Felicity Aston: "My life so far has been quite woven up with Antarctica"

Caroline Crampton talks to the polar explorer and climate scientist Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica.

Can you be homesick for a place that is nobody’s home? The polar explorer and climate scientist Felicity Aston is sure that you can. In the same way as you or I might yearn for the house we grew up in or the town where our school was, Aston hankers for the frozen wastes of Antarctica. When she was 23, she got her first “proper job”, as a meteorologist at the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and spent three years working there. It changed her.

More than ten years later, the place still has a powerful hold over her. “You see the good weather, the bad weather; you see it in darkness, in light, in moonlight, in sunshine; you see it on days when you love it and days when you hate it,” she explains. “I know it’s a bit of a cheek to try to call Antarctica your home but it is somewhere that I have just endless fondness for.”

In 2012, Aston became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica – a fact she says she found out only later, when a journalist pointed it out to her. “Firsts are important because they give you the platform . . . But for me, the motivation was not necessarily to stamp a ‘first’ on my forehead. It was all about the journey – my life so far has been quite woven up with Antarctica.”

Sasatrugi, formed by wind erosion, on the Antarctic ice. Felicity's tent can be seen in the background. Photograph: Felicity Aston

As an experienced explorer – she had previously raced to the South Pole and across Arctic Canada – she knew the physical challenges of the expedition. What took her completely by surprise was her emotional reaction to the perpetual solitude out on the ice. She cried – and not just as she watched the plane that had dropped her off disappear over the horizon. She blubbed, sobbed and wailed her way across crevasses, up glaciers and through mountain passes. As someone who had always enjoyed her own company, she was scared by the way she reacted. “At first, I was physically shaking, my heart was going, I was out of breath – and yet I knew I had to get over it somehow.”

Even finding the motivation to leave the tent each morning was an emotionally draining experience. “One minute, I’d just be focusing on making my coffee; the next minute, I’d be bursting into tears and talking to myself, then I’d be angry with myself.”

She wept so much on her journey that when it came to writing about it afterwards she was worried that she sounded like “some kind of hysterical, melodramatic woman” (the only other explorers to make solo journeys across Antarctica are two Norwegian men).

Explorers often give the impression that they are always looking for something more extreme to conquer – a higher peak to scale or a bigger desert to cross. Yet Aston feels satisfied that she has reached her limit.

“I’ve felt a certain amount of freedom since coming back,” she says. “I could keep pushing; I could do something twice as long, or twice as difficult. But for me there would be little point, because I’ve got the answers I wanted.” 

 

Alone in Antarctica by Felicity Aston is out now (Summersdale, £8.99)

 

A sunny evening - Felicity on her solo expedition in 2012. Photo: Felicity Aston

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist