Antarctica—“The Tip of the Iceberg”

The Arctic and Antarctic environments are fragile. It takes years to replace trampled plants on the tundra because the growing season is only a couple of months long at best. The conundrum is that a growing human population yearns for going to unspoiled places. However, as more of us go to these unspoiled places, we risk spoiling them. As a result, regulation is necessary to limit environmental degradation. A recent article in the Guardian about Antarctica brings this home. Although current restrictions on tourism are adequate, as the number of tourists continue to grow, tighter restrictions will be necessary to preserve this environment and its wildlife. The forty or so tour companies currently bringing in tourists to Antarctica will surely oppose this.

When I went to the sub-Arctic tundra last August I said that I chose it over Antarctica and other exotic places because few go to the north. I have no desire to go back to crowded Europe (though I do like its museums). I want to experience nature rather than civilization, something people in much smaller populations would have taken for granted before the advent of the industrial revolution.

The tundra is not as dramatic as mountains and huge icebergs, and (until recently) the Arctic Ocean has been pliable only with submarines and heavy icebreakers. Furthermore, visiting the tundra requires that visitors be in good physical shape and willing to camp in tents while enduring aggressive mosquitos. However, travel to the far north is now changing as cruise ships offer comfort cruises through the Northwest Passage, given the melting of Arctic Ocean ice.

Despite corporate resistance, we have become more effective at protecting wilderness areas around the world. Unfortunately, we are less effective at protecting our atmosphere and agricultural areas. Most pundits tell us that there is still time so solve our environmental challenges. As for me, I am cautiously pessimistic. Although there have been significant pollution and environmental protection policies put into place over the past forty years, recent international efforts are not likely to reduce fossil fuel emissions necessary for halting global warming over the next century. Instability in the Middle East, mass migrations to Europe, terrorism, and now Brexit will hinder a focused international effort to curb global emissions.

Globalization poses a no-win dilemma for humanity. On the one hand, it binds nations economically (up to a point, e.g., the EU to date) and produces goods that are widely available to those who can afford them. On the other, it creates growing inequality and threatens national and cultural identities. Consequently, the “99%” (really, the 80%) are rebelling. Socialism can mitigate the economic, but not the cultural challenges. Given that socialism has been on the wane since the Thatcher/Reagan era, there have been fewer brakes to quell political unrest. Nationalism or isolationism is not the answer, as either would cripple post-industrial economies, thus fostering greater conflict.

Ideally, we should have found a way to balance industrial progress with national identity and environmentalism. But idealism only resides in philosophy and social theory. Nearly all of us wanted ever more goods and services, while thinking of the world’s resources as unlimited, that a global “melting pot” would unite us, and lacking an understanding about how we would warm the atmosphere.

We are really in a tough spot.

Your comments are welcome.

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