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November 22, 2017

Rethinking Manifest Destiny


Paleolithic cave art 50,000 – 20,000 BC

Monday, October 8, is Columbus Day – a day that celebrates Columbus’ “discovery of the New World” in 1492.  As this momentous event set off a wave of conquest, imperialism, cultural and environmental devastation, and empire building that continues today, this seems a good time to reflect on this tragic history, and discuss a better way forward for 21st century humanity. 

In today’s clamor to develop our final frontiers, such as the Arctic, the deep sea, and even 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.”  We all know how that turned out for the Indigenous People and environment of North America.  We also know how this same tragic ideology destroyed much of the biosphere and countless cultures across the world in the 20th century.  And now, we hear the same calls to project this failed development paradigm into our final frontiers – outer space, the deep sea, and the Arctic.  The only thing missing is the covered wagons.

The term “Manifest Destiny” was first used by Journalist John O. Sullivan in 1845 to justify the American claim to the territory of Texas, 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.  With evangelical justification of the otherwise unjustifiable, this pernicious western development paradigm spread across the continent like a wildfire, consuming every environment and culture it met along the way.

This selfish, imperialistic behavior in Homo sapiens was likely hard-wired into our genes at the dawn of human evolution.  It played out in the competitive replacement, even genocide, of Neanderthals committed by Cro Magnon (The Third Chimpanzee).  In the circumstances of 30,000 years ago, it was Cro Magnon’s behavioral traits – violence, aggression, competition, greed, theft, and domination – that prevailed.  But what may have been adaptive behavior in the upper Paleolithic is clearly maladaptive today, as these same traits may be our ultimate undoing.  Perhaps the wrong early human lineage survived.

Paleolithic aggression manifested itself countless times throughout the history of western civilization.  The Roman Empire from 30 BC to 500 AD, with the “Pax Romana” maintained primarily by force and domination.  In response to Columbus’ “discovery” of the “new world” in 1492, 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.   After wars sidelined the Dutch and French, the British Empire spread across the world, dominating global politics until the middle of the last century.

Over the 20th century, Manifest Destiny imperialism masqueraded as economic “globalization,” which further concentrated wealth and power, and resulted in globalized resource depletion, cultural homogenization, economic inequality, and a dangerous deterioration of the life support system of our home planet.  And of course, this Paleolithic aggression and 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.

An Alternative Model – Antarctica

Despite this troubled history and Paleolithic predisposition toward aggression, competition, and domination, there have been notable glimmers of hope.  From WWI the League of Nations was born, and out of the ashes of WWII, the United Nations was born.   Just after WWII, one nation proposed a novel approach to global cooperation in one of the last untouched regions of the world – Antarctica.  Although there were pre-existing territorial claims and strong commercial interests in developing the continent, one nation proposed to manage the area as a U.N. Trusteeship, as the “common heritage of mankind.”  The nation that proposed this novel, cooperative arrangement was the United States of America.

Shortly thereafter, some 50 nations, including former combatants in WWII, joined together to cooperate, rather than compete, in Antarctica.    The 1959 Antarctic Treaty reserves the region exclusively for peaceful, non-extractive, scientific purposes.  All territorial claims are held in abeyance, military use and mineral development is prohibited, and environment is to be protected.  As a result, Antarctica today is the only continent on Earth that remains in a relatively natural condition (except for the impacts of global climate change and organic pollutants from elsewhere).   The Antarctic Treaty provides the first model for global cooperation in protecting a biome for the common good of all humanity – a model for the future.  Unfortunately, this cooperative, goodwill was short-lived as we then looked skyward, toward our next frontier.

Outer Space

Since the beginnings of the “space-race” in the 1960s, there have been many proposals to commercially develop (and militarize) space, particularly the Moon – strip mining the lunar surface for Helium 3 for fusion reactors (yet to be built) on Earth, mining water (ice) from the polar regions for production of hydrogen rocket fuel, lunar resorts and golf courses, using the moon as a missile target range, and even projecting corporate images on the lunar surface with lasers, notably that of Pizza Hut.   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 now 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.”


The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits territorial claims and the militarization of space, requires that outer space “shall be the province of all mankind,” and was signed and ratified by over 100 nations, including the U.S.   But the subsequent 1979 Moon Treaty was not broadly adopted, due specifically to U.S. objections over this very same language, which would have reserved the Moon as the “common heritage of mankind.”   In 2002, some of us proposed that the Moon be designated a U.N. World Heritage Site, free from commercial exploitation.  But because no territorial claims are recognized on the Moon, no state member to the World Heritage Convention could nominate the Moon as such.  In a May 6, 2002 email regarding our proposal, one of the twelve Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon – Edgar Allan Mitchell – wrote the following to us:  “Given the propensity of we humans to lay waste, in the name of progress and defense, to most of the places we visit, I believe your proposal has great merit.  It should be presented, discussed, debated robustly and hopefully, eventually adopted.”


The Deep Sea

Another final frontier for commercial development today is the deep ocean.

The deep sea biome (below 1,000 m depth) covers 60% of Earth surface (30 million km2), and is characterized by low productivity, low physical energy, no sunlight, high biodiversity, and high sensitivity to human disturbance.  The vast abyssal plain is intersected by submarine canyons, deep ocean trenches, the longest mountain range on Earth, thousands of seamounts, and rare hydrothermal vent ecosystems with 7 foot tall tube worms, powered not by the sun, but by chemosynthetic energy.  Deep sea benthic ecologist Fred Grassle has said that “the deep-sea may, in fact, rival tropical rainforests in terms of the numbers of species present.”  Some believe that there could be as many as 10 million species in the deep sea, virtually none of which are currently known to science.

While the deep ocean is the largest and least understood ecological habitat on Earth, industry considers the vast region to represent one of the last, albeit formidable, frontiers for industrial development on Earth.

Presently, large hydrocarbon reservoirs are being developed in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico (where the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred), Brazil, and West Africa.  With the recent increase in global metal prices, a dozen state/private consortia, interested in mining polymetallic (manganese, iron, copper, nickel, etc.) nodules, have been issued seabed mineral exploration leases across the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, an expanse of the deep sea bed between Baja and Hawaii in the equatorial North Pacific, and in the Central Indian Ocean.  Companies have expressed interest in mining cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts on the 30,000 or so seamounts across the Pacific seafloor.  And Nautilus Minerals is set to begin next year the first ever commercial mining of deep-sea hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea, with several other South Pacific nations soon to follow suit.   And there are growing interests in deep sea commercial fishing, waste disposal (dredge spoil, radioactive materials, sewage, CO2, etc.), and methane hydrate extraction.

The UN Law of the Sea Treaty reserves the sea bed outside of national jurisdictions as “the common heritage of mankind” which cannot be appropriated or owned by any nation or private enterprise, requires that economic benefits from deep sea mining be shared, and establishes the International Seabed Authority to manage the international seabed.  But to date, there are insufficient environmental protections in place for this vast, remote, and poorly understood ecological biome.


The Arctic

And we now have the chaotic 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, and soon there may be hundreds of large tankers and freighters sailing across Arctic passages.

The current U.S. Arctic Policy, issued in the last week of the Bush administration and retained by the Obama administration, is essentially an industrial development manifesto, with only cursory mention of environmental and cultural protection.   After asserting that “high levels of uncertainty remain concerning the effects of climate change and increased human activity in the Arctic,” the policy cites “a growing awareness that the Arctic region is both fragile and rich in resources,” and 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, “assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its arctic interests and project sea power throughout the region,” and to “preserve the global mobility of the United States military…throughout the Arctic region.”   It also warns that an Arctic Treaty, similar to that for the Antarctic, is “not appropriate or necessary.”

Other Arctic coastal nations have expressed similar messianic imperatives for the region, including extending existing claims to the Arctic continental shelf beyond their 200 mile zone, as provided under the UN Law of the Sea.


A Better Way to Govern of our Final Frontiers

Clearly, there is a better way to govern these last frontiers.  The first thing we need is a “time-out.”   We need to do a lot more science, and more deliberate thinking about whether developing these frontiers will help, or hinder, our collective 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 (UNOSEC) as a multinational body to oversee all human activity in space.  All scientific research and commercial activity proposed in space should be subject to a rigorous Environmental Impact Statement process prior to approval, which should be the exclusive authority of UNOSEC.  And, a specific Environmental Protocol to the Outer Space Treaty should be negotiated and adopted, including review and enforcement mechanisms, by all treaty members.

For the deep sea, we need a global moratorium on all deep sea mineral development, within national and international waters, until we have a much clearer scientific understanding of the risks and impacts.  And we need large protected areas of the deep ocean set aside, permanently free from any commercial development.  The International Seabed Authority should establish an Independent Environmental Committee to oversee all research and exploration.

And for the Arctic, despite what today’s U.S. Arctic Policy says, the world needs an Arctic Treaty, similar to the Antarctic, protecting the region for peaceful, non-extractive purposes, and as the “common heritage of all humankind.”  At very least, all waters outside of current 200-mile jurisdictions of the Arctic coastal states should be protected as a global sanctuary, where oil and gas, mineral, and fishery development are prohibited.  As well, many environmentally sensitive areas within national jurisdictions should be contributed to the global Arctic sanctuary.  Just last month, the Arctic Committee of the UK House of Commons, and the CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies – Total – called for a moratorium on Arctic offshore oil drilling.   The U.S. Arctic Policy says that “the United States and other governments should consider, as appropriate, new international arrangements” to govern the region.  The U.N. should convene an Arctic Council, which would include not just the eight coastal states currently represented in the Arctic Council, but also Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic and other governments with interests in the Arctic, including the E.U., Japan, China, and India, as equal voting members.  And we need Citizens Advisory Councils for each Arctic nation, to give citizens a legitimate voice.  The Arctic is too important for global climate regulation and biodiversity conservation to leave to the parochial whims of the coastal states or industrialists.

And as for the energy and minerals many seem so desperate to extract from these frontier areas, we have better alternatives.   By increasing at least ten-fold the efficiency with which the global economy uses energy and materials , and transitioning to sustainable alternatives, we can eliminate the need to exploit these non-renewable, frontier resources altogether.

The quintessential 21st century challenge is simply whether humanity can transcend its aggressive, domineering Paleolithic programming, or not.   Rethinking the manner and ideology with which we expand into our final frontiers is fundamental to this challenge.  We should carefully consider our motivations, needs, and goals, and make sure we approach these frontiers as compassionate, altruistic, cooperative people, or not at all.



7 Responses to “Rethinking Manifest Destiny”
  1. mike from iowa says:

    We need all governments involved in protecting resources,the problem is rethuglicans and their korporate masters. Rethugs will not deal with the U.N. unless we can run the place. rethugs don’t believe in science or the environment or climate change or the possibility that resources will expire before every penny of profit is extracted. Hell they refuse to recognize sovereign nation boundaries if there is the hope that Exxons oil resides under foreign sands.Our military is now geared towards protecting desert oil fields,even the vehicles are painted with a desert motif.rethugs surely don’t expect American korporations to be held accountable for environmental disasters. That is for the taxpayers and if rethugs get their way,korporations won’t be paying any taxes. They aren’t in the business of making lives better,they make profits for shareholders-period. If half of America refuses to compromise,how can we expect the world to?

  2. Bob LeResche says:

    Rick, you need to get a life. And don’t neglect your beta-blockers. Don Quixote Steiner tilts not only at Exxon, but now at evolution itself. If we’re “hard wired” into a “pernicious paradigm,” what are we to do? Maybe the wrong early human lineage DID survive, but wasn’t that a while ago?
    I do love reading RS, just as I love Ogden Nash and James Joyce. But they’re all three equally bizarre and un-instructive to common folk like me. Entertaining though.
    I just hope neither Rick nor I live to see the disintegration of the Antarctic Treaty, which given our hard wiring, is inevitable the moment someone drills an “experimental” hole into the wrong geologic structure.

  3. Zyxomma says:

    Thank you, Rick, for another excellent post. Do you know the story of Allen Caggiano and his FIVS (fuel implosion vaporization system)? It reads like a suspense novel, but it’s all true. Allen Caggiano semi-accidentally invented a way for old gas guzzlers (they had carburetors, that’s how far back it was) to get 113 to 145 miles per gallon, with no pollution. I first read about it in Nexus magazine. Some of his story can be found here:

    Much of the story is quite sad. People kept approaching him to buy the patent, or invest in manufacturing. They were all front men for Big Oil or Big Detroit, and all wanted to quash his invention. So few people know of it!

    We know so little of the deep. I’ve seen Blue Planet, the tubeworms at the vents blow my mind. Most people are not even aware that fish feces absorb carbon dioxide. The huge trawlers destroying the bottom exist so McDonalds can sell cheap filet o’fish, or whatever the eff they’re called (I’m vegan, I don’t pay attention to fast food, except for its depredations).

    We can all do our part. We can stop wasting so much. We can carry our own reusable bags when we shop. We can buy our electricity from an electrical services company (ESCO) that uses only renewables (mine is Green Mountain Wind, which reinvests its profits into more windmills). Before them, I used Sterling Planet. I try to walk my talk. I live in a walk-up, use public transit, don’t drive, and eat organic plants, composting whatever gets moldy or rots. Yes, in NYC.

    Thank you for sharing the essence of a cooperative society with us, Rick. It’s much appreciated.

  4. thatcrowwoman says:

    Stunning cave art.

    Many thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Rick.
    Lots to ponder, mull, and explore here,
    and some inspiration for book/art displays in my high school library, also, too.
    *wheels turning*

  5. AKMagpie says:

    Thanks for a great post, Rick. With the number of not only climate change deniers, but also total science deniers on the House Science Committee like Rep Paul Broun (R-GA) and the now infamous Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), I think there is a lot to do before we can expect enlightened support for your positions. Lets hope that education comes to the foreground in essential programs to support here in Alaska and on the national stage. Or else we will soon have windows on all aircraft that can be rolled up and down. Who needs those picky regulation?

  6. mike from iowa says:

    Manifest Destiny was jingoistic-in the mid sixties U.S.History it read-“Our Manifest Destiny it did boast,that we’d expand from Coast to Coast”. I remember that as if it only happened 50 years ago.

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