Audacious visions for the Antarctic

The unexpected life of an activist 

IT WAS EARLY 1984. It started with a phone call: can you do an environmental impact assessment of the effect of mining in Antarctica for us? asked a newly acquired friend from the local Friends of the Earth group. I had just completed some environmental impact assessment work for a company in Newcastle, New South Wales, and had met this friend at our ‘between jobs’ casual work. His wife was working for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an international coalition of organisations working to protect the Antarctic region from excessive human impact.

The idea of conducting an environmental impact assessment across a distant and enormous continent – where little information was available and about which I knew little – was both laughable and intriguing. By the end of the year, I found myself campaigning full time for the protection of this amazing place.

First came a period of intense research into the ‘landscape’ of the Antarctic to learn about its ‘human and resources DNA’ – what was already known about the continent. I discovered Antarctica’s resources had been on the radar for many years – traces of minerals had first been identified in the early nineteenth century, and an agreement to regulate commercial fishing in the Southern Ocean (the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources or CCAMLR) had recently been adopted.

The intent behind the Antarctic Treaty, negotiated during the Cold War years and coming into force in 1961, was to prevent conflict in the region – an astounding intention and achievement. Driven by US President Eisenhower, the treaty banned military activity, nuclear explosions and radioactive waste disposal and dedicated the region to peaceful purposes and scientific collaboration. Further, it ‘froze’ territorial disputes, meaning that no new claims could be made and there could be no expansion of existing claims, which essentially put the issue of mining on hold.

My ‘peacenik’ tendencies – formed in my early teens by the stressful experience of family members fighting in the Vietnam War, and then by reading Stephane Groueff’s Manhattan Project (1967) – were captivated. Here was an entire continent being managed for peace: I began to catch glimpses of something very special about this job I had stumbled into.

Despite continued discussions around the possibilities of mining the continent, my reading indicated that the Antarctic Treaty nations (labelled the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties or ATCPs) also recognised the special conservation nature of the region. At just their third meeting, in 1963, they had adopted the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Fauna, a commitment to ‘minimise harmful interference of native birds and mammals’ and to provide special protection to ‘areas of outstanding scientific interest’. At the time the environment movement was growing in some Western countries as people became more aware of the negative impact of human activities on air and water quality, on species and on the planet as a whole, but this concern was not really translating into action. Subsequent consultative meetings had recorded further discussions on means to minimise human impact on the environment and to accord special protection to certain areas and species.

Yet despite these acknowledgements of the uniqueness and extremity and thus the value of conserving the Antarctic region, the lure of potential resources – of extraction – was strong. Interest in exploiting the continent’s resources also continued, and formal negotiations for an international mining agreement began in June 1982.

In opposition to this, environmentalists were galvanised around the potential declaration of this (relatively) untouched region as a ‘world park’, a wilderness free from harmful human activities. And in just six months I transitioned from a part-­time researcher (given the paucity of available data, that environmental impact assessment became a two-­month desktop search) to the daunting, exciting and privileged position of being a full-time paid advocate for the Antarctic wilderness. I got my first taste of promoting this extraordinary proposition to the Antarctic Treaty Parties in 1984 when I went to Tokyo as part of the environmental non-­government organisations (e-­NGOs) team.

So many moments from that experience remain with me. The lack of coffee in Japan (an essential drug for hyper-­excited activists working fourteen-­hour days). Creating banner letters with cut-­out, stick-­on PVC – definitely an environmental no-­no by the next decade. Typing, retyping and manually ‘laying out’ ECO, the daily commentary on the meeting published by e-­NGOs, until 4 am each morning, then running the gauntlet of the white-gloved train-­loading oshiya and navigating a rabbit warren of lanes to hole-­in-­the-­wall photocopy shops so that ECO could be delivered fresh to the delegates by 9 am every morning.

More fundamentally, I was learning how to lobby. Spurred on by colleagues, who seemed to assume I knew what I was doing – no pressure! – Tokyo could only be described as rapid ‘learning on the job’. The future of an entire continent was at stake.

IN 1985, I became the representative of e-­NGOs on the Australian delegation to Antarctic Treaty meetings, selected by Australian e-­NGOs working on Antarctic issues as best able to represent their interests. Altogether there were four such representatives (the others being on the Danish, New Zealand and American delegations) carrying the weight of the e-­NGO community’s goals. I was – I am still – a strong supporter of the view expressed by ecologists and environmental governance experts Barbara Gemmill and Abimbola Bamidele-­Izu, who explain in their chapter for Global Environmental Governance (2002) that civil society can both enrich the process of environmental governance and strengthen outcomes. However, applying this belief from ‘inside the negotiations’ required a more nuanced approach than repeated calls for an ‘Antarctic world park’. My role morphed again to become ‘the conscience of the delegation’, ensuring that Australia did not compromise away its commitments and that relatable connections could be found with as many delegates as possible – as Aristotle said, ‘The fool tells me his reason; the wise man persuades me with my own.’ It was a time of massive pressure and stress, manageable because I was just one cog in a passionate, smart, determined and supportive team.

In 1986, I got my first opportunity to travel to the Antarctic on the recently purchased MV Icebird as part of the Australian Government’s program of offering spare berths to stakeholders such as politicians, artists, teachers and conservationists. Through this, I was invited to see firsthand the efforts being taken to minimise the environmental impact of Australia’s Antarctic rebuilding program. (Australia’s three continental stations, built in the 1950s–60s, were replaced in the 1980s with more efficient, safe and practical designs.)

Of course, there were many special moments in this first trip – counting Adélie penguins at midnight (or rather their nests; penguins move around a lot), digging holes in twenty years’ worth of rubbish to classify its contents, mapping the many small oil spills that had happened around the base, a breathtaking helicopter trip over the ice cliffs that became quite terrifying as the wind picked up, watching a hungry leopard seal track a wayward penguin.

But it is the way the Antarctic as a landscape overwhelms that affected me most. The breathtaking – both figuratively and literally – atmosphere. The startling beauty. The edge of danger. The deep feeling of being unimportant in the great scheme of things.

Many visitors to Antarctica report a certain ‘inarticulateness’, a difficulty expressing their feelings about their experiences – and so it was for me. Thinking about this now, I discussed this response with my colleague Katie Marx, currently researching public engagement with Antarctica in its gateway cities such as Hobart. She described this ‘almost religious’ feeling as a common theme for Antarctic visitors: ‘People talk about Antarctica raising a type of global consciousness in them or feeling like they’re coming close to God.’

There’s quite a bit of theory behind this. Over several cups of tea, Katie introduced me to the work of Yi-­Fu Tuan, a geographer who has written extensively on how humans relate to place. Tuan suggests that we are more likely to feel a connection with familiar, comfortable, homelike environments; places where we can feel safe, where we can create memories and communities. Polar landscapes hold an entirely different attraction. Antarctica, in Tuan’s words, offers the chance ‘to be taken out of oneself and one’s habitual world into something vast, overpowering and indifferent’. Because it is so remote, Antarctica helps us step outside of everyday conventions and distractions. Because of the sheer scale of its landscape, Antarctica shows us that we are small. Because it is so intimately connected with our planet’s ecological and climatic systems, Antarctica reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves. We go to Antarctica, in other words, to understand our own place in the world.

For me, too, came the recognition of humanity’s place more broadly in nature. Before I went to Antarctica, I was committed to my job, but I was not sure that our battle cry was realistic. After that visit, the sheer power of the continent – the feeling of humanity being ‘put in its place’ – led to a lifelong and almost primordial passion to fight for Antarctica’s protection and, in the short term, to find the audacity to continue to contest the inevitability of mining this great landscape.

Years after that 1986 voyage, I also had several discussions with Professor Frank Fenner, then director of the ANU’s Centre for Resources and the Environment, and explored in more detail the various philosophic views around humanity’s relationship with nature. Later still I met Emeritus Professor Stephen Boyden, whose various writings on this subject – including Our Place in Nature: Past, Present and Future (2008) – cemented my views that humans are themselves part of nature and that our health and wellbeing rely on a healthy planet.

But in 1986, I just knew that what the Antarctic region had to offer humanity did not include resource extraction.


THE NGOs LOBBIED hard to stop the mining regime from going ahead and many of the delegates were sympathetic to our position. One of my favourite memories of those hectic years was Ambassador Jorge Beguino, the Chilean Head of Delegation, briefly joining the penguin picket line – we held huge cut-­outs of penguins displaying their own placards – at one of the Wellington sessions. But given that the delegates had accepted mining would occur, what we had to work with was their sense that, in the face of this, regulation was better than no regulation. The Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources (CRAMRA) was signed in June 1988.

But the NGO community immediately regrouped for an intense two-­week strategy meeting. While some of us were convinced that logistics and economics would make mining unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, we all agreed that we should make one last-­ditch effort to stop CRAMRA from coming into force.

Applying standard campaign strategy rules based on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and more recent work on the ‘theory of change’, we chose five countries to target with this message: abandon CRAMRA. Australia stood to lose a lot if mining went ahead: it had a strong mining industry that would need to compete against subsidised Antarctic mining, it risked conflict occurring in its currently calm southern border, and it would serve on many regulatory committees for mining proposed within its claim without any guarantee of royalty payments. Prime Minister Bob Hawke was also looking for an environmentally based election hook; France was looking to redeem its own environmental credentials following widespread condemnation of its Pacific nuclear testing program and the bombing of Greenpeace’s SV Rainbow Warrior; Chile had always championed peace, conservation and scientific co-­operation for the Antarctic; and Germany and Sweden had huge e-­NGO supporter bases in both countries.

In Australia, umpteen meetings with many politicians, both government and opposition, ensued. Conservationists highlighted the costs of Australian involvement in Antarctic mining to Treasury, the impact of subsidised mining activity competing with Australian industry to the Department of Resources and the possibility of increased conflict to Defence, which was concerned about this outcome in our region. It was a series of small oil spills from Antarctic vessels – and then the Exxon Valdez disaster, when the tanker ran aground on 24 March 1989 and spilled more than fifty million litres of crude oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound – that brought Australia’s Environment Minister on board.

We were down to the Prime Minister, and Hawke realised that ‘saving the Antarctic’ was a great platform – he had swept into power on the back of the Tasmanian dam issue back in 1983. At the same time, our engagement with the marine explorer Jacques Cousteau – who was very close to French President François Mitterrand – began to bear fruit.

Australia and France agreed not to ratify CRAMRA within a week of each other and then worked together to champion an alternative global conservation regime. I am not sure that we really stopped to think about the enormity of this outcome because this was just one step in the process – but reflecting later, it was clearly a pivotal moment.

Thanks to large public campaigns, Italy and Belgium quickly joined Australia and France, and other nations were not far behind. Despite seeing itself as greener than Australia, New Zealand was slow to join – it had hosted the minerals negotiations and expected to host the Secretariat for this new convention. By the time of the Paris October 1989 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, only five nations – Argentina, New Zealand, UK, the US and Uruguay – were still fighting for the ratification of CRAMRA and the chance to mine the continent.

That meeting was surreal, and it was tense. There was palpable anger towards Australia in particular, which was seen to be threatening the stability of the treaty as a whole. For much of the meeting, junior delegates struggled to progress the formal agenda while heads of delegations and their advisers were closeted in a tightly packed side room arguing over the fate of Antarctica – and the Antarctic Treaty. The ‘abandon CRAMRA’ position prevailed, and the ATCPs set about negotiating an environmental alternative. I remember the sense of exhaustion and resignation in the room, but I was just so proud of Australia, France and of all the treaty nations for embracing this new beginning.

Those negotiations that followed in 1990 and 1991 were both exhilarating and exhausting. As the e-­NGO representative on the Australian delegation, I was one of only two such representatives privy to many of the negotiations. I never imagined in 1984 that I would be placed in a position of having heated discussions, often individually, with my NGO colleagues pressing me to ensure that the mining ban was at least 100 years while also pushing back on delegates wanting a fast agreement around ‘a realistic period’ of a generation or two.

After two false starts in 1991, the Madrid Protocol was eventually signed later that year, designating the entire region as a ‘nature reserve, dedicated to peace and science’ with what is essentially an indefinite mining ban. Years later I still marvel at this outcome, at our audacity in demanding it, at the determination of Australia and France to deliver it, at the capacity of the Antarctic Treaty system to embrace it.


BY EARLY 1992 I had moved on to other environmental campaigns, but I retained a voluntary and occasional consulting role in promoting Antarctic conservation. Antarctica is just one of those places that you can’t really let go. Not surprisingly, then, I found myself re-­engaged in the mid-­2000s, this time in the push to fulfil the commitment made by the members of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (the CAMLR Convention) to implement a convention-­wide representative system of marine protected areas (MPAs). While the Antarctic region as a whole is afforded a general level of protection against the worst of human interference, it contains very special and vulnerable areas that need additional protection.

The CAMLR Convention was negotiated in the late 1970s in response to concerns that a growing commercial interest in an Antarctic krill fishery would disrupt the fragile Antarctic marine ecosystem and the recovery of devastated whale populations. Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is a keystone species in the Southern Ocean. The convention’s objective is ‘the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources’, and this includes enabling fishing activity if it is conducted according to explicit principles designed to maintain the integrity of the marine ecosystems.

NGOs had been very excited when in 2002 the commission committed to delivering an MPA network by 2012, and they then actively participated in the Scientific Committee’s comprehensive mapping of bioregions of the convention area and the ensuing foundation work for the establishment of MPAs.

By 2012, one MPA had been adopted (in the South Orkney region, south-­east of the tip of South America) and two more solidly researched MPA proposals were before the commission, which I, along with most delegates, fully expected to be accepted. However, opposition from a small number of members led to a specially convened July 2014 meeting in Bremerhaven, Germany: the commitment unravelled again as some delegations expressed concerns about the impact of MPAs on existing and aspirational fishing activity. It was then that I got my first inkling of differences of view around the intent and purpose of the convention and its objective – was it just a fishing regime? Or was it a regime that allowed fishing when this did not impact conservation and protection of the area?

The Ross Sea region MPA was finally adopted in 2016, following a massive worldwide public push, including securing then US Secretary of State John Kerry’s engagement in the issue, significant compromise on the part of the proponents and high-­level political meetings between China and the US. Since then, and despite all bar two members now strongly supporting the implementation of the MPA system, CCAMLR has been unable to progress any further proposals or to fully implement the existing ones.

And over ensuing meetings, I have witnessed growing cracks in the commission’s long-­established collaborative approach to resolving differences, more frequent use of veto, attempts to rewind the MPA commitment and the strengthening of polarised views around the very purpose of the convention. These differences coincide with China’s expressed intention to dramatically expand its Antarctic krill fishery and Russia’s willingness to ignore established norms and practices – including science-­based decision-­making – in the Antarctic. The commission has also been unable to adopt policy decisions to address uncertainties arising from the observed and projected impacts of climate change within the convention area.

The inability of the commission to take any new decisions, the demise of the organisation’s accepted norms and practices, and the increasing insistence of legalistic interpretations by some nations all suggest an impending crisis. There are several possible outcomes. Without the concerted action of all members working together to address this problem, the most likely is the gradual reshaping of CCAMLR to be focused only on fisheries management. However, I see an opportunity for CCAMLR to have its own ‘Madrid Protocol moment’ – to embrace the global significance of the Antarctic, to abandon an inward-­looking management approach and to become global stewards of this special place.

While this vision may at first seem optimistic, many colliding events and discussions support such a view. Recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports stress the role of the Antarctic in understanding the science of global anthropogenic climate change, its role in the maintenance of global Earth systems and its influence on global existential environmental threats. Current UN discussions on managing marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction have illustrated the importance of large-­scale MPAs in ensuring global ocean health. Many studies have highlighted the rapid and widespread global decline in biodiversity, such as the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-­Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report, which noted that nature was ‘deteriorating worldwide’. But in this world of ever-­increasing carbon emissions, Antarctic krill remove up to twelve billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year while whales are also globally significant carbon sequesters.

Other global values of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean region add weight to this vision. It’s impossible to underestimate the designation of the Antarctic region as an area where only peaceful activities may occur, where scientific collaboration is championed and where military activity is banned in the context of global conflict. Nor can the value of designating a continent a nature reserve be dismissed.

For me personally, a fundamental reason for fighting for this vision is to know that there is one place on Earth where humans must work with nature to survive, where humans have not inexorably altered the environment, where the planet can ‘breathe’. An ecological and social sustainable future for humanity relies on humans becoming comfortable with our connections with the processes of planetary life, our relationship with nature.

Where CCAMLR goes will depend on the determination of its members, the influence of the Antarctic Treaty Parties and pressure from the international community. Let us hope that collectively we have the audacity to demand what is needed.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Katie Marx for her conversations towards this essay.

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