It's always a contentious topic but important to tackle every now and again. Environmental issues are forever linked with polar travel and so it's not something we can ignore.
There are some facts:
- Contracts/permits are now being issued at an increasing rate for drilling and mining in Arctic territories.
- Humankind requires energy, minerals, metals and other resources.
- Shipping routes are open now in the summer, which previously weren't.
- Conditions on permanent icecaps and in sea ice regions are deteriorating.
- Ice levels fluctuate and sometimes are an increase on the previous year.
- Some estimates of ice loss year on year are vastly exaggerated.
- Headline grabbing claims of ships reaching super-high latitudes are misleading. For example, the 2009 Greenpeace voyage to the Hall Basin in the Nares Strait was due to an anomaly in the ice (ice arches not forming either end of the straits) which has not occurred since.
I have some misgivings about the current relationship between polar travel and environmentalism:
- Green claims are shamelessly used to enhance the worthiness of a proposal for sponsorship.
- Expeditions, even those labelled as responsible and carbon-neutral, are not good for the environment. They burn fuel and use resources.
- Campaigning by polar travellers can lead to bizarre 'saving the world' slogans when their understanding of the science can be non-existent. It can often be more for personal egotism.
So, where do we go from here? I'm a firm believer in the free markets and to a broad extent, capitalism. It fits in well with my understanding of the way the real world and the natural world works. It therefore makes sense that isolated and idealistic attempts to campaign or lobby will ultimately fail in the fight against profits and bottom lines. People, naturally, will tend to be most generous and 'green-minded' when they have spare cash. To that end, in my mind the only way to make serious inroads against any human-caused damage to the global environment is to make it commercially viable and profitable.
Those who control the direction in which large sums of money are invested need to decide that mining minerals and exploiting fossil fuels is not the best way to make more money. Recycling is a good example of this - one of the few success stories. Using existing waste materials, like plastics, to create new products has proved more efficient in the long term than starting from scratch. Until the conceptual and technical leaps are made in other fields, I don't believe anything will change, no matter how much good-intentioned campaigning there is.
I think that the reality is that the vast majority of us want the same thing - a pristine natural environment, a conserved natural world and a prosperous civilised world. What can be harder to take is that the practical way to achieve this might not be by appealing to a person's better nature, but to their wallet. The same end result, but a route which works with human tendencies, not against them.