A colleague notices that the Wikipedia entry on Antarctica and the Antarctic Treaty makes no mention of Greenpeace’s successful five year campaign, back in the late 80s, to stop oil and mineral exploitation on the frozen continent.
This was such a formative experience in the organization’s history and such a massive, surprise victory that I was doubly shocked to realize that when I went to look for source material, our own mothership website at www.greenpeace.org/international also contained no mention.
But this is the way of history which predates the web: it needs
to be digitized by hand; it wasn’t captured as it happened.
I pulled together some existing materials into a quick canned history of World Park Antarctica, but it hardly reflects the immensity of this project, and the richness of stories and personalities and triumphs and failures.
When we stuck a base camp in the snow and ice near McMurdo Station, former Greenpeace honcho David McTaggart described it as Greenpeace “pissing in the same snow the Americans are pissing in.“
Technically, having a base was all that was required of a nation to be a party to the treaty negotiations, but of course, Greenpeace wasn’t a nation. And that, really, was one of the major points. Why should the countries that claimed slices of Antarctica by putting a presence down there have any more right to this global resource than a little slingshot-wielding environmental group that claimed to represent the people of planet earth?
Nobody played along with our claimant game, but we worked our way into those negotiations by hook and by crook anyway. The confrontation that McTaggart really longed for never came about. He had hoped that our base would become such a thorn in the side of the treaty parties, that one or more of them would try to evict us. He though of that as the ultimate exposure of the fiction of the treaty claims — the informally determined pie shaped territories which each nation declared its area by right of their presence without actually calling them their own, and which no law recognized as belonging to them in any legal sense.
Instead, we became a respected presence, visiting the other bases on environmental inspections that kept everyone on their toes, doing some real science, and contributing to the literature and community of the highly exclusive club of Antarctic overwinterers.
And elsewhere on the planet, Kelly Rigg was running a global political campaign the likes of which Greenpeace has seldom emulated since. She fielded lobbyists into the treaty negotiations and hired campaigners in a half dozen swing countries directly from headquarters, a more centralized model than we use today. She could tap into some extremely influential political networks that McTaggart and a few others had built, which could deliver approaches to the Secretary General of the United Nations, op eds from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, appeals from Jacques Cousteau, and even logistical aid from Ted Turner.
I was working to set up our Italian office in those days, and conventional wisdom was that we needed to stick to local issues like the pollution of the Po river in order to build support, and the Antarctic work was simply too distant to be of interest. That is, until the receptionist, in an inspired bit of unauthorized chutzpah, wrote up an Antarctic fundraising appeal, mailed it out, and landed more donations than anything we’d tried previous. She was shortly promoted to fundraising director.
She’d seen what we’d underestimated, and what many others who dismissed the campaign as a folly failed to appreciate: the power of the Antarctic as an iconic wilderness, one of the last great unspoiled places in the world, and the expectation that Greenpeace, as a supra-national player and defender of the global commons, was the champion of choice to defend it.
Against all odds, we won. Antarctica today remains under the protection of a fifty year moratorium on oil and mineral exploitation.
20 years later at the opposite end of the world, a similar fight is brewing over the arctic. Rumors of vast oil riches, territorial positioning as the Russians plant a flag on the seabed, Canada rattling sabers, everyone trying to make a case for owning what nobody owns, and which they only want to own in order to plunder rather than protect.
It’s time to put a stop to this nonsense. The Arctic is the common property of every one of us. We should own it jointly as world citizens, protect it from the ravages of oil exploitation and global warming, isolate it from the din of nationalist squabbling, and keep it safe for future generations.
That would be a worthy struggle.
Blogged with Flock