Economics for the people

Against the capitalist creeds of scarcity and self-interest, a plan for humanity’s shared flourishing is finally coming into view
Mousehold Heath (1810) by John Sell Cotman. Drawing on paper. According to the UK Government, between 1604 and 1914 enclosure Bills enacted by Parliament restricted access to formerly open communal land comprising just over a fifth of the total area of England. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Dirk Philipsen
is an economic historian and wellbeing economics advocate who teaches public policy and history at Duke University in North Carolina. He is also a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. His most recent book is The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do About It (2015).

4,500 words
Edited by Sam Haselby

I’ve witnessed massive swarms of fireflies
grace my garden like never before, drawn
to the air cleansed of our arrogant greed,
their glow a flashback to the time before
us, omen of Earth without us, a reminder
we’re never immune to nature. I say this
might be the end we’ve always needed
to begin again …
– From the poem ‘Say This Isn’t the End’ (2020) by Richard Blanco

Abasic truth is once again trying to break through the agony of worldwide pandemic and the enduring inhumanity of racist oppression. Healthcare workers risking their lives for others, mutual aid networks empowering neighbourhoods, farmers delivering food to quarantined customers, mothers forming lines to protect youth from police violence: we’re in this life together. We – young and old, citizen and immigrant – do best when we collaborate. Indeed, our only way to survive is to have each other’s back while safeguarding the resilience and diversity of this planet we call home.

As an insight, it’s not new, or surprising. Anthropologists have long told us that, as a species neither particularly strong nor fast, humans survived because of our unique ability to create and cooperate. ‘All our thriving is mutual’ is how the Indigenous scholar Edgar Villanueva captured the age-old wisdom in his book Decolonizing Wealth (2018). What is new is the extent to which so many civic and corporate leaders – sometimes entire cultures – have lost sight of our most precious collective quality.

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken concept many readers have likely heard under the name ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally predominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons, but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion. Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private variously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.

In preindustrial societies, cooperation represented naked necessity for survival. Yet the realisation that a healthy whole is larger than its parts never stopped informing cultures. It embodies the pillars of Christianity as much as the Islamic Golden Age, the Enlightenment or the New Deal. In the midst of a global depression, the US president Franklin D Roosevelt evoked an ‘industrial covenant’ – a commitment to living wages and a right to work for all. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr gave voice to the broader idea when he said that no one is free until we are all free. On Earth Day 1970, the US senator Edmund Muskie proclaimed that the only society to survive is one that ‘will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, … clean air for some and filth for others’. We should call these ideas what they are – central civilisational insights. Social and economic prosperity depends on the wellbeing of all, not just the few.

Cultures that fundamentally departed from this awareness usually did not, in the long run, fare well, from the Roman Empire to Nazism or Stalinism. Will neoliberal capitalism be next? Rather than acknowledge the endless variety of things that had to be in place to make our individual accomplishments possible, it is grounded in the immature claim that our privileges are ‘earned’, made possible primarily by private initiative.

But what a claim it is: where would we be without the work and care of others? Without the food from the farmer? Without the electricity and housing and roads and healthcare and education and access to information and hundreds of other things provided to us, day in and day out, often for free, and routinely without us knowing what went into their existence? Seeing ourselves as seemingly free-floating individuals, it’s both easy and convenient to indulge in the delusion that ‘I built it. I worked for it. I earned it.’

The painful flipside are the billions of those who, through no fault of their own, drew the short end of the stick. Those who were born in the wrong country, to the wrong parents, in the wrong school district – ‘wrong’ for no other reason than that their skin colour or religion or talents didn’t happen to be favoured. The limited focus on the individual can here be seen as nakedly serving power: if those who have privilege and wealth presumably earned it, so must those who have pain and hardship deserve it.

Old and young, meanwhile, sense the loss of a cultural heritage that transcends the private, a purpose beyond the marketing of self. We likely fear, with good reason, that, in all the self-promotion, we can no longer rely on others to be there for us, to provide us with consistent work, a stable community, a bit of love and kindness. We are scared of climate change, the ultimate consequence of our voracious consumption. We dread loneliness and depression, too much work, the loss of jobs, debt. We sense, and often experience, that everyone looking out for themselves brings out the worst in us – me against you, one tribe against the other. Many experience it simply as a culture in distress.

Standard economic thinking both seeds and feeds the underlying fear by instructing that we’re all in a race to compete for limited resources. Most definitions of mainstream economics are based on some version of Lionel Robbin’s 1932 definition as the ‘efficient allocation of scarce resources’. The answer to scarcity coupled with people’s presumed desire for more is, of course: keep producing stuff. Not surprisingly, the guiding star for success, of both policymakers and economists around the world, is a crude, if convenient metric – GDP – that does nothing but indiscriminately count final output (more stuff), independent of whether it’s good or bad, whether it creates wellbeing or harm, and notwithstanding that its ongoing growth is unsustainable.

It’s circular logic: (1) scarcity makes people have endless needs, so the economy needs to grow; (2) for the economy to grow, people need to have ever more needs. Such thinking dominates the field of economics, and much of contemporary culture: Man (yes, those ideas overwhelmingly come from men) as the endless optimiser of self-interest; people reduced to producers and consumers; all aspects of life that go beyond the mere accumulation of stuff – morality, joy, care – confined to kindergarten, fiction and the occasional ethics course in high school or college. The result is what Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times calls a ‘moral myopia’ threatening to collapse under a mounting pile of stuff.

Dysfunctions such as climate change, racism and inequality are not unrelated and naturally occurring features of life. On the contrary, they are based on the fictions and failures of the ‘private’ that later turned into systems that now govern our lives.

In reality, we collaborate, organise together, show love and solidarity – as the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom documented in her book Governing the Commons (1990) – in the process invariably creating common rules and values that organise communal life. We rely on society, community, family, day-in and day-out. And yet the tragic disconnect between our lived reality (however embattled at times) and the dominant ideology, celebrating ‘the private’ in textbooks, newspapers and Hollywood movies, often eludes us. When large corporations, run by people who preach the gospel of the market and private gain, need the public to bail them out, few in power raise the most obvious question: why do you need public money to bail you out if you are supposed to be pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?

A deeper question might be: why should wealth and privilege – largely built on the free work of nature and the cheap work of labourers – be rescued, when in trouble, by the very people otherwise deemed ‘disposable’?

The particular version of the ‘private as property’ likely has its origins in the Roman empire. It comes with the notion of absolute dominion – denoting one’s right to have full control over one’s property. Initially, such dominion was exercised by the male head of household, over both things and people – or, more precisely, over things, but also over people who, in what was possibly the first legal power grab in the name of the private, came to be defined as things (children, slaves).

When George Floyd was killed on 25 May 2020, it put on global display, once again, that most people – poor, younger, older, Black, Brown, non-male – remain disposable in the regime of private interest. All too often, they are violated in the scarcely disguised name of private property, perpetrated by those tasked to defend it, the police. The mistake of vandals in recent demonstrations, as satirists have pointed out, was that they didn’t loot in the name of private equity firms. Put differently: in order for the law not to put its boot on your neck, your theft has to come at white-collar scale and the sanction of power.

The tragedy of the private, in short, doesn’t come from the private as individual, but from the private as ownership, as control over land, resources and others. To own was always less about protection of the self than it was about exclusion of others. As such, it is a logical violation of the ‘other self’ or, really, other selves. You against me – your gain as my loss.

Over generations, open theft of common heritage became disguised as private property

To illustrate: no single event, short of war, created as much misery in a country like England as when those with access to violence (arms, laws, wealth) privatised and fenced in the land that people needed to stay alive. It came to be known as ‘enclosure of the commons’ but represented a largescale and bloody theft, allowing a tiny percentage of people to exclude the majority from access to a common heritage. The result has since been naturalised and replicated the world over and sanctified in law as ‘the rights of private property’.

No bodies were ever more violated than those brutalised as slaves or serfs, all in the name of profit and – as authors such as Kidada Williams have documented in painstaking detail – sanctified by a vicious regime of private property. Racism, as thinkers from C L R James to Angela Davis to Barbara and Karen Fields remind us, is an essential building block to the system of private capital.

No form of governance, social or economic, has plundered the resources provided by nature as much as private property (though the state ownership of communism came close).

No single circumstance undermines political rights and freedoms today more than poverty – the violent exclusion from essential human rights: access to work, income, vital resources.

The private as dominion over property thus inevitably violates the private as personal integrity and freedom. Humans become objects – my slave, my worker, my child – and are denied access to the essentials of life. Thus deprived of independence, the private reduces the freedom of the majority, all those without access to sufficient capital, to the narrow choices provided by the marketplace in service of private property – they are, in Amartya Sen’s words, effectively denied ‘the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being’.

Over generations, open theft of common heritage became disguised as private property, hiding behind legal contracts and the cold fiction of money as wealth. One gets used to customs, this history suggests, even when they defy rational thought. The original freedom fighters against the enclosure of common land, groups such as ‘the Diggers’, were remarkably less mystified than their modern compatriots: no one is free, they declared in 1649, ‘till the Poor … have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons’. Thomas Jefferson (the freedom fighter, not the slaveholder) would’ve understood the logic – as would’ve Toussaint L’Ouverture or Nelson Mandela.

Legally ‘set free’ to sell their labour power, the landless were instead reduced to a state of abject poverty where they became the unwilling ‘masses’ populating the satanic mills of early industrialisation – freedom as a choice between misery or death.

The excuse for the ruthlessness of the exclusion and exploitation of others in the name of private interest was always the same: the prospect of a better future for all. Today, we should ask: has it succeeded? It is a question far more difficult to answer than modern apologists such as Steven Pinker would have us believe. Yes, by any available measure, capitalism (based on private interest) has generated unprecedented wealth and knowledge.

This explosive creation of wealth, however, came, and continues to come, with a steep, and exponentially rising, price. Powered by fossil fuels, it is both depleting and burning up the planet. Grounded in extraction and exploitation, capitalist progress carries mounting violence and destruction in its wake. The flipside of civilisation, in Walter Benjamin’s words, appears to be ‘a document of barbarism’. Growth, expansion, development – the struggle to conquer scarcity both gave and took in large measure from those who populated our land. Perhaps it’s finally time to recognise the carnage that created the wealth.

At first, modern economies succeeded in providing more calories to a starving patient. Based on this initial success, the economics profession (no doubt based on sophisticated mathematical models) concluded that more calories will forever improve health. Now dealing with a lethally obese patient, our leaders and economic advisors stubbornly resist acknowledging the obvious question: if we continue on an exponentially increasing regimen of calories, won’t we incapacitate, if not kill, the patient – ourselves?

Much has been said about how the incessant race for more, bigger, faster has also led to a crisis of meaning and purpose, what King, Jr called a widening ‘spiritual death’ of living in a ‘thing-oriented’ rather than ‘a person-oriented society’, or what D H Lawrence simply labelled ‘the Mammon of mechanised greed’.

But whether the death is one of spirit or meaning, or the actual death of nature and people, all spring from a common root: the single story of self-interest, and its logical manifestation, the private. ‘We do not have to escape from the Earth,’ as the environmental activist Vandana Shiva exhorts us in Oneness vs the 1% (2019), ‘we have to escape from the illusions that enslave our minds …’

We produce and grow enough for every child, woman and man to have a good and dignified life wherever they live

We live in a different world now. Whatever might have been justified in the past to overcome poverty and scarcity no longer holds sway. Today, we face an entirely different challenge. Not too little, but too much. Not scarcity, but abundance.

In the modern world, more is actually less. Indeed, the costs of economic growth have begun to outpace their benefits, visible in the plunder of the environment and escalating inequality. We no longer need more, but rather better and more fairly distributed, in order to provide prosperity for all. Collectively, we produce and grow enough for every child, woman and man to have a good and dignified life wherever they live. As a world community, we know more and create more than we know how to process. It’s a huge accomplishment. We should celebrate and enjoy it together, rather than remain on the deplorable path of pitting one against the other in the race for ever more, one dying of too much, the other of too little.

And yet, our dominant economic systems continue to follow colonial extraction and brutal exclusion, in the process creating two organically related, existential problems: the perpetuation (and in some cases intensification) of poverty, and the violation of the biophysical limits of our planet. What a tragic irony that, in the early 21st century, higher education’s economics departments worldwide still instruct some of our brightest minds in simplistic economic models about the efficient allocation of scarce resources, rather than in how to sustainably build the good life based on an abundance of knowledge and resources.

To emphasise: chasing the bogeyman of scarcity, we are, by now, in the process of passing some frightening historic thresholds, altering the very makeup of life and creating an unsustainable future for our children and grandchildren. It’s Barbarism 3.0.

I wonder if the real tragedy of the private lies in separating what can function only when together, in the process excluding, individualising, destroying, alienating and, in consequence, undermining the innate creativity and resilience of a necessarily complex system of interaction – between human and human, and between human and nature.

We’re living in the midst of a historic transition. It might be our great fortune that, at this juncture, we still have a choice: to wake up, or continue to muddle along on our current path. If we choose the latter, as most mainstream experts from around the world keep telling us, ‘collapse is very difficult to avoid’.

Certainly, the history of how we got here, and the options of changing course, are immensely complex. Yet the reason why collapse is virtually assured if we continue on our current path is actually quite simple: too much.

The Achilles heel of modern economies is the exponential nature of economic growth. Based on what economists consider a ‘healthy’ growth rate of about 3 per cent, the economy would have to double in output roughly every 23 years. If such growth is difficult to imagine, that’s because it is absurd. Imagine economies such as the United States with 16 times the output in 100 years, 256 times in just 200 years, or 5,000 times in as little as 300 years. There is one diagram in economic theory, writes Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics (2018), that ‘is so dangerous that it is never actually drawn: the long-term path of GDP growth’.

Instead, we should ask, what do we really value? And how do we measure it? When authors write about economies for the common good, or for the wellbeing of all, they highlight a very different set of values than those, based on private property and private gain, that dominate modern economies today – not efficiency but health and resilience; not the bottom line but collective wellbeing. They are founded on the basic moral claim that, as the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy puts it in This Land Is Our Land (2019), ‘the world belongs in principle to all who are born into it’.

Most civilisational traditions agree that everyone brought into this world should have an equal claim to thrive. If we follow those traditions, we must conclude that cultures ‘already parcelled out’ into private property and wealth are morally bankrupt. They value the private over people.

We value what we measure. When we measure the wrong things, the result is perverse

In The Value of Everything (2019), the economist Mariana Mazzucato points to an underlying flaw in thinking: ‘until now, we have confused price with value’. Economists and policymakers have created a system disconnected from the real world that privileges market transactions over our personal and planetary wellbeing. This, too, is standard circular logic: earnings are justified because something was produced that presumably has value; value, in turn, is defined by the amount of earnings.

Here perhaps is the crux of our technocratic era: we value what we measure. When we measure the wrong things, the result is perverse. Today, what matters most to a thriving life is not counted at all in our dominant economic performance indicators. A natural environment that will continue to provide us with fresh air, clean water, rich soil – not counted. Communities that educate and nurture their members – not counted. Forms of governance with a stable degree of accountability – not counted. In the end: our ability to continue life on Earth (what is meant by the word sustainability) – not counted. We have an economic system, reflects Lorenzo Fioramonti in Wellbeing Economy (2017), ‘that sees no value in any human or natural resource unless it is exploited.’ The result is what the medical historian Julie Livingstone calls ‘self-devouring growth’. The triple challenges of climate change, pandemic and systemic racism highlight the deeper systemic defects.

Perhaps it is, then, unrealistic to expect individuals to make smarter choices, when dominant economic reasoning rewards them for moving in the wrong direction. I see this every spring when talented undergraduates face limited choices for their future: corporate law, consulting, finance, highly specialised medicine. Can we build forward on fleecing investors, addicting consumers to ever more products or making a career lying to the public, yet make it virtually impossible for those seeking a sustainable future and balanced life to pay their bills?

The urgency of now might instead require a change in the operating logic, a system that supports the core values that make up all thriving life – health, diversity and resilience. One might call it ‘shared prosperity within biophysical boundaries’ or, as Raworth has it, ‘doughnut economics’.

Whatever we call it, we need an economy focused on shared flourishing, rather than on the chimera that more money will somehow, someday magically get us there. It’s a simple and hard-nosed recognition of reality.

Beyond what is possible, we should ask what we actually want. Perhaps the deepest tragedy of the private is not even the destruction of our home in the name of self-interest, but missing out on history’s greatest opportunity, failing to realise what thinkers of the past could only dream about – a life liberated from want and scarcity. A culture where ‘the love of money as a possession’, in the words of John Maynard Keynes in 1930, ‘will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity.’ A future, as Vandana Shiva aptly summarised it, in which the economy’s ‘currency is not money, [but] life’.

It is a sorrow of the narrow that modern cultures, for the most part, no longer give themselves permission to dream and strive for a better life. Rather than idolise some past greatness or false realism that never was, why not imagine a grown and healthy adult who is no longer prisoner to the regimen of ‘ever more calories’ – a mind liberated from ‘the love of money’ that the sustainability economist Tim Jackson envisioned in Prosperity Without Growth (2009). Yet it could be even more. Prosperity without mental and cultural imprisonment, without the drudgery of wage labour, and the dismal reduction of life to cost-benefit analyses – a life, in the words of the poet Langston Hughes, ‘where greed no longer saps the soul’.

It could be a life as imagined by theorists such as adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy (2017) and the young activists of the International Indigenous Youth Council, the Movement for Black Lives, Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement or the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. People in such groups are imagining life within stable and healthy communities, respectful of difference. They envision regenerative and carbon-free economies, communities that offer meaningful work to everyone who wants it. They have drafted sophisticated policy proposals (see links above), and authored detailed accounts of a possible wellbeing economy. They are fighting for what the legal scholar Amna A Akbar in The New York Times called a governance system ‘whose primary allegiance is to people’s needs instead of profit’. In short, by finding our personal and collective sovereignty, we could, in solidarity with each other, build a thriving society for the common good, not just for the select few.

Given our current global situation, the temptation is to dismiss all such thinking as idealistic and naive. And yet, if you pay close attention, signs of life are cracking through the edifice of the old everywhere. As the social theorist Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, ‘there is always choice, and power to act, no matter how bleak the situation may be.’

Yes, a sustainable wellbeing future will make obsolete many skills and professions

German millennials have called out their elders with the missive Ihr habt keinen Plan (2019), or ‘You Don’t Have a Plan’, and then set out to construct a vision that holds promise for future generations. The public intellectual Rutger Bregman asks us to finally stop defending the indefensible. His book Utopia for Realists (2017) is grounded in a profound realisation: many utopias are more realistic than current reality, no matter how much the latter is defended as the only option by those with suits, impressive university degrees and big bank accounts.

We need to have a broad democratic dialogue on the mix of policies that might work best in promoting the common good, in overcoming the tragedy of the private. A new freedom will have to nestle within the realities of nature and the rights of others. Limits will be rediscovered as essential to freedom. This will require difficult transitions – away from fossil fuel or the mass-produced consumption of meat or the acceptance of rampant inequality. Yes, a sustainable wellbeing future will make obsolete many skills and professions, likely eliminating more jobs than it replaces, opening up opportunities for shorter working weeks for everyone. Among the many possible paths forward, the following core features will be essential:

local, national and international regulations preventing the violation of critical ecological thresholds;
repair of the most egregious market failures through true-cost accounting, properly valuing essential work(ers), ending the privatisation of gains and socialisation of costs, and compensating for essential ecosystem services and the care economy (a full-cost accounting of gasoline, for instance, could raise the price to $16 a gallon);
making available basic services and basic income to everyone (we could call it a ‘self-evident truth that all Earthlings have an unalienable right to the preconditions of life, liberty and happiness’);
access to work for all, for everyone deserves the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution;
a basic moral recognition that nothing – not race, not nation, not gender, not personal contributions, not your zip code – should ever be legitimate cause for either extreme poverty or excessive wealth;
and, most fundamentally, a basic acknowledgement that we don’t own or control this planet, but simply borrow it ‘from the seventh generation’ – those coming after us. The principle should always be, as many learned in kindergarten: ‘Leave it as good as, or better than, you found it.’
Yes, it is time to rewrite the script. A climate in deep crisis, a global pandemic, systemic racism and inequality are all part and parcel of the same bad script, the tragedy of the private, aggravated by an elite inability (or unwillingness?) to contemplate a better future.

Even though narrow selfishness, when elevated into ideologies in service of the private, has repeatedly brought the world to the brink of disaster, we have thus far survived largely because of our underlying ability to cooperate. It is now time to make our exceptional human capacity to create and cooperate part of our governance structures – part of the operating logic of modern societies. Perhaps then we can bring to life what others could only envision: a system focused on wellbeing of people and planet, liberating our individual and collective capabilities.


Give us back the dark — I can’t believe it!

I am about 8 years old. We are walking through the partly built-up area between North Hykeham village and the edge of Lincoln. It is pitch dark, apart from regular pools of light beneath the gas-powered street lamps. I am astounded and inspired by the beauty of the heavens, as my dad points out some […]

Give us back the dark — I can’t believe it!

The philosophy of the doormat

Posted on  by maylynno

It is peculiar to put the words philosophy and doormat in one sentence. But the truth of a doormat goes deeper to what meets the eye.
A doormat is a mat placed in a doorway, on which people can wipe their shoes on entering a building. They wipe their shoes from dust, mud and bacteria or viruses brought back from the outside. A doormat is then a cleaning mat; that’s the superficial way to understand what it is. However, a doormat is way beyond its wiping function.
A doormat is the separation between the inside and the outside, the private and the public. At the start, the public meant nature where people used to work or spend their days. If we praise nature now, it was not the case longtime ago. Back then and still to this day, nature was synonymous to dirt, dust and dangerous creatures. Residents in houses with gardens know exactly that definition, a doormat in every doorway, daily swiping the floor from sand and dead leaves, tracking insects and spraying pesticides. The same goes for all the daily hygiene because the idea of nature is dirt. Deodorant smells better than natural body odor.
Humans built culture as opposed to nature. They built a world that stands between nature and them, a world that is a mirror to humans. A doormat separates culture from nature.

The Greening of Antarctica

Few have witnessed the impact of global warming more closely than this scientist.

f Antarctica had a voice, it would be Jim McClintock. The marine biologist has been narrating the story of the changing continent for the past 30 years. A professor at the University of Alabama, McClintock studies the tiny marine invertebrates and crustaceans in the oceans around Antarctica. This research has taken him to Antarctica since the 1980s, when he first showed that Antarctic marine life has developed its own unique chemical defenses, some of which have medical applications in fighting AIDS, cancer, MRSA, and other human diseases.

McClintock has followed his far-reaching curiosity into marine ecology, climate change, and biomedical research. The small, strange creatures he studies—corals, sea sponges, sea butterflies, and other animals that form the basis of Antarctic ecosystems—are especially vulnerable to rising water temperatures and acidification as the Southern Ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. McClintock has seen firsthand the impact of climate change on the oceans, glaciers, and marine life, a story he tells in his book Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land. He has taken his storytelling approach all over the country, meeting with faith groups, campaigning for conservation organizations, and leading educational cruises to Antarctica for over a decade. Harrison Ford was so taken with McClintock’s book that he recorded a reading with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.

THE ANTARCTICA WHISPERER: Says marine biologist Jim McClintock: “What I’ve noticed is that the surface of the glacier has changed. The ice is crustier. And the thing that really struck me is: I began to hear it. To me, that running water is part of the climate change story.”Courtesy of Jim McClintock

During a phone call from our respective home offices, McClintock shared his experiences of watching Antarctica transform—and turn green. He is especially familiar with the West Antarctic Peninsula, the northern-most tip of Antarctica that is one of the most rapidly warming places in the world, and is often seen as a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change. McClintock has done research on icebreaker ships, as a scuba diver, and at Palmer Station, along with leading cruises along the coast.

Palmer Station, the northernmost of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s three research stations, is located on Anvers Island along the peninsula that stretches up toward South America. It is home to the Palmer Station Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, where McClintock’s colleagues have continuously studied changes in the surrounding ecosystem since 1990. The LTER program is critical to understanding changes occurring in the region, the impact on wildlife, and what we can expect to see in the future. McClintock speaks of his time along the peninsula with exuberance: he shares his mentor E.O. Wilson’s infectious generosity and passion for his work—and for the fragile world of Antarctica.

When you hear the term “the greening of Antarctica,” what comes to mind for you?

Wearing less clothing when you go outside! I think in the big picture it’s another term in the West Antarctic Peninsula to describe climate change and warming.

What kind of “greening” have you noticed in your 20 years traveling around the peninsula?

When I lead climate change cruises, we go up to the Antarctic Sound at the tip of the peninsula, and then turn around and sail back through Shetland Islands, working our way down to Palmer Station. The moss in some of these places is taking over. It’s just amazing. In the places that we’ve stopped and gone to shore over the last 11 or 12 years—gosh, some of them have really greened up. You’ll see a big rockface, and it has gone from a light covering of green moss, to this dense emerald green. And people on the cruise say: “Wow, look at that! Are we in Antarctica?”

Ocean acidification is happening now. You don’t have to wait for your grandkids.

I suppose given all the ice and marine life there, the “greening” of Antarctica isn’t always visibly green. What other sorts of large-scale changes have you been seeing?

There’s this massive glacier right behind Palmer Station on the peninsula that’s always on everyone’s mind: Marr Glacier. When I first got down there 20 years ago, Marr Glacier would calve a big chunk of ice into the bay next to the station maybe once a week. And it was a big deal. I remember people actually pushing past each other to get down the hall to look out into the bay, to watch the waves from a big calving. But now—say in the last 10 years—the glacier is going crazy. This last time I was down there in early 2020, it was calving three, four, sometimes five or six times a day. I’d say bigger chunks are coming off, too. And the behavior of people there has changed—they don’t really react. It’s just a constant backdrop. Everybody’s aware that it’s changed. It’s indicative of the 80 percent of the glaciers on the West Antarctic Peninsula that are receding. That’s the biggest physical factor that has struck me over 20 years at Palmer.

What do researchers believe is causing West Antarctic glaciers to become unstable and break apart like that?

It’s due to a combination of sea water temperature and air temperature warming. There’s also more rainfall than there used to be, which affects the glacial conditions. Midwinter air temperatures have increased about 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 or so years. This past year, just north of Palmer Station there was a record air temperature in the 60s Fahrenheit! As a result, you see a lot more crevassing in the glacier, so you see these big crack lines coming down the glacier, and the big chunks break off where the cracks are.

There’s something else about the glacier too. At Palmer, one of the things you do to get away is go for a hike. That’s really important, because you’re stuck in this little station and there aren’t a lot of places to go. So inevitably, every season, everybody hikes up to the top of Marr Glacier, at least once a month, sometimes every week. What I’ve noticed—particularly in the last five to 10 years—is that the surface of the glacier has changed. The ice is crustier. And the thing that really struck me is: I began to hear it. I began to hear channels of water trickling from the meltwater underneath the surface of crusty ice. You could hear running water. I thought: “I should come up with a microphone and record it!” To me, that running water is part of the climate change story.

How have the changes in Antarctica affected you?

When you live somewhere and see, year to year, if not month to month, changes in the environment around you, it’s revolutionary. It just blew my socks off. As I came back each year to Palmer Station, the glacier had noticeably retreated. Penguins are disappearing around the peninsula. I personally witnessed climate change. I wasn’t a climate change scientist. I was a marine biologist who was living and working in a place surrounded by change.

How important is Antarctica in the climate change story?

Polar environments are the barometers of change because a small increase in temperature can have a huge impact on the ecosystems in the ice. I think the fact that Antarctica is one of the first and foremost regions of the world—along with the Arctic—to be impacted makes it especially important, because it tells us what’s coming elsewhere.

I give a lecture called “From Penguins to Plankton: Dramatic Impacts of Climate Change in Antarctica.” After I’ve spoken about Antarctica, I show how Antarctica affects the place I happen to be lecturing—whether I’m in New York or Alabama. I’ll say: “How is it affecting us here at home?” If you look at the Circumpolar Current that goes around Antarctica, for instance, it’s the biggest ocean current on our planet. And it heads north and splits into the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the northern hemisphere. This means Antarctica has a huge impact on the climate of the rest of the world—a lot of people don’t realize that. And then of course the melting of the ice is affecting sea levels here on the coast of Alabama. Antarctica might be far from us, but it’s very much a part of our world—in some ways almost like a critical organ.

We’ve got a resource to cure human diseases that we’re going to squander because of climate change.

What does your own research on ocean acidification and marine invertebrates tell us about Antarctica?

Well, one thing we noticed this year, which I had never really seen before, is the huge number of salps. Salps are these gelatinous organisms that float around in the water. They can be solitary or colonial, traveling in chains. They look kind of like jellyfish. This last season when I was down there in February and March, I was helping on a research dive, and I looked down in the water and just saw chains of salps going by everywhere. But this has been one of the predictions: that salps are going to move down the peninsula and dominate the ecosystem. The downside of salps is that they are little tiny feeding machines. They eat everything. And where the salps are getting really abundant, the krill aren’t as common, and the food web is slipping from this krill-based state to salp-based. But salps are like lettuce, their nutritional value is extremely low.

Does that mean fewer large predators like penguins and seals can survive in a salp-based ecosystem?

Exactly. I’ve been peering into this water for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. And the divers came up, saying “Wow, that was a salp dive!”

Salps aren’t really green, I guess.

No, not so much greening as jellyizing.

Along with jellyizing, how do you see wildlife changing along the peninsula?

The biggest wildlife factor that I became deeply aware of when I first got to Palmer is ecologist Bill Fraser’s penguins, the Adèlies. They’re out on these little islands in front of the station. Twenty years ago there were significantly more than there are now. There were 16,000 breeding pairs when Bill first went down there in 1974. Every year Bill’s team does counts, and I go by the birding hut and ask, “What are you at this year?” The last count I heard was 1,100. So 90 percent of them are gone. In my book I call them “Ghost Rookeries”—there are so many empty rookeries. It’s hard to believe that they may be gone eventually. Bill thinks they will be, at least from the West Antarctic peninsula.

This reminds me of something I heard: Antarctica’s “greening” is making it a less uniquely polar environment, and more like an “ecological world suburb”—more temperate, more like the rest of the world.

Increasingly the peninsula has a warmer, humid, more sub-Antarctic climate. And you’re finding species moving in that wouldn’t have survived in a traditional polar climate. A case in point would be the Gentoo penguins and Chinstrap penguins. They’re warmer-weather penguins that are extending their range down the peninsula as it’s warming. Meanwhile the Adèlies, which are more specifically polar penguins, are disappearing.

I don’t believe anybody can go to Antarctica and come back the same person.

Is there anything that can be done to slow the greening? How do you envision the West Antarctic Peninsula looking in 50 to 100 years?

Rising ocean temperature and rising ocean acidification are both significant challenges to Antarctic marine life. They’re happening now. You don’t have to wait for your grandkids. You can go to the Southern Ocean today and pick up a little shelled sea butterfly in your hand and you can see that the shell is dissolving—there’s actually etching on the aragonite that forms the shell. It’s urgent, it’s happening. People have asked me, “What can we do about the poor Adèlies?” The answer is we’d have to do something about burning fossil fuels. That’s the bottom line. You can’t separate Antarctica from the bigger picture of what carbon dioxide is doing to the Earth’s atmosphere. We can slow the trajectory if we get to business, move to an economy based on renewable energy. But when I envision the peninsula in 50 years, we’re looking at very little sea ice and less krill offshore. Some species are better able to cope than others. The Gentoo penguins will be doing great, and the Adèlies will largely be gone.

In your biomedical research, you’ve argued that these ecosystem changes will affect humans more directly, right?

At Palmer, I work with a chemist named Bill Baker, who studies marine chemical ecology. He and I extract chemicals from Antarctic sponges and soft corals to look for potential cures to human diseases. We have found chemicals in Antarctic sponges and tunicates and some algae, that have garnered attention as potential drugs. One of them is a tunicate that has a compound that is active against melanoma skin cancer, another is a compound in an Antarctic sponge that’s active against MRSA—the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that everybody dreads getting in the hospital because it’s antibiotic-resistant. That’s caused quite a bit of interest because the compound we found is the first chemical to penetrate a biofilm. You can imagine a surgeon putting in a knee replacement, and the replacement gets a film of mucus and proteins and different things growing on it; the MRSA can hide underneath it like a blanket, and drugs can’t reach it. This compound from an Antarctic sponge was the first chemical that had activity against MRSA under a biofilm. My point is: This is an ancient seafloor community that’s been isolated a long time. It’s got fairly high species diversity, and we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential medicinal value to humankind. We’ve got a resource for the future of humankind that we’re potentially going to squander because of climate change.

What do you say to folks who want to go down to Antarctica but are worried about contributing to the damage?

Cruises to Antarctica are definitely an environmental issue. I’m concerned about the carbon footprint of cruises, I’m concerned about people dropping litter, I’m concerned about people getting too close to the wildlife. I’m concerned about the fact that Antarctica is a growing tourist industry. I try to push things like carbon offsets for the cruise industry, or getting rid of two-cycle engines for the Zodiac boats, and replacing them with cleaner and quieter four-cycle engines. And I do get asked by people, “Is it worth it? Should we be going down to Antarctica as tourists?” It’s difficult. But after 13 years of leading cruises, I’ve seen the impact on these guests who witness climate change—who become ambassadors for Antarctica after visiting this amazing place. I honestly believe it changes you. I don’t believe anybody can go to Antarctica and come back the same person. I don’t say that lightly. Antarctica is in its own right a spiritual kind of experience.

Marissa Grunes is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, where she is at work on a book about Antarctica.

Lead image: Oleksandr Umanskyi / Shutterstock