One of the most interesting aspects of Antarctica as a place is that, unlike pretty much every square foot of every other continent, Antarctica does not belong to any country. In a very real sense, Antarctica belongs to the international community.
This is due mostly, or at least legally, to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by an initial dozen countries on December 1, 1959, and which has been steadily expanded and improved since then. Right now, 52 countries have acceded to the treaty.
In preparing for my trip to Antarctica, I’ve enjoyed reading about the treaty, its history, and its present effects. One aspect of the treaty that I find surprising and inspiring is its grounding in the International Geophysical Year of 1958-1959, a massive effort to broaden the base of scientific knowledge about the planet – everything from magnetism and gravity to oceanography and meteorology. The IGY was not wholly exempt from Cold War tensions. For instance, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. both launched their first space satellites during its span, and the U.S. founded NASA to manage its part of the Space Race.
Despite or even because of the competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the IGY did dramatically improve what humanity knew about Antarctica, and create infrastructure for future science, from surveys and exploration to the establishment of several new scientific stations. While this could well have led to the renewal of national claims to Antarctic territory, instead the international community went in the polar (ha!) opposite direction – toward making Antarctica a neutral place. The Antarctic Treaty, signed two years later, legally set the entire continent and its waters outside the nation-state system.
Representatives of the initial twelve counties, and of 40 more since 1961, signed because they
Recognized that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord
Convinced also that a treaty ensuring the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only and the continuance of international harmony in Antarctica will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.
Fourteen short articles outlined specifics such as banning nuclear weapons and military maneuvers and endorsing scientific cooperation – and how to maintain and expand the treaty permanently.
I find all those pretty inspiring on its own and as a sign that humans can sometimes make good collective choices. Against the backdrop of current efforts – so far, woefully lacking – to combat climate change, the treaty’s longevity and real power seem even more important. We – humans, organizations, countries – can work together to slow or halt climate change, or any of the zillion other international problems with which we’ve plagued ourselves (including, of course, the present plague).
Maybe. Sometimes? I hope.