Cold Hearted: Antarctica in the 21st Century

Antarctica is a wilderness that contradicts our ideas of wilderness. All the identifying markers of any wild place on Earth (animals, plants, birds, bugs) are notably absent. Yet, Antarctica has felt a human presence for over 150 years. In that short period, major milestones have ranged from the first steps on the continent in 1821 to an irreverent SUV race to the South Pole in 2005.

The landmass is colonized by a handful of nations, just like any other place on Earth – the only difference being that it is not an actual country. And because only countries can have governments, someone else necessarily writes the laws that govern the people who live and work in Antarctica. In this case, it is a corporation that makes the rules, and their workers subsequently lose all federal human rights upon entering Antarctica.

This arrangement can be described as corporatism, a term coined by Benito Mussolini and originally used to describe fascism. According to Mussolini, both fascism and corporatism merge state and corporate power, as appears to be the case in Antarctica. After all, the only way to get to the continent is through a private expedition corporation (requiring mounds of capital) or through the U.S. government and military.

The United States, however, does not actually have a plot on the continent. (Plots are divided among New Zealand, Australia, Britain, France, Norway, Argentina and Chile.) According to the Antarctic Treaty, the United States, among a handful of other countries, is to be consulted during group decisions and reserves the right to make a claim on land in the future. In the meantime, U.S. scientists, with the approval of the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF), can occupy space at the South Pole or often at McMurdo Base on the southern coast of the island.

McMurdo Base is part small town, part mining camp, part construction zone and part scientific research base. It is bustling with the spectrum of humanity – from artists and world travelers to confirmed Mormons and former police chiefs – in addition to researchers. Occasional announcements trumpet the successes and failures of scientists in the region, but the public rarely hears from other residents on the island.

To better understand their perspective, The Nor’easter talked with a former employee of Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC), the corporation contracted to run logistics on the continent. By talking to the media about what happens in Antarctica, Raytheon employees risk losing their jobs. So this worker continues a tradition of talking through pseudonyms based on the names of Antarctic explorers. This worker will be known in this interview as Birdie Byrd.

The Nor'easter: Because there is no government-run logistical infrastructure in Antarctica, the NSF signs 10-year contracts with corporations to run the logistics of life there for scientists. Raytheon Polar Services, however, keeps getting extensions due to the current “economic crisis” and has been under contract for 13 years. What was it like working for this company and living in the stations?

Birdie Byrd: The stations themselves are like tiny towns made of pre-fab buildings from the military, which gives them a ramshackle appearance despite being totally uniform. I was one of the people who did the necessary work of keeping the town running: everything from cleaning the toilets or checking out field equipment to servicing engines or cleaning boilers that heat the buildings. Just like society in the rest of the world, Antarctic towns are one-third specialists and two-thirds grunt workers who know how everything works and enable those specialists to do their tasks. We work 10 hours a day, six days a week, with a few two-day weekends around major holidays like Christmas, but no overtime pay. Life is very communal, with everyone working, living and eating together, so that's cool. But employees can be fired without notice or severance pay. Talking about unionization can result in termination, and employees also sign over any “reasonable expectation of privacy” when they agree to accept the job. In a sense, Raytheon employees are always at work, because all of their space and time on the island is under the jurisdiction of Raytheon.

TN: Is it true that a Human Resources Department handles legal matters like some cross between a cop and a boss? And that individuals don’t break laws; they break codes of conduct?

BB: We don’t have any police, obviously, so the rules of the company become the laws. Unfortunately, unlike real courts, the Human Resources Department doesn’t allow for fair hearings, trials by your peers or any sort of appeals. The company has the authority and ability to control your access to the continent, regulate what activities are allowed to happen and what kinds of things (such as alcohol and cigarettes) you can have on station just by deciding not to reorder them as supplies. And they don’t like criticism. I know from my own experience that several people were asked to remove stuff from their blogs by the station manager, under orders from headquarters in Denver. They don’t want anyone to say anything that sounds critical of their policies or of how the U.S. Antarctic Program operates. They can do that very easily by firing, or just not re-hiring, a worker for the next season.

TN: I know that workers can lose their jobs just for making negative comments on the Web, through e-mail or even in person, as all Internet activity is monitored and overheard comments can warrant an employee review. So, does Freedom of Speech not translate to Antarctic work? It is, after all, an American company that you're working for – wouldn't they still be required to adhere to U.S. law?

BB: The first amendment only applies to what the government can censure you for using criminal proceedings, not why companies can hire or fire you. That’s totally up to them. Unless you can prove you’re being discriminated against for one of the federally protected statuses like race or gender, or if you try to build a case as a whistle-blower, then you’re probably out of luck. People in the past have faced a lot of anti-union bias and general harassment, but what can you do?

TN: There is no "government," as we know the term, in Antarctica. But with so many countries vying for control in the region, how is land and power distributed?

BB: It’s true that Antarctica is not a nation and has no government, which is, of course, a huge part of its romantic appeal for the imaginative anarchist. However, it does have some territorial boundaries. The continent is sliced like a pie out from the South Pole into “zones of interest” that roughly correspond to where each country’s expeditions landed in the early days of Antarctic exploration. The U.S. doesn’t have a slice of the pie. Instead, we operate the base at the South Pole. We also have one base in New Zealand’s slice and one in the contested area of the peninsula. Argentina and England are arguing over the land that has the most bases on it, and we happen to operate one of them. Guess whose side of that argument we’re on? Ha!

All countries with either territories or a considered interest in the continent came together in 1959 to create an amazing piece of international law called the Antarctic Treaty System. It’s a series of agreements that govern operations on the continent in a dynamic way – not just one decision but actually how to make all future decisions. Its biggest, most significant accomplishment is reserving the continent for “peace and science” by banning all military or commercial activities from the entire area, including the Southern Ocean.

TN: Currently, according to the treaty, no military or commercial activity is permitted on the continent (with the exception of “adventure” tourism); that is, no fishing, mining or other activities that may significantly tamper with the natural environment. But what kind of environmental conservation can there be in a place with seemingly so little life to conserve?

BB: This is one of the most important misunderstandings about Antarctica that I want to clear up for people. Antarctica is just as rich and diverse as the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon, just not in the super obvious ways that people relate to instinctively. Instead of giant tortoises and unusual birds, we have an array of microorganisms and bacterium that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth and really show the extreme limits of what we understand about biology in general. Trashing that up would be as big a loss as losing creatures from the African savannah, even though most people wouldn’t even notice. The entire continent is a challenge to the human-centered understanding of the environment and its value because, honestly, the place is pretty hostile to mammalian life! I find it disturbing that people ask me again and again to make a case for conservation of wilderness areas as if they need to prove worthy of not being obliterated before we can curb our destructive appetites. Someone should make the case for humans-uber-alles to me for a change.

TN: In Alaska and the Arctic Circle, indigenous tribes have done as much – if not more – major conservation work than have environmental non-profits. Obviously, those kinds of alliances can't exist on Antarctica, as there are no indigenous cultures.

BB: Right. Antarctica broke off from the other continents millions of years before humans' ancestors even evolved. It was totally uninhabited, unlike the Arctic Circle, and that means no one could claim the land before explorers and early whalers started to get interested in the place just over a century ago. Many tribes have organized to defend their land from capitalists in the North and that’s probably saved huge tracts of wilderness. Antarctica doesn’t have defenders with cultural history on the land, and that means it’s up to us.

TN: What are the biggest threats to the continent right now? Global warming? Pollution?

BB: Both of these are threats. Pollution is a funny situation because very few sources of pollution exist on continent. I mean, it’s not like we have plastics factories or eight-lane super highways to the South Pole…yet! But no, it’s the rest of the world’s pollution that affects Antarctica. The way wind and ocean currents converge around it as a massive heat sink means that ridiculous amounts of chemicals and particulates concentrate over the continent. Of course the atmospheric pollutants eventually come down as snow or just settle out, honestly. And yeah, global warming – although people underestimate how much ice is really down there: about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is frozen in its glaciers. It’s going to take a long time to melt, even with the predicted temperature spikes. People might disagree, but I’d say the biggest threats to Antarctica’s health are also the biggest threats to your local environment: all the nasty by-products of industrial capitalism. Currently, I mean. The future might be different.

TN: Are you talking about the possibility of mining in the future?

BB: Yeah. Antarctica is the last landmass that hasn’t been ravaged by the pursuit of nonrenewable resources (like copper, gold, oil, coal). It certainly has them, and their approximate locations are pretty well mapped out under the ice. A primordial forest complete with dinosaurs and megafauna once covered the entire continent, and it has many, many volcanoes. We know it must have large reserves of oil, metals and other goodies waiting for someone rich enough or desperate enough to think that mining through all that ice and then somehow transporting the loot back to the regular world is worth the effort. It’s a cost-benefit analysis that so far has been too costly. If that changes, and if the world becomes ever more frantic in pursuing nonrenewable resources, I think we’d see mining operations and their host governments get interested in solving those engineering problems. So much for Peace and Science, right?

TN: Are there any oppositional groups who are preparing or maybe already fighting for the Antarctic environment? I know there’s a TV reality show about the Greenpeace ship that chases Japanese whalers around the Southern Ocean. Are they doing anything in Antarctica?

BB: Usually Greenpeace gets on my nerves, but you have to admit they did good things for Antarctica with their typical publicity-oriented, quasi-direct actions. The Treaty didn’t have any wide-scope environmental protocols before they did their World Park Camp thingy in the '90s. It had specific protections for seals and penguins, but nothing comprehensive. Greenpeace managed to push that through because they had the money to support a direct action camp on the continent – a very, very, very expensive thing to do! I also really appreciate, first for its work but secondly because it represents the kind of bottom-up environmental thinking that we need, not just in Antarctica, but all over the world. To my knowledge, that project is primarily run by one dedicated, tenacious man who networks with some of the other Southern Ocean and Antarctic conservation groups.

TN: So, most people don’t have the money for very, very, very expensive quasi-direct actions on a huge boat or in an ice camp. What can ordinary people do to help Antarctic conservation? Should they try to go down there to increase the number of activists?

BB: Stay where you are and stay in the fight – that’s my analysis. It may sound hypocritical, but I don’t believe many people should go to Antarctica; any human presence is damaging because we can’t seem to stop acting irresponsibly when we get together in large groups. It’s better to understand the collusion of corporate and governmental malfeasance already at work in your back yard and shut them down before they have a chance to get to Antarctica.

TN: All in all, Antarctica is starting to sound like kind of a bummer. You have scary, evil bosses, the place is continually under threat of imminent environmental destruction, and it's always really, really cold. But it can't be all bad. What did you do for fun? How did you pass time in four months of darkness?

BB: I guess it depends on the person, right, but I always had fun. There are a lot of parties and group activities like movie nights. McMurdo Station has an actual two-lane bowling alley with a manual pin-setter machine. People take turns setting the pins for each other. People also do travelogues of places they’ve visited off-ice, because many folks who go down repeatedly are world travelers. We have recreation trails to hike around the base, marked by flags by the Search and Rescue Team. You have to stay on them or risk falling in a crevasse! Some people have died going off-trail in the past. But if you’re not too dumb or too dull, there’s plenty to do. We have a lot of bands, including a few punk bands. And disco. Lots and lots of disco.

Table of Contents