998: At the Ends of the Earth by Kieran Mulvaney

by Gerard


998: Mulvaney, Kieran. At the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Polar Regions. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001. 245 pp. ISBN 1-55963-908-3.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 990: History of the Pacific Ocean and other parts of the world
  • 998: History of Arctic islands and Antarctica

The bulk of history is told through the lens of important events. The narrative of that history focuses on the decisions and people that lead to those events. But what happens afterward? While modern historiography looks at the effects of the historical events on people after any given event, not much attention is spared when people aren’t affected. Kieran Mulvaney’s At the Ends of the Earth takes a different approach to history. His focus is on the effect of man’s presence on the geography, climate, and landscape of the polar regions. Both Arctic Ocean and Antarctica have been changed by the presence of human explorers and researchers and Mulvaney details the history and extent of that change.

The Arctic Ocean and Antarctica were treated in the past as vast wastelands of ice and tragedy. In the beginning, the only question was could a person get to the North or South Pole. Then exploration led to exploitation. Oil drilling in the Arctic, sea hunting, and tourism have changed the nature of the polar regions. These activities create secondary issues as well. Oil needs to the transported by boats which sometimes fail, and ecosystems are thrown off-balance when species are hunted to near extinction. Mulvaney’s look into the historical and ongoing causes of that change are compelling and rich.

This book is equal parts history and social invective. Mulvaney does not hide the fact that he is alarmed by climate change, political deals to divide natural resources, and folks whose actions can forever change the landscape of the polar regions. The large stores of ice at the poles is a key component of world climate and the more we disturb that, the more we invite systemic changes that are hard to reverse. Mulvaney’s work is eye-opening and well-researched. An interesting read.