I recently came across this series of YouTube videos of TEDx talks on the Antarctic Peninsula, filmed at Paradise Bay in March 2012. TED talks are events where speakers talk about ‘ideas worth spreading’, originally relating to Technology, Entertainment and Design, and this talk was no different: the 11 speakers addressed topics such as renewable energy, geoscience in the Antarctic, and the role of education in putting Antarctica on the radar for the children who will be out future. None of these topics are particularly revolutionary, but the location of the talks was certainly unique: a lecture series in Antarctica is both memorable for the participants, and makes for a good news story.
But what does this tell us about the way Antarctica is being viewed?
Many people will be quick to point out that running the recording system on solar power was but a drop in the water compared to the energy used to get the ship to Antarctica in the first place. That is true. So if this group of people from all over the world were really concerned about the future of our planet, and with protecting ‘the last great wilderness’, why did they head for the Ice in the first place? The answer lies in the last sentence – because Antarctica is seen by many as being ‘the last great wilderness’, it has massive symbolic value.
Calving icebergs and pictures of forlorn looking penguins (and, in the Arctic, Polar Bears) have become the visual face of the issue of climate change. By heading to the Antarctic Peninsula, this group put themselves on the front line of our changing world. This action highlights the detrimental effects of human activity, but the group harness the link between humans and change in order to promote the positive idea that people can make a difference. Antarctica is an ideal backdrop as it serves multiple functions: the speakers want to stop climate change, for which Antarctica is a symbol; the ‘untouched purity’ trope is referred to in the opening address where we are implored to leave one place on earth as it is; and in this instance the continent also stands for international cooperation, as it is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System.
So ideas about climate change, wilderness and cooperation are all neatly bundled into one location, setting the stage for the talks that follow. All of these ideas come through in the talks themselves, where heroes, those other mythmakers of the South, also get a look in via a banjo performance that references Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.
Do such themes jar with the actual surroundings? Sure. The international make up of the group might mirror those around the table at Antarctic Treaty meetings, but a wilderness is a wilderness by virtue of its lack of people, and charting a vessel to head South comes with a hefty environmental footprint. Our interactions with icy regions are shot through with contradictions – just look at the car adverts in Judith Williamson’s lecture on the imagery of ice.
Our relationship with Antarctica is also contradictory in many ways, as highlighted by the mere existence of the TEDx Antarctic series. Will the participants and the 1616 others who have viewed the talks on YouTube take heed of the messages shared back in 2012? A follow up expedition is planned for the coming summer, complete with icebergs, wilderness, and icy rhetoric about changing the world delivered in a pre-made cultural setting. Antarctica, taking on the Best Supporting Set role, once again.