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Why are we so opposed to mining in the Antarctic?

By Roger Chao - posted Wednesday, 30 November 2011

When choosing between mining in the Antarctic wilderness, and in an already logged area in the Tasmanian wilderness, the intuition of some people seems to be one of disgust towards mining in Antarctica; destroying its pristine, and untouched environment –an area of purity and wilderness, compared to an already, logged and anthropocised area in Tasmanian Wilderness. However, in some cases these intuitions can be misguided in their assessment of why and what we value these areas for.

For all intents and purposes, I will be taking the "Antarctic" wilderness, to be somewhere in the middle of the continent (away from seals and penguin etc) a vast expanse of ice, with no plant, animals, viruses, organisms, or any other life forms on it at all, a desolate and uninhabited wasteland. Thus, any mining that is done in the Antarctic wilderness, does not harm anyone or anything there, as there is nothing there to be harmed.

The already logged area in the Tasmanian wilderness however, is still full of animals, plants, organisms, life forms with cognitive abilities, and life forms able to experience pain and sensation. This is the major difference between the Antarctic wilderness and Tasmanian wilderness. There is no life in the Antarctic wilderness, but the Tasmanian wilderness is full of life. Mining in the Tasmanian wilderness region will cause destruction to food sources, habitats and many other elements that are of importance to these life forms.


With no one being harmed in the Antarctic wilderness itself, the only other possible way in which something could be "harmed" by mining in the Antarctic wilderness, is if they were something which lived somewhere else(another country perhaps), but was still harmed by the mining that was happening in Antarctica. This harming, cannot be any physical pain (as there is nothing with a physical connection to the Antarctic wilderness which lives elsewhere), but rather of emotional distress, perhaps of the knowledge of the "destruction" occurring in Antarctica. This distress will not affect any animals (since they have no knowledge that mining is occurring there) and thus will only affect humans beings.

However if we turn back to the case of mining in the Tasmanian wilderness, on top of the physical and emotional harm directly caused to the animals and inhabitants of the area(through loss of habitat and food for example), there too will be emotional distress caused upon human beings from the knowledge of mining(and its destruction) occurring there.

Now I'm sure most people will agree that any emotional distress caused by the knowledge of mining occurring in Antarctica is far outweighed by the physical distress, loss of life and limb, starvation, loss of relatives and other effects of mining in Tasmanian wilderness. On top of that, emotional distress is also experienced by human beings in relation to mining occurring in Tasmanian wilderness. Thus, more harm will be done by mining in Tasmanian wilderness than in the Antarctic wilderness.

For some people, it seems that they value the Antarctic wilderness not because of any life forms that exist there, as there are none, but more for its aesthetic value, like a piece of art. However, I'm sure that the loss of a painting is nowhere near as great as the loss of life of a great number of animals. Our value of the Antarctic wilderness is a social construction, an emotional construction, the knowledge of this "untouched" piece of art existing is what we value in it. We value Antarctica because it is a pure untouched wilderness area, it doesn't have value until we give it value, and that value comes from the emotional satisfaction derived from the knowledge of the existence of this unspoilt wilderness area, and nothing else. Thus, some people's intuitions are outraged at the thought of destruction of this aesthetic value. However, which is more valuable, the aesthetic value of a piece of art, or the lives of many animals?

The Antarctic wilderness is only of value because we give it value like any other piece of art. It has no value beyond the value we give it. For us to say that it is more important than the lives of other animals is one of selfish egoism, placing our personally socially constructed valuation of a piece of art above the lives of other beings. To claim that the Antarctic wilderness is more valuable than the Tasmanian wilderness is speciesist, as it puts the pleasure humans get out of a piece of art above the lives of animals.

Thus perhaps mining(for resources perhaps) in other regions (polar regions etc) without sentient life forms should not be frowned upon as much as people have traditionally thought, and that if there is such uproar about mining in these areas, that there should be even more uproar about mining in areas with a greater number of sentient creatures living there.

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About the Author

Roger Chao is a social and policy researcher, managing numerous Government, NGO, and University research projects. In his spare time he also works as an independent scholar, publishing in and reviewing for journals in the field of applied ethics, political philosophy and moral theory. His extensive travels around the world and passion for the outdoors have provided impetus for much of his research.

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