Colloquium Examines Antarctic Tensions

By Rebecca Egli - On February 10, the Environments & Societies Research Initiative at UC Davis hosted the first meeting of its Winter 2016 Colloquium Series. Visiting scholar Adrian Howkins led a discussion of his paper entitled "Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctic."

Now in its fourth year, the colloquium series offers scholars an opportunity to engage in lively workshopping of works-in-progress on a variety of environmental topics. Wednesday’s event brought together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students from the humanities and social sciences.

In his paper, Howkins—an associate professor of history at Colorado State University and expert on polar history—explores the historical links between science, politics, nature, and empire. Of particular interest to Howkins are the ways in which nations have used scientific research to create authority over, and justify political control of, Antarctica.

Contested political history

The site of many perilous and popularized scientific expeditions—beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing up to the present day—Antarctica has long been a source of sustained political conflict. By the mid twentieth century, the Antarctic Peninsula region had been claimed by Chile, Argentina, and Great Britain, while the United States and Soviet Union also reserved their own political rights, making the region one of the most contested on the planet.

“Why,” Howkins asked, “did the seemingly worthless and hostile environment of the Antarctic Peninsula region come to be so contested over the course of the twentieth century?” His paper, which seeks to answer that question, offered colloquium participants an opportunity to learn about the region’s history, as well as discuss the Antarctic within a broader context of imperialism and colonization.

Depoliticizing the wilderness

While scientific research has typically served as the primary justification for a national political presence in the region—a concept Howkins refers to as “environmental authority”—discussions of Antarctic research often portray science as depoliticized and altruistic. Yet, Howkins maintained, the strong connection between science and political power has persisted.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Argentina and Chile argued that their rights to the region were based not on scientific research but on less tangible geographic and cultural connections to the Antarctic environment. These South American claims to “environmental nationalism” provided support for anti-imperialism, but ultimately declined as key leaders embraced the possibilities of scientific research.

Though the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 purportedly ushered in an era of scientific internationalism and goodwill, the treaty, Howkins said, only perpetuated imperial claims. Political authority was granted to those nations conducting research deemed relevant for the “good of humanity.” In an era when the threat of a warming climate looms large, imperial assertions of environmental authority in the Antarctic Peninsula region remain dominant.

Learn more about the Colloquium Series and see a schedule of upcoming events at the Environments & Societies website.

The Environments & Societies Research Initiative is administrated by the Institute for Social Sciences.