The Antarctic Treaty System – which came into force in 1959 – has relatively little to say about sewage. It states only that (to paraphrase): effluent from any Antarctic research station with 30 or more occupants must be macerated before disposal, and discharged at sea in a location in which it is likely to be rapidly dispersed.
However, following the Madrid Protocol of 1991, many Antarctic research stations – beginning with New Zealand’s Scott Base, and the USA’s McMurdo Station – have built sophisticated sewage treatment facilities, and have in other ways as well vastly expanded their infrastructures and procedures for storing, managing, and disposing of, human waste.
Based on ethnographic fieldwork on the continent during the summer research season of 2016-17, this talk discusses that the development of these new sewage regimes – and of the wider discard regimes of which they are part – can be read as an expansionary form of biopower – as yet another example of the ways in which Antarctica’s technocratic-managerial elites use increasing regulation as a means for governing the bodies of all those who live and work on the continent.
However, to stop there would be to miss the ways in which these new infrastructures of sewage are also living systems, in which the products of human bodies are brought into relationship with all manner of microorganisms, and with Antarctic ecosystems, in ways that – as with all forms of life – are inherently unstable. In so doing, they also engender a domain in which possible future interactions among people, fauna and environments can be not only imagined, but can be actively experimented upon through all kinds of scientific research.
Dr Richard Vokes
Associate Professor in Anthropology
Richard Vokes is Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Western Australia. He has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Antarctica since 2016, on the science studies of climate change. This research is funded by the Australian Research Council, and has been also supported by Antarctica New Zealand.