific self-analysis and self-improvement.
The cruise ship industry has crashed from lack of interest. Many other tourists come to Antarctica in Earthwatch-type organizations that match up interested volunteers with scientific teams around the world. These volunteers pay to do various kinds of labor and general assistance, for the pleasure of partaking in science and seeing different parts of the world in more than a superficial way.
Wilderness adventure travel is booming. Improvements in gear, such as thermostatted clothing, piezoelectric hand-warming ski poles, crevasse-detecting personal radar, heated boots, arm flasks that melt snow and ice into water, and edible belts, make one's clothing as complete a system of protection and shelter as were the old tents. The Footsteps expeditions -Footsteps of Scott, Footsteps of Amundsen, Footsteps of Shackleton and so forth - are all extremely popular. Of course 'The Worst Journey In the World' is one of the most popular trips in this travel genre.
There's a trail used by trekker groups running through the Dry Valleys - up Taylor Valley, where the trail already exists in places, then over the Asgaards and down Wright Valley, up Bull Pass and on to Lake Victoria, with all kinds of side trails. The trekkers are saying to those who object, What are you going to do to me? which is the traditional response of people doing things in Antarctica that other people don't like.
Tourists stay at the South Pole. Tourists here do not usually help the scientists with their work, because the science being done is so abstruse that the scientists have trouble explaining it even to each other, but the machinery looks interesting and people generally go away satisfied, though not anxious to return.
There are big school groups down there.
A giant oil field has been discovered under the ice of the Mohn Basin, meaning about five to ten billion barrels of oil. There are drilling rigs being installed to make test drills. They are funded by a consortium of Third World countries which is defended vigorously in the UN by the G77 group, collectively saying to the Antarctic Treaty nations, What are you going to do to me?
People are beginning to live in Antarctica on a more-or-less permanent basis. Blimps, zeppelins and dirigibles, which are popular world-wide, are also very popular in Antarctica. The blimps go from cruise ship-size right down to individual fliers, and it's the smaller sizes that are used most by the growing group of long-term Antarcticans called 'the ferals.' These are people living as nomads in the Transantarctics. These people occasionally eat local fish, whales, seals and penguins, but because they study these animals in various scientific ways before they eat the data, they claim that they are abiding by the rules of the Antarctic Treaty. They grow most of their food in sealed hydroponic terraria, and live in large tents based mostly on ice and powered by solar and wind power. They consider themselves the first indigenous people of Antarctica and they're not particularly interested in what outsiders think of their efforts. The logistical support for the US National Science Foundation has changed, after the contract was won by an employee-owned co-operative called MacCo-op. The MacCoop people often live in families. There are about as many men as women. Many of the couples are bringing up their kids. They have tenure rights in their jobs, and they own the company they work for, which has no public stock. (There are co-ops like this springing up everywhere.) Many go north in the winter. The University of Ross Island has been established in a small cluster of beaker boxes and satellite dishes up near Castle Peak. This small university, the first in Antarctica, teaches first-rate Antarctic science, and boasts a fine department of literature. The students are very vocal, as usual, and are intense advocates of the Antarctic Treaty, which they suggest be amended to apply farther north by one degree of latitude for every year that passes, until the whole world is ruled by it; for they regard the Antarctic Treaty with reverence as the only rule of property made freely by people trying to act rationally without the great crushing weight of history on them.
- I could go on.
Capitalism is the order we live in now
So, how do you judge what's good or bad, except by, as we've said so often before here, the application of values?
So I need to tell you about my value system, to clarify my judgments of the scenario I've described. I'll start by making the observation that we live in a capitalist system. I might also note that this is the first mention of the word 'capitalism' in the three days of this conference - as if we were in ancient Israel and dared not speak aloud the name Yahweh for fear of being struck dead by a bolt of lightning. Capitalism is the order we live in now.
The way we have been saying this has been indirect and coded. We have talked about 'free markets,' 'globalization,' 'growth,' 'sustainable development,' 'supply side,' 'product,' 'consumer,' and 'a level playing field,' all specifically capitalist terms, and some mentioned 'self-navigators,' which I take to be people without job security or communal ties, or 'blue skies research,' a put-down of non-economic science. We've seen the phrase 'the Antarctic industry,' and been told that we ought to make an 'Antarctic brand.'
Now very clearly, to my mind, capitalism is anti-environmentalist. We see the great multi-nationals spending billions of dollars to dismantle whatever environmental restraints exist within national laws and international treaties. And when the multi-nationals have been in control of natural resources that could be harvested in a sustainable fashion, they have not done so, but have clear-cut and overfished these resources unsustainably.
Capitalism is anti-democratic as well. In our version of capitalism, a small percentage of the people own a huge percentage of the wealth. About one-third of the world's population is well off - they have capital - another third lives at sufficiency - they have a job, they make a wage- and a final third is on the subsistence edge, or over it. And the rules of the current system insure that there is an ever-growing disparity in this hierarchy.
To me this situation looks very like feudalism, with money replacing land as the source of power, but with the power structure of feudalism left more or less intact.
That's my reading of the situation, of our moment in history. And so I ask myself, and everybody else, what opposes this global feudalist/capitalist system? What resists it? Because I don't think it's good, either for the environment or for democracy. Well, of course environmentalism and democracy oppose it. And I would also postulate that science opposes it, and that these three systems or concepts - environmentalism, democracy, and science - support each other and cluster together into a complex of ideas that I would call permaculture, - a permanent culture, which is sustainable, which rolls over dynamically through the centuries, changing no doubt in many ways, but always passing along the world intact to the future generations, for them to pursue their lives and their destinies whatever those may be.
Capitalism would like science to remain the pet monkey, doing tricks and turning out toys to keep the consumer commodity economies humming smoothly. On the other hand science would like to keep things scientific, in order to keep the experiments running well and the information coming in nicely. If there is an irrational economic system out there ruining the lab, then science is going to have to try to infiltrate it and dominate it, to change it, to make it more rational and more scientific, just to keep the data clean. And if science, environmentalism and democracy were to succeed, and capitalism were indeed to become much more scientific, environmentalist and democratic, then it wouldn't be capitalism as we know it any longer; it would be some postcapitalist economic structure.
Now when I bring the discussion back to Antarctica I can point immediately to a phrase that has been used so often - 'Antarctica is the Continent for Science' - and this phrase no longer looks so innocent.
You couldn't even get to Antarctica without science; the technology to get down there is a scientific achievement. And once they did get down there back at the turn of the last century - there was nothing there. The great powers of imperial Europe could make nothing of it, and their scientists said they wanted it for study; and they were allowed to have it, because it was so useless.
And that attitude continued for most of this century. Science simply dominates Antarctic history, because for a long time no one else was interested. But remember that science has dominated the rest of modern history as well, just less obviously.
The International Geophysical Year, in which Antarctica was central, serves as a small illustration of this dominance making itself manifest. Intrigued by the mounting evidence for tectonic plate theory, the geophysical community said to the world, Excuse me but we need to get about our work, so we want the Cold War, a forty-year conflict involving every nation on Earth, temporarily suspended in our sphere of action. And they pulled this off! American and Soviet scientists worked together completing the work that made tectonic plate theory accepted and gave geology its first real paradigm for understanding the surface of the Earth. It's a good illustration of the immense political power of the scientific community.
It can be said that the Antarctic Treaty is, among other things, a kind of scientific politics. Scientists and diplomats came together and said, what would be the best and most rational and just law to establish for our presence on the land? And they wrote it up, and got it accepted, and it worked.
It worked when the stakes were low. Now the stakes are getting higher, like the temperature, as our technological abilities increase and our resource problems in the north get worse and worse.
There is still not very much money to be made in Antarctica, and global environmental problems are all so intimately connected that Antarctic science has become crucial to understanding the climate everywhere else. So in Antarctica the balance remains tipped towards the scientific enterprise. Fears about damage to the Antarctic environment are of course justified, but the real danger to the Antarctic environment comes not from the people who go down there, but from all the people who never go down there, but live farther north changing the atmosphere and the ocean as they live.
I actually think that we need to increase human access to Antarctica, to the extent that is possible within the limits of high standards of environmental cleanliness. Because Antarctica is such a fantastically powerful education in environmental values, and because it can serve as a demonstration lab for developments in clean technologies. If you try to live clean in Antarctica, you will find it is hard, but it can be done, and that's indicative of strategies that could be used in the north.
It also serves as an inspiration and a reminder of our love for this planet and its landscape, by its sheer beauty. The more people who visit it, the more lovers of this Earth we will have at large in the world. If there were say a hundred thousand inhabitants of Antarctica, cycling in and out with the seasons, then the continent could sustain their environmental impact, and the human world would be enriched by the addition of that many passionate environmentalists.
I think that my experience is fairly common to Antarcticans returned to the north. The experience is one leading to a kind of planetary consciousness, and love of Earth, and a determination to preserve intact the great beauties of this world for the future generations - not just Antarctica as world park, but the whole world as park. In India they say that in your actions you should consider the impact on 'the seven generations' - honoring the seven generations that have come before, and acting for the seven generations that will come after. The beauty of Antarctica reinforces this kind of thinking, and so will be of great importance in the next century, which will surely be one of the most dangerous in human history.
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