- "Living Ice":Rediscovery of the Poles in an Era of Climate Crisis
Polar explorers, primarily known for symbolic acts of imperial derring-do, are reliable and safe, nonconfrontational heroes for confusing times.1 Perhaps this was all quite clear to Prince Harry of Britain, who joined a February 2011 trek to the North Pole as a member of "Walking with the Wounded," a group raising money for injured veterans. Once the mythic zones of European heroism, the poles today are more associated with concerns over Native rights, oil company drilling and privatization, the destruction of habitats and species, and most of all climate change. So the prince, in bright red survival gear posing (for GQ and other fashion venues), is only the most recent recuperation of myths of British heroic martyrdom—John Franklin's lost North Polar expedition of 1845 and Robert Scott's 1912 disaster at the South Pole are other examples.2
I'm not really interested in flogging the prince's adventure on ice as a remilitarization of a newly contested region. The desire to discover the ends of the earth and to make use of them had been predicted in literature and scientific imagining long before men finally arrived at the ends of the earth. It was, in Gilles Deleuze's protest against imperial geoteleology, "certain to happen, sooner or later," and surely it is still happening, on and on and by many different types of people for myriad causes and beliefs. Preceding Prince Harry's latest remasculinization and following in the footsteps of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration and the 1959 establishment of the [End Page 221] international Antarctic Treaty System, women, non-Europeans, southern hemispherics, and people of color have performed physical survival in an extreme environment.3 Whether by direct representatives of governments, private adventurers, tourists, or more likely, associates of national science programs, polar ice has become ever more filled in, storied.
Ice has become a sublime incitement. If everyone now travels to the poles, everyone can be a hero, too. The more people trek to the poles the more they empty the ice of its own materiality or liveliness. They leave footprints, tell stories and take pictures, build stations, and change a landscape from a self-contained and perhaps incomprehensible one into a metaphor of human survival, a trace of past failure for which the only point seems to be to have arrived and to have survived. And yet most people travel to, say, to Antarctica, the only continent on earth lacking human natives, not to find evidence of human history alone. They go also to encounter the ice directly. I am concerned here to consider this backdrop itself—the ice—not as a proving ground for humanity, not as a homeland as it is for many Arctic Natives, not merely as potential territory. How can the ice be discovered outside historical determination? What would ice become on its own?
While the draw to approach the polar regions and to pose and retread heroic histories, to remilitarize and reassert imperial intentions of human time has not ceased, a new feature has emerged. The ice itself is under threat. It is no longer the enemy or the implacable outside force to be conquered. Nor is it an uncomplicated pure wilderness. It is no longer exactly a blank backdrop for imperial posturing. Rather, the ice is fragile, melting, ever shifting—in need of rescue. The controversy about climate change, and especially the computer-modeled projections of melting Antarctic ice sheets and inundated cities that were the centerpiece of Al Gore's 2005 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, has shifted Antarctica from a blank backdrop for empire or even a zone of purity to a becoming another part of a war-torn and environmentally endangered planet. Especially as a sentimental object of anthropocentric panic—the ice is melting and we're all going to die!—Antarctica's ruin now prefigures and announces a more universal ruin. It is the site and source of a new but familiar kind of environmental melancholy and neoliberal sentimentality: earth must be rescued from the damage humans have caused.4
This renewed struggle to rescue and...