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The Greening of AntarcticaAssembling an International Environment$

Alessandro Antonello

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190907174

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190907174.001.0001

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The Fate of the Green Antarctic

(p.169) Epilogue
The Greening of Antarctica

Alessandro Antonello

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This epilogue reflects on Antarctic diplomacy and science after 1980 in light of the greening of Antarctica that occurred after 1959. It suggests ways in which the failed ratification of the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) of 1988 and the successful negotiation of the Madrid Protocol of 1991 closely followed the intellectual and conceptual contours laid down between 1959 and 1980 in the major environmental agreements following the Antarctic Treaty. It also reflects on the seeming absence of ice—the dominant natural element in Antarctica—from early and recent Antarctic geopolitics and how ice might affect future Antarctic diplomacy and geopolitics.

Keywords:   Antarctic Treaty, CRAMRA, Madrid Protocol, ice, climate change

THE FIRST TWO decades of the Antarctic Treaty produced not simply a collection of international agreements, but a profound body of diplomatic and scientific thought about the Antarctic environment itself, new relationships among peoples and physical nature, and the authority to interpret and manage that environment. It was, in short, an international environment. While seeking the advancement of their own positions, the treaty parties and the internationally organized scientists also genuinely sought peace and stability and endeavored to fix the contested visions of the Antarctic into legal documents upon which they could rely; they also enrolled Antarctica’s living and nonliving nature in their search for stability and power. In 1959 the Antarctic powers saw the continent as a stage on which to enact their geopolitical, imperial, and colonial dramas; there was little sense of environmental fragility or dynamism. In 1980 the Antarctic powers saw a region filled not only with a fragile and very extensive ecosystem but also with themselves and their scientists as a fundamental part of it. Could the treaty parties have foreseen in 1959 what would become of the treaty? Of course not. Rather, the important issue is how they reacted, individually and collectively, to the challenges they faced in the years following.

The emergence of this international Antarctic environment was a slow process that took decades. The developments were sometimes deliberate and at other times incidental, sometimes consciously pursued and at other times unintentional. The protection of the Antarctic environment and the management of resource exploitation were not the only concerns of the states and scientists; they also wanted to give meaning and shape to the (p.170) relationships among themselves. Diplomats and scientists continually sought geopolitical or epistemic authority for Antarctica. Furthermore, ideas about nature and the environment in the Antarctic mutually developed with ideas about the wider diplomatic and political order. Defining an environment’s natural elements was inseparable from defining who was connected to it and might benefit from it. The foundations of the contemporary Antarctic Treaty System in the 1960s and 1970s have not yet become a matter of concerted research among historians and other scholars of Antarctic affairs. This book has offered, for the first time, critical histories of the negotiations of three central Antarctic documents—the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora (AMCAFF), the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS), and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—and of the first phase of the minerals debate, as well as how the agreements articulated the linked contest for power and the formation of environmental sensibilities. Authoring and negotiating ideas and sensibilities and fixing them into international legal texts was a delicate and long process.

The Antarctic was not, and is not, a timeless and unchanging region, either in environmental or human terms. It was invested with new meanings over the 1960s and 1970s, and it was seen and made legible in different and new ways; it was thus a very different assemblage of concepts, ideas, histories, sciences, and material things in 1980 than in 1959. There were two movements in this regard: one, geographical, of expansion from the continent to the region; and the other, environmental, about the progressive and iterative inclusion within the management vision of fauna and flora, seals, minerals, continental shelves, marine living resources, exclusive economic zones, and an “ecosystem.” What these developments meant, therefore, was that the Antarctic was not simply, as Stephen Pyne put it, “a white spot on the globe” after its exploration, but rather a complex region of life with an equally complex human regime engaging with and managing it.1 That continuing and renewing complexity, an environment evading simplification, ensured that Antarctica remained a problem for diplomacy. The problem of sovereignty re-emerged as awareness and knowledge of the complex, fragile, and extensive Antarctic environment grew. As the Australian historian Tom Griffiths has written, “Antarctic voyagers of the nineteenth century had originally wanted rock. They wanted rock, and soil they could plant a flag in and claim for their country.”2 If continental ice could not substitute for soil, a region of living and (p.171) extensive nature—realized through science and developing environmental sensibilities—might accommodate the flag and the sovereignty it represented. Diplomats and scientists imagined new ground for their contest.

The Greening of Antarctica has explored the slow emergence of an international environment out of competing and conflicting visions of Antarctic nature, both scientific and political, in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, it has been as much about the maintenance of the Antarctic Treaty as it has been about the creation of new instruments. The agreements of the 1960s and 1970s—AMCAFF, CCAS, and CCAMLR—remain in force, and therefore their ideas persist into the present. The developments in these two decades were the foundation on which the minerals debate of 1982 to 1988, and then the environmental protection negotiations of 1988 to 1991, were built. Both the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) and the Madrid Protocol repeated and included essential elements of AMCAFF and perpetuated the ecosystem vision first enunciated in CCAMLR, as well as other earlier provisions; international law scholar Davor Vidas has gone so far as to note that the Madrid Protocol and its annexes “evolved from a ‘cut and paste’ operation.”3 The creation of this environmental regime was not an easy or simple manifestation of the latent potentials of the Antarctic Treaty, but rather a process of contested and concerted intellectual effort. It continually, if subtly, wrestled with the implications and ideas of the treaty and the materiality of the Antarctic and kept the treaty under permanent negotiation. It was also a process that brought to bear on Antarctica long genealogies of concern for the protection of nature and resource conservation of the temperate world, as well as younger traditions of environmentalism and the regulatory approaches of the age of ecology.

ANTARCTIC POLITICS CERTAINLY did not stop in 1980—just as it did not end in 1959—and the contest for authority and power over the region and its environment continues into the present. All the elements of the Antarctic order established and constituted in the two decades following the treaty channeled the energies of treaty party diplomats and scientists in the subsequent decades. The challenges and developments since 1980 have all drawn to a significant extent on the foundational moments and hewed to the contours established in the early decades, though of course they had particular, immediate dynamics and contexts too and were not simply blind repetitions. Though I want to avoid any crude suggestion of path dependency after the early 1980s, the diplomats and scientists of the (p.172) Antarctic Treaty System were heirs to an already complex, sophisticated, and compelling body of thought, policy, and action.

The 1980s were a busy time in Antarctic history but can be seen in many ways as an extension of the ideas and negotiating positions of the 1970s. The Malaysian-led challenge to the Antarctic Treaty in the United Nations beginning in 1982 was met using the same language of exclusivity and environmental concern that the treaty parties had generated in responding to the Food and Agriculture Organization and law of the sea challenges in the 1970s. Expansion of the number of consultative parties was the new response—though conservative in effect—in that context.4 Though eventually rejected, CRAMRA, signed in 1988, reflected the balance of conservation and exploitation, environmental management and protection, that CCAMLR had initiated and manifested. Indeed, it explicitly perpetuated a vision of the Antarctic as a fragile ecosystem.5 The Madrid Protocol that was negotiated to fill the void left through the Franco-Australian rejection of CRAMRA was so quickly achieved because it drew extensively on the environmental protection frameworks and ideas first instituted by AMCAFF in 1964 and all the environmental impact talk of the 1970s. Even the recent and highly contentious negotiations over the institution of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean through CCAMLR reflect the foundational cleavages between conservation and exploitation clearly articulated during its negotiations. All the environment talk and environment making that had gone on by 1980 fairly constrained the range of options that the treaty parties thought they still enjoyed.

One element of the Antarctic that has been absent from this book’s account, but is worth reflecting on, is ice. Ice dominates and defines Antarctica. It might seem like a supreme oversight of this book to have ignored ice, but it has not been a central concern of the Antarctic Treaty System. Though albedo (reflectiveness of solar radiation) was discussed at the margins of the minerals debate in the 1970s, and iceberg harvesting was intermittently mentioned in the 1970s and 1980s, ice has not been a diplomatically considerable element; it has not been extensively enrolled in the international environment I have described. This is surely deeply problematic given the realities of climate change that we are faced with. Glaciologists have established clearly that there has been significant ice mass loss from the Antarctic Peninsula and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet; the East Antarctic Ice Sheet presents a more complex picture of change. The data and knowledge gained from Antarctic ice have certainly become germane to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the (p.173) global climate regime. Yet ice still has not become a central diplomatic concern of the Antarctic Treaty parties. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) has attempted to politicize the ice through interventions in recent Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings. With the anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly as lead author, ASOC has tabled information papers to urge the consultative parties to see—simply to see—the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its current and future diminished body. ASOC’s political project since the late 1970s has been to recast Antarctic politics toward a more fundamentally preservationist and globalist mindset, with mixed results. Enrolling the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the project has yet to bear much fruit; the ice, which was so minimized and tangential to treaty business, may yet become central to it.6 What is the fate of the green Antarctic as ice slides off its bedrock and onto the international diplomatic agenda?

THOSE DIPLOMATIC, SCIENTIFIC, and nongovernmental actors who participate in the Antarctic Treaty system today treasure its distinctiveness. States and scientists generally, and to an extent rightly, congratulate themselves on the maintenance of peace in the region and the protection of its environment. Even as environmental troubles clearly loom, the Antarctic Treaty System is often held up as a regime to be copied for other international environmental problems. Yet histories often puncture valorized portrayals of the past. Though worthy in many ways, the Antarctic environment as it has been constituted is still a highly political assemblage of actors, both human and nonhuman, relationships, and ideas. Each of the Antarctic agreements I have explored in The Greening of Antarctica has its historical tensions and cleavages, as well as the benefits that saw it signed in the first place.

If we neglect to explore critically the manner in which the parties came to their agreement in 1959—and their further agreements in 1964, 1972, 1980, and so on—it weakens our capacity to think incisively about the contemporary regime and its future. Critical histories that explore the paths almost taken, and that recognize the past’s present and futures, can usefully lengthen foreshortened visions. As Tom Griffiths has urged, “History down south, as in any society, is a practical and spiritual necessity, but especially so in a place where human generations are renewed every summer and the coordinates of space and time are warped by extremes.”7

The Antarctic is a central element in our understanding of the current global environmental crisis. Because of this, the heroic and continent-bound endeavors of the early explorers, as famous and remembered as they (p.174) are in the public imagination, can no longer dominate Antarctic history’s field of vision. For all its contemporary frustrations, anxieties, and faults, the Antarctic Treaty System and those who work within it have produced ideas, geographies, and obligations that balance many competing interests and pressures. This balance is a result of the vigorous and consequential intellectual labors of diplomats, scientists, and other officials working productively to create an orderly international environment. Their thoughts and actions have profoundly shaped our continuing engagement with the Antarctic.


(1.) Stephen J. Pyne, The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1986] 1998), 68.

(2.) Tom Griffiths, “A Humanist on Thin Ice,” Griffith Review, no. 29 (2010): 67–88.

(3.) Davor Vidas, “Entry into Force of the Environmental Protocol and Implementation Issues: An Overview,” in Implementing the Environmental Protection Regime for the Antarctic, ed. Davor Vidas (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), 4.

(4.) Peter J. Beck, The International Politics of Antarctica (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 284–97; Rohan Tepper and Marcus Haward, “The Development of Malaysia’s Position on Antarctica: 1982 to 2004,” Polar Record 41, no. 217 (2005): 113–24; and Marcus Haward and David Mason, “Australia, the United Nations and the Question of Antarctica,” in Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System: 50 Years of Influence, ed. Marcus Haward and Tom Griffiths (Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2011), 202–21.

(5.) Andrew Jackson and Peter Boyce, “Mining and ‘World Park Antarctica’, 1982–1991,” in Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System: 50 Years of Influence, ed. Marcus Haward and Tom Griffiths (Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2011), 243–73.

(6.) I have explored ice as a contemporary space of Antarctic politics in Alessandro Antonello, “Life, Ice and Ocean: Contemporary Antarctic Spaces,” in Handbook on the Politics of Antarctica, ed. Klaus Dodds, Alan D. Hemmings, and Peder Roberts (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017), 172–75.

(7.) Tom Griffiths, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2007), 3. (p.220)