Antarctic Peninsula

Photo credits: Antarctic Peninsula

Abundance and Scarcity: Our Antarctic Journey

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In the museum at Grytviken is a photograph of a single flenser with a knife nearly twice his height, a man who flensed six thousand whales. Grytviken was one of seven whaling stations in South Georgia, a stop on our journey across the Southern Ocean to Antarctica. The stations are silent testimony to the slaughter of twenty million whales that were hunted, dragged on shore and hacked to pieces to feed the growing industrial economy. Their outer layer of blubber was flensed away to make oil that lubricated machinery and filled lamps. The whales, people said, were so plentiful they filled the bays.

We left the museum and walked among the machine cemetery of the station, then up to Shackleton’s grave. A perfect and horizontal rainbow crossed mouth of the bay, angry fur seals objected to our passing and the cold wind blew as it has done for millennia. It is hard to think of the destruction that occurred here. It is a horror to us now because we have evolved. We are learning to hold each other and our businesses accountable for such acts. Now the Antarctic Treaty protects the whales with only one dissenting nation, and the whaling stations of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands are abandoned. Further south the stations are full of scientists and tourists.

south georgia whaling station
The South Georgia whaling station

As I write this, Al Gore is on the same ship we were on for our trip. Climate scientists are telling the story of climate change and our role in altering the beat of the planet’s heart, as some think of the Antarctic. A unifying narrative of the global economy has emerged: our impact on the environment. Clean industry, renewable energy, sustainable food production, low-impact living, recyclable products and carbon footprints dominate our discourse. These ideas get at our relationship with the land and its biosphere. These conversations are as ancient as humanity itself. Why did our ancestors start religions, if not to understand how we can live together, on the earth and in harmony with all living things?

The sense of abundance that defined the consumer age is being challenged by a narrative of scarcity. In such a story things become precious, worth holding onto, saving, sharing, enjoying and appreciating. You can see it in the way we want to treat the Antarctic as well as the way we want to cherish the things we have at home. Listen to the conversation in the neighborhood coffee shop, watch the careful pouring of your coffee, made from home roasted beans, by the independent barista and appreciate her care. Visit one of the thousands of community bicycle centers around America. Smell a real tomato from an urban farm, farmer’s market or CSA (community supported agriculture), connecting city dwellers to the people who grow their food. Learn how successful the sea shepherd organization can be at fighting illegal whaling.

When you see the blue ice of the Antarctic you are seeing the compaction of 30,000 years. It is a stark reminder that our presence here is temporary. It is a reminder that we should leave this earth better than we found it—an excellent philosophy for any business, one that will come to define the accountability of businesses in the eyes of the world.