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Underwater imperialism

The results of melting ice caps may terrify the rest of us but for the oil corporations and their client governments there is a silver lining – the opportunity to drill for deposits previously inaccessible below the permafrost. This summer’s Arctic ice cover was the thinnest ever recorded. Researchers say there could be ice-free Arctic summers by 2040.

The result is an obscene rush by countries to secure rights to new fisheries, transport routes, oil, gas and mineral resources which have become accessible as a result. The US Geological Survey estimates that a quarter of the world's unexploited fossil fuels lie in Arctic areas. In a ludicrous stunt in August the Russian government sent two mini-subs and a group of intrepid explorers to plant a rust-proof titanium flag on the seabed 14,000ft below the North Pole to “claim the territory”. Then they released a video claiming to show the event, which turned out to be a scene from the film Titanic!

"This isn't the 15th Century," said Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'”. Yet his government is in dispute with the USA over rights in the North-west Passage. Norway and Russia are in dispute over the Barents Sea. Canada and Denmark are competing for ownership of a small island off Greenland, and Denmark is claiming the North Pole for itself.

Down at the other end of the planet, New Labour is joining this underwater imperialism. It emerged this week that the government is planning to claim sovereign rights over a vast area of seabed off Antarctica. The Foreign Office is preparing a submission to the United Nations covering more than a million square kilometres of seabed around Ascension Island, off the British Antarctic Territory, and around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Britain is actually one of 39 signatories to a 1991 treaty that established Antarctica as a world park, with a 50-year minimum prohibition on mineral exploitation. And Britain is also not beneath a little nationalistic stunt. The British Antarctic Territory, first claimed in 1908 (on what basis it is hard to imagine) is a triangle of land covering 666,000 miles from the south pole. It plans to mark its centenary next year by issuing its own legal tender coin.

Flags, coins – if it wasn’t so dangerous it would be funny as this great little video from Greenpeace shows.

But the terrible reality of the economic system that dominates planet earth is that the melting ice is actually seen as a positive benefit, as a new area for profit making. What we need to do is to save the planet not so much from climate change as the social system that is driving a whole series of inter-related crises. Territorial wars, hunger, species extinction, the destruction of habitats and the lives of indigenous people – the list of threats produced by global capitalism is endless. We need to get shot of them before they get rid of us with their mad cap plans.

Penny Cole
AWTW Environment editor
18 October 2007

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