Wednesday 10 December 2008

The Last Frontier on Earth

One of the most obvious points about human progress really has been our conquest of the environment.
The fact that human beings have been able to make places that weren't livable in, livable.
That advances in human technology have increased the territory possible to become human habitats.

We often forget that at one time factors we now no longer think of, affected human beings.

For example, racists often point at Africa and say that it failed to produce great civilisations (they exclude Egypt on the grounds it's more a Middle Eastern culture) and they blame it on race.
They miss the point.

All early civilisations have one thing in common. They all originated in highly fertile agricultural territory. Territory where it really was as simple as 'Stick the seeds in the soil, most of them will grow.' Territory large numbers of livestock could be raised. Territory where all this was so easy, once you'd worked out how to do it, that there was plenty of free time to go round.

This was only a possibility in a few places on Earth.

Once places like this existed, they were able to pass the benefits on to other places, but generally in these early days, civilisation was the product of fertile soil in sunny climates.

The first real advance on this front, is actually one of the most ignored facts of history.
And it occurred in Northern Europe, in the so called dark ages. And it was as a result of this, that humanity underwent a curious advance which meant that Medieval Europe was in fact, technologically, the most advanced society ever to have existed, so much so it produced a vast surplus population it had to find ways to export.

The invention of the horse drawn plough.
The invention of the horse drawn plough, meant a change in what was and was not useful land. Horses are expensive to feed, compared to oxen. But they can plough a lot more land. Being able to plough so much more land in much less time, makes intensive farming in colder, wet countries where farming has to shut down for winter, viable.
In other words, islands like Britain now become ideal for supporting large human populations. And once you can feed people in Britain, it actually becomes quite an attractive place to live. Because most of it is fertile, now you have horse drawn ploughs to do it. You just have to grow a years worth of food in half a year.

And of course, larger populations make life in a place safer. The more villages there are are with less distance between them, the less chance there is of people getting lost, robbed, etc.

Though of course, we forget how recently it was that these things were still normal in Britain. As late as the eighteenth century, if you travelled round Dartmoor, the Peak District or Snowdon, you had a guide. Otherwise, you might die. People regularly did travelling in those places.
The idea seems ludicrous to us now.

The idea that you could get LOST in the UK. That you could be killed by wild beasts. That people died of cold in their own homes.
But these things happened, once.

And yet now, The UK pretty much looks as if it was designed for people to live in. One vast suburbia. It's a very lived in looking place. We're so used to seeing the UK as representing a kind of model human habitat that we forget that many hundreds of years ago- it wasn't.
It's been so long since there were any dangers in UK life not of our own making.

Across the Atlantic Ocean and Down Under, we see newer conquests of the environment.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, consensus was, much of what is now the Western US, was uninhabitable. Only nomadic tribes lived there. It wasn't suitable for permanent settlement. People couldn't really live there.

Last century, crossing the American wilderness, was dangerous. The story of the Donner party illustrates that. Thousands died trying to reach California and the Oregon country. Not just from encounters with 'Indians', but from starvation, thirst, etc.

America and Canada are still wild in places, to us Europeans. A film like the Blair Witch Project or Deliverance illustrates to us just how America still has a wild edge we don't have.
You can't GET lost in the UK. You can't wonder for days and not bump into a house. It's not feasible. Keep going long enough- just an hour or so at most, you WILL find a road.
And dangerous animals?
An angry Rottweiler? An escaped bull?

Even so though, whole states exist in places thought two hundred years ago to be uninhabitable. And I don't think the people living there think much of it. I imagine the people living in Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Las Vegas don't spend much time thinking that they live in dangerous, hazardous environments. They are highly unlikely to die of starvation or thirst and unlikely to be killed by wild beasts.

If you suggested to them that in fact, Sussex is a more suitable place for people to live than Colorado, they'd probably disagree.
Because that might have been true once, it isn't now.

Revolutions in transport, production and communications have meant that populous states exist where once there was desert.

And of course, these revolutions mean that Africa has the potential too to become a continent AS habitable, in terms we would see as habitable as anywhere else. The main reason it lacked the chance historically, was because life there was so precarious. It could feed people, yes, but not in ways conducive to establishing lasting, stable civilisations. Now that is changing. And once the people of that continent get control of their own infrastructure and enough genuine development goes into it, then Africa need no longer be the most dangerous continent on Earth. That really, has always been it's disadvantage- the precariousness of life there.

So Africa isn't really a frontier of human existence. It's just a place human beings can live perfectly good lives, if human beings set up the systems and maintained them properly.
In global terms, it is merely the world's council estate.

The real frontiers are places human beings are proving they can live and therefore one day, probably will live perfectly normal lives.

Now I do think people WILL one day live on the Moon- and Mars, and Venus.
Though Mars and Venus MAYBE not in my life time. I think we'll certainly have sent manned missions there, but I doubt by the time I die, either Mars or Venus will have permanent human inhabitants yet. Still just the odd team of scientists.

The Moon, well, I think it's realistic to think permanent bases will exist there by the time I die. It's probably likely that a few thousand or so people will be up there at any one time. So people will be LEARNING to live there, but I don't see lunar colonisation happening en masse much before 2100.

The real frontier for human expansion, in the short term, are those parts of Earth only now being brought in the range of human settlement.

Places like Alaska and parts of Canada are recent additions, in real terms, to the human sphere. Alaska has left the human frontier and become a full part of the world. A place where once no one would really have thought human beings could live in such numbers.
And yet now, I often think Anchorage would be one of those places I'd like to live.
People have got used to living in large numbers in a place where the day and the year are one and the same.
Modern technology makes it possible.
Modern transport to bring in food, power to heat homes, the internet.
It's hard to find much positive to say about Sarah Palin, but there is one.
It's testament to the fact a place once thought to be a far off frontier territory owned by the US, supporting a population of whalers and gold panners, is now a fully fledged part of the human world.

And that really only leaves one frontier left on Earth.
But one that is fast coming under pressure.

A whole continent, where humanity are realising they can live.

The problem with Antarctica, is we don't really know what to do.
People only really started putting permanent bases there in the 1950s.

And since we kind of figured that we didn't want to start a new round of colonial arguments, just as we were all decolonising elsewhere, we'd all put our 'claims' in abeyance. So all of Antarctica is claimed by various nations, often in fact those claims overlap, but we've all agreed not to enforce those claims, just- claim them.

The other thing is, we've kind of decided that it would be nice to have a place where we don't completely run riot with the local environment.
So everyone has agreed not to commercially develop Antarctica. Mine for minerals, build industrial complexes, etc. The agreement is, the continent will only be 'used' for scientific and research purposes.

Of course, scientifically we're now finding the continent more and more important. It's filling in major gaps in our knowledge. Increasing numbers of scientists are finding they need to go to Antarctica for answers. As you might expect. A good part of the world's unknown fossil record lies there. Plus undiscovered species that exist in habitats that are unique. Extremophiles in particular.

The largest base on Antarctica, McMurdo, is already a small town, home to about 1,500 people. It has shops, hotels, bars, etc. Most of these are scientists, but it now obviously has a supporting population.

One thing is clear. Life on Antarctica is possible. Permanent habitation on Antarctica is possible.
Only fifty years ago, it wasn't in all seriousness. But it is now.

Many people might ask why anyone WOULD want to live there. The same question, of course has been asked time and time again throughout history. Why would anyone have wanted to go and live in Arizona in the eighteen fifties?
People would. Many people would, given the chance, if they knew there were jobs and homes waiting for them, be happy to move to Antarctica and be the start of new communities.

The main barrier at the moment is of course, existing treaty regulations. Actually utilising the resources of the continent is prohibited. But also establishing governmental structures is kind of impossible, whilst sovereignty over the continent is an issue.
The second problem is easiest. The UN can encourage the countries concerned to all mutually renounce their sovereignty and establish a UN protectorate, such as exists in Bosnia.
The countries established there would continue, as was the case with Bosnia, gradually winding down as the territory was able to grow into a fully fledged state. The territory would move gradually towards full sovereignty over itself, being grown in that direction by the United Nations.

It is how the continent could support itself, would be the issue. Certainly the continent is mineral rich and there is much wealth generally on the continent. Wealth we could not have utilised once, but can now.

The fear of course, is that if we allow people to start USING the continent, then that will be all seven continents buggered up, rather than just six of them.
The thing is, with the other continents we're trying to move down from a position of 100% tolerance. In Antarctica, the starting point is at zero. So it should be far easier to rigidly regulate human activities from the starting point.
It would be genuinely possible to ensure that the methods of production and distribution brought into Antarctica were completely Eco-friendly. It really could be a continent of Eco-towns.

It would be a chance, perhaps, for the 'New' continent to showcase newer, more advanced ways of living, to be a technological trailblazer, as the Americas once were, with their skyscrapers, their ordered gridiron cities, their high speed trains, the way that the Americas once made Europe look old and rusty and archaic.

Maybe Antarctica will do that. A continent of green living folk, whose factories don't pump smoke through chimneys, but where the toxins are carefully syphoned away and processed to return to the atmosphere safely.

Large parts of Antarctica are more than livable. People have proved that. The climate in many parts is fairly similar to that in many cities of the Northern Hemisphere. The continent has already got one highway- from McMurdo to the Pole, it doesn't seem impossible to imagine this continent going through something like the Alaska and Yukon goldrush of 1898.

And it could be quite exciting, for those who take part in it.

I wonder, I really do, if when I'm old and grey my grandson will come back from his year out, a year he spent travelling in Antarctica and bring with him his new girlfriend, a girl he met in McMurdo. A city he loved very much.
A city of tall buildings of glass and concrete, with a wide harbour filled with ships. And his girlfriend will be fascinated to see the green fields of England. And they'll tell me how they used to drive outside the city, drive along the wide roaring carriageways, out to the beaches outside, to watch the march of the penguins.

It is a fact about humans, an amazing fact that where once, just once, a human footprint appears in the ground, in time, human beings will build their homes.


Anonymous said...

The ancients were bound to rivers. Egypt, Sumeria/Babylon, India/Harapah, and China along the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers were not founded in those places by coincidence. Fertile land, fresh drinking water and easy water transport have always been key.

But not any more...

Antarctica may not sound attractive to us in warmer climes, but once people can call a place home--any place--then they will most certainly fill whatever niche that can be made... and then they will push the boundaries outward. I think Antarctica cannot remain an exception to civilization's influence for very long, and certainly, it has plenty of small pockets of that already.

Any place can be easily called home by a person born there. Much like long term space travel. People may find the idea of living the rest of their life on a vessel that will more than likely not reach a suitable destination in their lifetime abhorrent. But to the children born on that vessel, the idea of not living inside an armored would be a strange thought, especially without a true point of reference aside from pictures and video/holograms of home.

Adaptability has been a great asset to us, and should continue to be for a long time yet.

Anonymous said...

Good thoughtful post. Civilisation is about methods/tools that protect us from the raw environment isn't it.

I don't figure its anything to do with actual race, the problems in Africa, except in people's heads maybe... there it often seems to be a problem.

It looks like it's mostly how people think really. There seems to be a very short term view, combined with extreme tribalism. Far too narrow a definition of what “us” is? Plus too much willingness to be mean to others. Maybe like the Balkans only worse?

Look at Zimbabwe. They had a chance at being a wonderful place to live, a guiding light, everything needed for a prosperous and good place to be. What has happened to it?

As for your grandson and his girlfriend. Well first you will need a daughter, or son. For that you need a girl to be their mother.

That may need you to look at a possible lifestyle rethink?

Anonymous said...

Do we have to put buildings on Antarctica? I like the idea of having one last pristine wilderness left on the Earth. It's not about buggering up the environment on the last continent, it's about the inability to leave things alone. I am well aware that technology can make eco-living quite feasible on Antarctica. And you're right about Antarctica not being the last frontier... it shouldn't be. We don't need to conquer it.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Akai. You seem to have little respect for the environmental preservation of the planet. Why would we want to do that, even if the technology is there?

You do realise that the only way that you get to live with central heating, internet, washing machine, clothes dryer, fridge, etc is because there is a large percentage of the world that goes without? I really am not interested in another rebuttal of the joys of communal living. But the fact is, their is simply not enough to go around. And to my mind, that is the most urgent issue to be faced today. Conserve what we have and ensure a fairer distribution.

You know what would be really funny though? You should make a documentary. A traveling road show. And you can go around the world and explain your theories. You know, like you on the Gaza Strip talking to the Palestinians, you in Africa talking to the Masai or the San, in Papua New Guinea talking to the Hill tribes. You might get a little sunburnt but it would be HIlarious. Hahahahahahahah.

I might start a fundraising drive.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't count on life on Venus. It has a massive greenhouse effect where temperatures rarely dip below 600 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmospheric pressure is also much greater than that of Earth's. Any spaceship trying to land on the surface would get crushed like a beer can halfway down. Then, there's a constant acid rain where the molarity of acid solution would just about melt anything we have on Earth in a few seconds.

Anonymous said...

La Femme, You say “You do realise that the only way that you get to live with central heating, internet, washing machine, clothes dryer, fridge, etc is because there is a large percentage of the world that goes without? ….. But the fact is, their is simply not enough to go around. And to my mind, that is the most urgent issue to be faced today. Conserve what we have and ensure a fairer distribution.”

You and Thomas Robert Malthus...

Here I gotta disagree with you in some respects. Much of the problem is the stupid Luddite way we go about things.

The French took the decision to generate their power by nuclear energy decades ago. They built enough power stations to supply their needs and then some.

They are energy self sufficient when it comes to electricity, they even sell it to us. No greenhouse gasses, no one else having to do without. They do not glow in the dark that I notice. Their cheese and bread is still gorgeous.

We could have done that, we could easily be meeting way below our current green emissions targets right now. We didn't, we're not.

Lots of the world is going without cos they are too busy killing each other to be able to farm, or make medicines, or even provide clean drinking water. You can't ensure fairer distribution if the people concerned won't let you and won't produce or are prevented from producing stuff for themselves.

There could be enough to go round, if it were not for people being stupid.

As for the last wilderness on earth... How about the oceans?

Anonymous said...

Well Moggs, the oceans aren't the last untouched environments on the earth. With the amount of fishing, pollution, agricultural run-off it's comes to no surprise that places like the Great Barrier Reef are slowly being destroyed. The melting of the polar icecaps ensures that the fresh-water content of the oceans have been increasing, and salt is essential the the flow of currents which controls the weather on the continents.We haven't identified all the organisms living in the ocean yet, but of the ones we have discovered, we seem to have hunted them close to extinction. Antarctica in comparison, is relatively untouched. Humans visit the place, leave it clean, don't kill seals. And maybe they should leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

I'm just going to answer Eric and X-dell before I add to the little debate going on.

Eric- That's pretty much how I see it, yes. I think as human knowledge and technology develops, the range of possible habitats widely increases. The Unites States and Australia show us that.
Even the advent of the mobile phone changes things. It means nowhere in the world can you really got lost. You look at a film like Castaway, but I wonder, how long before it just wouldn't be possible to be stranded for years on an island?

In fact, funny you should mention the life on a space vessel idea- I refer you to my Life on The Stars set of posts.

X-dell- That's how it is NOW. But we already understand the principles behind terraforming. I suspect Venus can be MADE habitable.Statellites can change the climate and the rest CAN be done, where there's a will there's a way, as we seem to prove again and again.
I'm not saying it will be short term, but I think it will happen.

To just add some comments to the debate;

I would agree with what Moggs says about a lot of the problems being to do with the Luddite approach we adopt to things. And there is nothing very humanitarian about preserving ways of life that are just above the paleolithic. It's actually cruel and inhumane to the unborn.

We actually have the knowledge, the resources and the knowhow to give the whole world OUR standard of living. It's not a resources problem, it's a systems problem.

As regards creatures going extinct, it is a fact of life that the fate of most species that ever exist is to go extinct. With such a vast change in existence such as us, it stands to reason, every other vform of life is threatened. Thing is, we CAN preserve. But we should never forget, that really we preserve because we CAN. We ARE changing the environment, for sure. But by the same token, we can control that. No other species has ever had that ability.

I suspect that within a hundred years THIS planet, will have totally artifically controlled weather.
It'as about adopting POSITIVE answers to the fact we are changing the envorinment- as in, ones which work with the pace of human devlopment, rather than NEGATIVE ones, as in, stop developing.

Because, yes I do believe in bright Tecnotopia of glass, concrete and steel. But I also think we can have some beautiful wide opwn spaces in between.

I don't much want to see us all return to live like the San.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Great ideas. Have you read "Guns, Germs and Steel"?

Anonymous said...

Thank you crushed, I really did enjoy reading this.

Anonymous said...

...I enjoyed it because it made me think and wonder and there was a bit of human history thrown in!

After reading the comments (I always do on here, very interesting mix of people with a brain!!) I agree about it being a damn shame to have Antarctica carved up and over run with cities etc.

Do humans really have to stamp their mark on bloody everything?! It seems we do. :)

Anonymous said...

Akai, I guess you miss my point, I was not suggesting the oceans were untouched, pristine, you have plastic refuse in mid ocean FGS. Oil being pumped out of ships ending up in some of the most "untouched" places on earth.

I was suggesting it could be "the last frontier on Earth".

Living on it, with things like huge artificial islands, off the coast might be a solution to sea level rise, If it floated it could not be inundated. Living under it in undersea habitats/cities. Foamed concrete? Pumice?

Maybe if people had to live in it they might look after it, at least tidy up the litter...

Put enough resources into something in international waters and you could have the seed of a truly new nation, started from scratch. There are some relatively shallow bits of ocean mid atlantic.

I figure the possibilities are huge. Want to try Corporate Feudalism?, Just Ordinary Feudalism? Libertarian ideas? Collective living, Like Kibbutz-on-sea? Something completely new?

Anonymous said...

Moggs: I don't really know enough about nuclear energy to engage in meaningful debate. And I'm not want to debate when I don't know what I'm talking about.

What I would say though, is that I don't have sufficient faith that a Chernobyl could/would occur again, particularly in those countries that are less industrialized and not subject to as stringent regulatory checks. Also, in an age of terrorism the proliferation of arms as a result of expanded nuclear operations would be harder to keep in check. I understand that there are arguments against the points I raise, and I accept that. I guess it is just down to what each person holds to be right in the context of their world view. I have mine, and I accept and respect that others hold theirs.

I understand the point you make about warfare, conflict etc but I think that a lot has happened to get where we are in the world today and I don't think that we in the West can wash our hands clean of it.

Anonymous said...

And I don't really think the San care much what you think either, Crushed.

They, and other indigenous people around the world, have an existence that is deeply tied to the earth and their culture.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting to read anyway, and had no idea McMurdo was that big already. Rather we develope the last continate or not is moot point, it will happen and has already started. Hopefully we can do it in a better way though.

Anonymous said...

La Femme, sounds a bit like you are writing off nuclear energy as just too dangerous to use on the basis that someone might have an accident. I hear the latest research suggests that the threat threat from radiation does not go all the way down. It may not be linear. Maybe even have some benefit at very low levels.

In the end how much damage did Chernobyl actually do? Nature has come back strong there.

Maybe use it as a stop gap and look to develop something better? Maybe fusion. Use the power to shift to hydrogen technology for vehicles and planes, crack hydrogen from seawater.

I certainly would not countenance the technology being loose for the likes of Mugabe. If we had enough capacity we could sell power cheap, just above cost.

The thing is humankind has used technology, even if only tents and bows and arrows, to improve his lot since the dawn of prehistory. I figure changing horses now could result in a die off that would make the black death look like a Sunday outing.