WHEN EXPLAINING MY Antarctic research to new acquaintances, at a dinner party or a barbeque, I can usually predict the direction of the conversation. First comes surprise and – depending on the crowd – perhaps delight that someone working in the humanities conducts research on the Antarctic region. Then almost always the question follows of whether I have ever visited the remote place that occupies so much of my intellectual life. I understand the impulse behind this question: part polite curiosity, but also genuine intrigue about a part of the world that, even now, comparatively few people have had the chance to experience. It’s a question I would ask, were our positions reversed. But it also raises a whole series of uncomfortable issues.
In the early twenty-first century, journeys to Antarctica come with a significant carbon footprint. Passengers taking a standard ten-day tourist cruise, for example, produce more carbon dioxide than the average global citizen produces in an entire year of ordinary living. While almost any long-distance travel raises similar considerations, the issue seems particularly pointed when the destination is an icy region where increasingly unstable glaciers threaten to make enormous long-term impacts on the planet and its inhabitants. And then there are direct impacts, such as wildlife disturbance and black-carbon pollution – sooty material that increases the heat generated by incoming solar radiation. Some studies suggest that researchers have a bigger negative impact than tourists: ‘People who say you shouldn’t go there / Go there’, the Australian poet Caroline Caddy observes wryly. She herself ‘went there’ in the mid-1990s as one of the earliest official Australian Antarctic writers-in-residence. An inevitable sense of hypocrisy troubles anyone who both loves and visits the ice continent.
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