Sunday, December 8, 2013

Material World: Antarctica - End of the Last Wilderness? (2013)

The Material World column from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Antarctica is our planet’s last remaining wilderness – almost wholly uninhabited, in large part even unexplored by humans – a vast continent of snow-swept plains, icy mountains and cliffs swarming with penguins. 

And yet Antarctica is highly vulnerable to human activity. Offshore, trawlers from several countries scoop up the fish that feed the seals and penguins and the krill that feed the fish. (The latest attempt to reach an agreement to ban commercial fishing off East Antarctica and in the Ross Sea failed.)

The krill are then fed to aquafarmed fish and marketed to health-conscious consumers as a superior source of omega-3 fatty acids, although it is unclear why krill should be preferred to other sources like walnuts, soybeans and quinoa.

Chunks of the melting West Antarctic ice sheet continue to break off and plunge into the sea. In Central Antarctica too global heating has an impact, but of a different kind – increased precipitation that still takes the form of snow.

Territorial claims
Antarctica was first sighted in 1820 by a Russian naval expedition, then again three days later by the crew of a British naval vessel. French explorers landed in 1840 and claimed the territory for France – a claim soon forgotten. Further discoveries were made in the late 19th and early 20th century by British, Norwegian, Belgian, German, Japanese, Australian and American explorers.

During the first half of the 20th century eight countries made claims to sections of Antarctica – some on the grounds that their explorers had got there first (Britain, France, Norway), others on grounds of geographical proximity (New Zealand, Chile, Argentina) or on both grounds (Australia). Several other countries (Russia, the US, South Africa, even Peru) ‘reserved the right to make a claim’. Brazil announced a ‘zone of interest’ that it insisted was not a claim.

These claims were not taken very seriously. Even though some of them overlapped, the discrepancies did not generate conflict. Much of the continent remained unclaimed.

A unique international regime
In the second half of the 20th century a unique international regime took shape in Antarctica, known as the Antarctic Treaty System. The main Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961, prohibited the use of Antarctica for military purposes. No new territorial claims were to be allowed; existing claims were neither annulled nor recognized.

Thus, the chief human activity in Antarctica is scientific research. Thirty different countries now operate 70 research stations, of which 50 function year round. There is also a little tourism – and a Russian church, served by two priests.

From the 1970s onward, the main treaty was supplemented by further agreements. Several deal with conservation of animal and plant life. The most important is the Protocol on Environmental Protection, which came into force in 1998 and prohibits non-scientific activity relating to mineral resources. Unfortunately, it does permit geological prospecting, which falls under the category of ‘scientific activity’.

An arrangement of this kind was never on the cards in the Arctic. What made it possible in Antarctica was the clear separation of the continent from sovereign national territory and especially its remoteness from the great powers of the northern hemisphere. It was also generally assumed that whatever riches might lie under the icy wastes it would not be feasible to extract them and transport them to world markets in the foreseeable future. (This assumption also explains the nonchalant approach taken to earlier claims.)

The treaty system in decline
In recent years there have been signs of diminishing confidence in the Antarctic Treaty System. More is known now about the continent’s mineral resources – for instance, large iron ore deposits in the Prince Charles Mountains and extensive coal deposits in the Transantarctic Mountains. Gold, manganese, chromium, nickel, cobalt, tin, uranium and titanium have also been located. Moreover, as the ice starts to melt and mining technology advances the possibility of extraction no longer seems so remote.

The position taken by each government involved in Antarctica goes like this: ‘We shall not be the first to violate the treaties by staking new claims or moving beyond prospecting. But we must plan how to react as soon as some other country breaks out of the current international regime.’

Professor Guo Peiqing from the Ocean University of China likens the situation to preparing for a global game of chess: ‘We don’t know when play will happen, but it’s necessary to have a foothold’ (Guardian, 8 October).

A plausible date for the start of play is 2048, when the Protocol on Environmental Protection comes up for review. Of course, play could start before then, perhaps triggered by a dispute over whether some action crosses the line separating scientific research from commercial exploitation.

Chess and gō
When it does start, the game will actually be rather more complicated than chess. The number of players will clearly far exceed two.

Although countries may still refer to the nationality of early explorers when staking claims and contesting the claims of rivals, they will base claims mainly on the locations of their research stations. The preparatory manoeuvres already underway are more like the Japanese game of gō, in which a player places counters (in this case, research stations) anywhere on the board with the aim of surrounding coveted spaces and blocking the opponent’s efforts to do the same. 

The Antarctic Treaty System demonstrates that in the absence of strong commercial pressures even capitalist governments are capable of moving beyond the constraints of state sovereignty. In some ways the Antarctic model of human cooperation prefigures the unity of world socialism.

Michael Harrington's The Other America (1964)

Book Review from the March 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Other America. Michael Harrington, Penguin, 3s. 6d.

There is a pretty little myth that America is the land of milk and honey and the place where everyone, but everyone has his own car and lives in ease and comfort. It is difficult to escape the picture handed down to us by Hollywood that spacious houses and gracious living are the norm, perhaps because like so many stories from across the Atlantic, it is put over in such a big way. But it is false, nonetheless.

This much we can learn from Michael Harrington, who tells us in his book The Other America (Penguin Special, 3s. 6d.) that there are 40-50 million people in U.S.A. struggling along in conditions of direst poverty. It is no good trying to laugh this one off as just another Yankee story, because Mr. Harrington supports his claim with a wealth of data from government sources. Yet such is the competence of his style, that he manages to bring home to us in a frighteningly personal manner the human tragedy of these "invisible millions" as he calls them. Invisible, that is, to the superficial observer who is not prepared to probe the thin crust of surface appearances, and understand that poverty reaches much deeper than the shirt on your back. The author is careful to stress this very point early on, when he says:—
“In Detroit the existence of social classes became much more difficult to discern the day the companies put lockers in the plants. From that moment on, one did not see men in works clothes on the way to the factory, but citizens in slacks and white shirts. This process has been magnified with the poor throughout the country. There are tens of thousands of Americans in the big cities who are wearing shoes, perhaps even a stylishly cut suit or dress, and yet are hungry.”
Something else to note about this poverty is its catholic nature. Whites may despise Negroes, and Negroes in their turn spurn Puerto Ricans, and so on, but whether they like it or not, they are all in the same boat. Some may be affected worse than others, like the eight million aged poor, but the conditions of even the best off are deplorably low by any standards. They are all of them members of the working class—something which hardly needs stressing and which runs like a thread through the whole depressing picture.

We do not hear the argument so often nowadays that the poor are that way because they are lazy and enjoy living on the dole. Nevertheless, it seems to be sufficiently prevalent still in America for the author to deal with it at some length and to demolish it with withering, scornful logic. The crux of his reply is that the poor made the fatal error of being born to the wrong parents: —
“Once that mistake has been made, they could have been paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never have had a chance to get out of the other America.”
All sorts of notions get a knock on the head in this book. It is not so much that Mr. Harrington always makes strenuous efforts to demolish them, but that they just fall down under the weight of the evidence which he gives. One idea in particular is that automation and industrial expansion necessarily mean a better life for all. In fact, as he points out, some better paid workers (the middle class he calls them) have no doubt been able to improve their lot, but those lower down the scale, and even some of those further up the scale, have suffered a drop in their standards. For many this has meant a tumble into the ranks of the intensely poor.

Mr. Harrington is not a Socialist; his "solution" to the problem is "massive government action," although he does not go into details and the futility of such a policy should be apparent from the rest of his book. Still, we will forgive him this because in all other respects he is clearly master of his subject and constantly reminds us of the most appalling thing about poverty. That is, the poverty which it begets in every other direction so that the whole of our lives become permeated with its loathsome culture.

Read this book. It is truly a devastating condemnation of Capitalism.
Eddie Critchfield