Notes From Antarctica: It's All About the Treaty
Photo of Bellingshausen signpost by Eva Jacobus
It's hard not to appreciate the utopian intentions of an entire continent formally dedicated to science and international peace. There was a brief, shining moment in human history where crazy things like that worked, and Antarctica got lucky. And it's hard not to appreciate the elegance of a four-page treaty that provides an unprecedented amount of protection to an entire continent in the face of competing territorial claims and increasing environmental threat.
I'll admit it. This is probably one for the policy wonks. You know who you are, you're the ones who laugh at jokes where the punchline involves the difference between a preliminary and a complete environmental impact assessment. (Guilty as charged.) This month marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, and, as cynical as you might feel, the grand scale and proven success of the Antarctic Treaty is a little heart-warming.In practice, Antarctica has some of the toughest natural preservation standards around. It's the "leave nothing but tracks, take nothing but photos" policy extended from the microscopic organisms you carry with you to the homes you build to survive. Your boots get sanitized before and after they touch land, every time. So you're a sovereign nation that's built yourself a little research base out there? Congratulations, when you're done, you're taking every girder, pipe, and fuel drum home with you, or else declaring it a historical landmark that you're dedicated to maintaining for future generations. No sled dogs. No energy bars while you photograph wildlife. Don't touch the penguins. Don't feed your hand to the leopard seals. Okay, that last is mostly a safety tip. That's no fun for anyone, except maybe the seal.
And it works despite twelve competing territorial claims for Antarctica. Twelve countries claim part or all of Antarctica as their own, and yet they've all signed a treaty to work together on Antarctic preservation and administration, not laying aside their claims but ignoring them in favor of the bigger issues. (I did warn you this was utopian. Frank Capra couldn't have scripted this one any better if he'd done "Mr. Smith Goes to McMurdo". Which, by the way, I would watch.)
So for all you treehugging policy wonks out there, here's what's been missing from your seasonal good cheer: the anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. Go rent a movie about Shackleton, or browse Flickr for some iceberg photos for your desktop wallpaper, or even put some Titantic-and-iceberg ice cubes in the G&T;'s at your next party. Then tell everyone that Antarctica has been formally dedicated to science and international cooperation for fifty years, and that's what you're celebrating this year. Sure, they'll look at you funny, but, you know, you'll start to feel better about things like the Copenhagen summit.