Conquest and Care in Antarctica: On Climate Stories that Complicate the Narrative

If you’ve typed “Antarctica” into Google lately, you might have noticed that the results page maps out two dramatically divergent search engine paths you could venture down. One, familiar and horrifying: Headlines linking the continent’s increasingly erratic behavior to a foreboding planetary future—in this case, that the sea ice that was expected to form around Antarctica during its austral winter hasn’t arrived. The missing puzzle piece of frozen water the size of Greenland is hearkening proclamations like “unprecedented,” “record-breaking” and “historic” for its possible impact on hastening sea level rise.

The other path you can cut through the internet is unprecedented in its own way: travel stories detailing how to get to Antarctica as a tourist—the Earth’s final frontier, according to Forbes—and what to do once you get there. For most of history, travel to Antarctica was the exclusive purview of explorers and researchers, leaving the continent vastly untouched by human hands. But in recent years Antarctic tourism has begun to boom—this past season, over 100,000 visitors checked the continent off their bucket list.

The bad climate headlines already too familiar, I click down the Antarctica tourism rabbit hole. For around $13,000, I learn, I could book a 12-day cruise to the last continent. Or, if I wanted to spend a bit more, for $98,500, I could catch a private charter jet and go glamping at the South Pole with a companythat touts itself as “pioneering luxury in Antarctica.” I blink at the word “pioneering” as short videos loop in the background of smiling, bundled tourists against shades of bright whites and blues. It doesn’t take long for the conceptual whiplash to set in as I toggle between Antarctica as one of the epicenters of climate disaster and Antarctica as the pinnacle of adventure tourism. I’m ashamed to admit that if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I can’t rule out that I might be tempted onto a cruise ship.

Antarctica holds mythical appeal in our popular imagination as a place defined by purity, and by lack: untouched, unspoiled, unblemished, and unpopulated. The continent is designated as a global commons, which means nobody owns it. The continent has no cities or borders, and not even trees can survive there. At the same time, it’s superlative: it’s the coldest, the windiest, the driest; the Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest single piece of ice on earth; the continent is the most remote, impenetrable and inhospitable place on the planet. For much of history, it’s been a question mark in people’s minds and on maps, known only as Terra Australis Incognita, or unknown land of the south. Antarctica is the only continent in the world that is home to no Indigenous human population. This means the stories that formed our earliest understanding of Antarctica have been handed down to us by those who made the journey—the heroic men who called themselves explorers and adventurers, with names like Cook and Amundsen and Shackleton, the “pioneers” after whom places of import on the continent are named today.

It doesn’t take long for the conceptual whiplash to set in as I toggle between Antarctica as one of the epicenters of climate disaster and Antarctica as the pinnacle of adventure tourism.

In The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth, Pulitzer finalist and climate journalist Elizabeth Rush offers a counterbalance—or maybe an antidote—to this long, well-trodden tradition of conquest narratives. Along the way, she draws our attention to one lack in particular: the question of who has been left out of these stories. Part memoir, part reportage, The Quickening is a lyrical account of her journey to Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier alongside nearly 60 scientists and crew. The 2019 expedition marked the first time humans had visited the remote corner of the Amundsen Sea where Thwaites—dubbed the Doomsday Glacier for its outsized role in dictating how high seas could rise—resides. The expedition’s goal was to gather data from on, around and under the otherwise mysterious glacier in order to find clues about how fast it is collapsing—and what its collapse could mean for us in the coming decades.

Rush’s journey to Antarctica is complicated by her own internal weather as she grapples with her desire to become a mother in a warming world. Before, during and after Rush’s journey to Thwaites, we witness up close the shape of her wanting and of her worrying: to have a child, and then of being unsure if it will be possible, and fearing what that child’s life might be like on climate-changed planet. The Quickening is propelled forward by the tension between bringing new life into the world and watching as Thwaites collapses and understanding what it could mean for our future. The book takes its name from the moment in pregnancy when the pregnant person can first feel the baby’s movements from the inside out. It’s also an apt metaphor for our current moment: the impacts of natural forces—like Thwaites’ collapse—on our own lives are becoming impossible to ignore. These movements are alerting us to what is to come, and at the same time reminding us that we are in a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. As we accompany Rush on her voyage, she urges us to reconsider who holds the power, asking, “What if we were taught to see Antarctica not as a prize to be won but as an actor in its own right, an entity that shapes us just as much as we shape it?”

Even if we ourselves haven’t read the tales of the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, these stories stick with us; the society we live in has inherited them. They champion heroism, endurance, jaw-clenching grit and determination to bulldoze over obstacles, and self-sufficiency and individualism above all—mostly of the white men who captain the ships. At their best, the drumbeat of curiosity behind these adventure stories speaks to what makes us human. But even then, they’re intimately entwined with an ethics of exploitation, and often they come at the cost of others—colonization—or are built on the work of invisible, unnamed people. At the heart of these narratives is a preoccupation with this idea of pristine, untouched, inanimate nature there exclusively for one’s own enjoyment—and along with it, a desire to plant a flag, stake a claim, take a selfie—to consume.

But for Rush, the more-than-human world is anything but inert. Thwaites operates as the book’s main character, the axis around which all the action turns—the melting glacier shows us the damage human-caused climate change has wrought and what we could still lose, holding the world’s fate in its hands. Thwaites is heavy with symbolism, but it is also a very real threat. The hulking Florida-sized lump of ice in the West Antarctic is rapidly retreating as we burn fossil fuels and the planet warms. If Thwaites collapsed entirely, on its own it could cause sea levels to rise by two feet. But if the glacier’s collapse were to destabilize the surrounding ice sheet, it could ultimately cause a rise of around ten feet. As Rush puts it, Thwaites is the answer to the question of whether coastal cities like Miami will even exist in 100 years. The glacier’s power reminds us that the landscapes and the more-than-human beings some of us were told were there for our taking are agents of action themselves; they rule us as much as we thought we ruled them.

The Quickening has all the trappings of a classic nail-biting odyssey, but this isn’t an Antarctic adventure story of courageous derring-do. Instead, it’s a human story of what it takes to care for people as they navigate the most inhospitable of environments. Rush doesn’t so much subvert the old adventure-conquest tradition as build something new in its place—showing us instead that we have no need for these stories, shining a light on what’s been missing. Instead of framing the Palmer’s expedition to the farthest reaches of the planet as a feat of the few, Rush’s account underscores the collectivity required for such a challenge.

Rush documents the ebbs and flows of ship life and how her shipmates live and work together, taking seriously the labor of care. She and her shipmates bide their time until they get to Thwaites with anxious preparations, but also with fun: a ping pong tournament, bridge lessons, workout DVDs and dinner conversations. And then, there are triumphs: such as when a team of scientists successfully sends an underwater robot beneath Thwaites, gathering data from a part of the planet nobody had ever studied before. There are also close calls: when a crew member thinks she’s experiencing an ectopic pregnancy, she calls the doctor at the nearest base, a five-day sail away, who informs her that all the worst-case scenarios are untreatable on the ship, but that she could be in life-threatening danger the moment it ruptured. (She’s eventually evacuated safely.) And the expedition is a race against time: the window of opportunity for research is razor-thin as the Palmer tries to outrun the rapidly freezing sea ice marking the turn of the austral summer to winter.

What makes this research possible is the work of the crew—the able-bodied sailors, from the Philippines, the cooks, both Black men, the technicians, including a mere handful of women. And those people speak for themselves. Throughout the book, Rush periodically interrupts herself to summon forth the voices of her shipmates, interspersing bite-sized first-person dispatches from the scientists and crew. We hear from Barry, the electronics technician, about his father passing away days before the ship set off. Lindsey, the marine technician who had to be evacuated, tells us in her own words what happened to her. They tell us about the loved ones they left behind at home and who’s caring for them, so they’re able to do their work on the Palmer. At first, I was jarred by these interruptions and found them distracting. But it didn’t take long before I started to crave hearing what the other people on the ship thought about the day’s events; a more-the-merrier approach to storytelling. The only thing better than one reliable narrator is a chorus of them. Up until then I hadn’t been conscious that this multiplicity of voices was missing—in Antarctic adventure stories or in any story, really.

It’s easy to idealize care and community, especially when they’re presented as alternatives to conquest and competition. We often see them invoked in climate discussions as the easy switch-flip solution to our systems of capitalism, colonization, and imperialism. Lately, we talk a lot about concepts like care work and kinship and their role in the Anthropocene. But in reality, reciprocal relationships—whether with the planet or with each other—require a lot from us. The process of unlearning an ethos of domination—in our books, in our minds—is messy, meandering, and cannot be measured in linear progress. We often fail. Where there is closeness, there is conflict.

There are also fuck-ups. As the data collection winds down and the long, unglamorous days of data cataloguing ramp up, Rush lends a hand in a bid to lighten the load, as a lesson to the reader in collaboration. The scientists are cataloguing the precious samples of sediment they collected from the bottom of the sea floor—some of the first soil to be extracted from directly in front of Thwaites. Fatigued by the hours of repetitive labor, Rush drops one of the samples and spills 40 centimeters of sediment onto the floor—the insights the sediment holds never to be revealed and tens of thousands of dollars down the drain. The passage is brutal to read, and I cowered in shame on her behalf. Rush couldn’t hide from the people who she had hurt with her mistake, though—she had to deliver the bad news herself, to the research coordinator, to the rest of the team, and to the Ph.D. student who had planned to hinge her entire dissertation around the sample. Rush later confesses to a shipmate that it’s the most ashamed she’d ever been in her life. There’s no community without accountability.

The Quickening, and climate stories like it, are teaching us how to complicate the narrative—showing us how to hold two ideas in our hands at once and have them both be true.

Rush broadens her discussion of care to encompass mothering. At the heart of The Quickening are two impulses: collapse and creation. Rush knows she wants to have a child when the book begins. But in order to participate in the expedition on the Palmer, she had to postpone her plans—pregnant people are prohibited from participating in the US Antarctic Program (in the pre-screening medical exam, it’s a reason for being deemed “not physically qualified”). Rush worries it might be too late by the time she gets back. But as we journey deeper into the remotest part of the world with her, this possibility offers breaths of hope, levity, and joy—a counterpoint to an otherwise apocalyptic mood. Rush explores the ethics of having a child during the climate crisis, drawing on thinkers like Meehan Crist. She asks her shipmates to recount their birth stories. And, more than a year after Rush’s return, when the time comes, she recounts her son’s birth story and his early days.

What will become of him—and us? At Thwaites, Rush and her shipmates are surprised when they hear a loud crack—the sound of the glacier calving. They watch as the ice crumbles into the sea, spurring a massive wake. But it’s gone as soon as it had come—destruction returns to stillness as if nothing happened. Later, the ship has to leave Thwaites prematurely because the glacier began a rapid shedding of ice, bergs disassembling from the glacier and littering the water, making navigation treacherous. The ship’s chief scientist tells Rush that in his twenty journeys to Antarctica, he had never seen anything like it. “Ever since my return,” Rush writes, “I’ve wondered if the prolific calving we witnessed was … a birthing ritual or death throes?”

The answer, of course, is both. The Quickening, and climate stories like it, are teaching us how to complicate the narrative—showing us how to hold two ideas in our hands at once and have them both be true. These stories hold a mirror up to the distractions, defense mechanisms, survival strategies and mourning rituals we use to cope with a crisis of our doing. And they equip us with the nuanced understanding we need to be able to move forward through this era of collapse. We need to be able to grapple with the cognitive dissonance to be able to not just survive the climate emergency, but to transform it, and let it transform us. If we limit ourselves to viewing our current crisis only through the lens of loss, we’ll never get out alive. Instead, we can acknowledge what we’re losing, create space for it, look it in the face, and mourn it—all while holding tight to what we need to see us through.

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