On Columbus Day, It's Time to Rethink Our 'Manifest Destiny'

jokulsarlon glacial lagoon  ...
jokulsarlon glacial lagoon ...

Today is Columbus Day, celebrating the "discovery of the New World." As this event set off a wave of conquest, environmental devastation, and empire building that continues today, this seems a good time to reflect on this history, and discuss a better way forward for 21st century humanity.

In today's clamor to develop our final frontiers -- the Arctic, the deep sea, and outer space -- it's easy to hear echoes of voices from centuries past calling for the westward expansion of "civilization" as a divinely ordained "Manifest Destiny." The only thing missing is the covered wagons.

The term "Manifest Destiny" was first used by Journalist John Sullivan in 1845 writing that it was: "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us." The phrase captured the expansionist fervor and messianic vision that had been in play for centuries, and was perhaps the first expression of the jingoistic "American exceptionalism" heard in American politics today.

This imperialistic behavior in Homo sapiens had been hard-wired into our genes at the dawn of human evolution, and played out in the competitive replacement of Neanderthals by Cro Magnon 30,000 years ago. At that time, Cro Magnon's behavioral traits -- violence, aggression, competition, greed, and domination -- prevailed. But what may have been adaptive in the upper Paleolithic is clearly not today, as these same traits may be our ultimate undoing.

In response to Columbus' "discovery of the New World," the Pope drew a line down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, ceding everything to the west to Spain, and everything to the east to Portugal, setting off a wave of global conquest and empire building. Over the 20th century, Manifest Destiny imperialism masqueraded as economic "globalization," resulting in globalized resource depletion, cultural homogenization, economic inequality, and a dangerous deterioration of the life support system of our home planet. And Paleolithic imperialism was tragically expressed in WWI, in which 16 million people were killed; WWII, with 72 million killed; and in the Cold War, with the potential to kill everyone and most living organisms on the planet, a threat that remains to this day.

Despite this troubled history, there have been glimmers of hope. Out of the ashes of WWII, the United Nations was born. Although there were pre-existing territorial claims in one of the last untouched regions of the world -- Antarctica -- the U.S. proposed to manage the area as a U.N. Trusteeship, as the "common heritage of mankind." The 1959 Antarctic Treaty reserved the region exclusively for peaceful, non-extractive, scientific purposes, a model for global cooperation. Unfortunately, this goodwill was short-lived as humanity looked toward its next frontiers.

Since the beginnings of the "space race" in the 1960s, there have been many proposals to develop and militarize space, particularly the Moon -- strip mining the lunar surface, mining water (ice) for production of rocket fuel, lunar resorts and golf courses, and even projecting corporate logos on the lunar surface with lasers. Lunar strip mines would be visible from Earth. The Moon Society calls for "large-scale industrialization and private enterprise" on the moon, and permanent moon bases are planned by China, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency. Space development advocates speak of "wealth beyond our wildest Earth-bound dreams," the opportunity to "break the surly bonds of Earth," and claim that "we have the resources to colonize the Milky Way."

Another frontier today is the deep ocean. The vast abyssal plain, covering 60% of Earth surface, is intersected by deep ocean trenches, the longest mountain range on Earth, and rare hydrothermal vent ecosystems. Marine ecologist Fred Grassle says that the deep-sea may rival tropical rainforests in terms of species present, with perhaps 10 million species. Presently, large hydrocarbon reservoirs are being developed in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil, and West Africa. A dozen state/private consortia, interested in mining polymetallic (manganese) nodules, hold seabed exploration leases between Baja and Hawaii and the Indian Ocean. Companies are interested in mining cobalt-rich crusts on Pacific seamounts, and Nautilus Minerals is set to begin the first ever commercial mining of deep-sea hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea.

And we now have the stampede to develop the Arctic, where global carbon emissions have caused a catastrophic loss of Arctic sea ice. Oil and gas projects are underway in Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada, and Alaska, with many more planned. There are projects across the Arctic to mine uranium, coal, diamonds, gold, copper, nickel, zinc, and other minerals. Arctic shipping is steadily increasing as sea ice melts.

Current U.S. Arctic policy, issued in the last week of the Bush administration, is essentially an industrial development manifesto, with only cursory mention of environmental protection. After asserting that "high levels of uncertainty remain concerning the effects of climate change and increased human activity in the Arctic," the policy states that "the United States may exercise its sovereign rights over natural resources such as oil, natural gas, methane hydrates, minerals, and living marine species" on the Arctic seabed. It calls for the U.S. to join the land grab for more continental shelf seabed, to "assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its arctic interests and project sea power throughout the region," and that an Arctic Treaty, similar to that for the Antarctic, is "not appropriate or necessary."

Clearly, there is a better way to govern our last frontiers. The first thing we need is a "timeout." We need a lot more science, and more deliberate thinking about whether this frontier development will help, or hinder, our quest for a sustainable future. We need to rekindle that cooperative spirit with which the Antarctic was protected 50 years ago.

To better manage development in outer space, the United Nations should establish a U.N. Outer Space Environment Commission to oversee all human activity in space, and a specific Environmental Protocol to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

For the deep sea, we need a moratorium on all mineral development, within national and international waters, until we have a better understanding of the risks and impacts; large protected areas of the deep ocean permanently free from any commercial development; and an Independent Environmental Commission to oversee all exploration and development.

For the Arctic, we need an Arctic Treaty (similar to the Antarctic) protecting the region for peaceful, non-extractive purposes, and as the "common heritage of all humankind." All waters outside of current 200-mile jurisdictions of the coastal states should be protected as a global sanctuary, where oil and gas, mineral, and fishery development are prohibited. As well, many sensitive areas within national jurisdictions should be contributed to the Arctic sanctuary. The U.N. should convene an Arctic Council including not just the eight coastal states currently represented, but also Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic and other governments with interests in the Arctic as equal voting members. The Arctic is too important to global climate regulation and biodiversity to leave to the parochial whims of the coastal states or industrialists.

And instead of exploiting the energy and mineral resources in these frontier areas, we can simply increase the efficiency with which we use energy and materials, and switch to sustainable alternatives, thereby eliminating the need to exploit these non-renewable, frontier resources altogether.

Our 21st century challenge is whether we can transcend our aggressive, domineering Paleolithic programming, or not. In approaching our final frontiers, we should carefully consider our motivations, needs, and goals, and make sure we approach these frontiers in a cooperative, sustainable manner, or not at all.