Antarctic expedition: A treatise on climate change and motherhood

Written and produced by Andrea Brody.

“The only thing I could think of as a metaphoric likeness was the wall in Game of Thrones,” says writer Elizabeth Rush. “It was really this massive, incredibly sheer ice wall that our ship ran alongside, [about] 100, 120 feet high.” Graphic courtesy of KCRW’s Gabby Quarante.

There’s no place on our planet more remote than the southern continent of Antarctica. 40% larger than Europe, the Antarctic is a vast polar desert, almost entirely covered by the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and is home to no Indigenous human population.

Stories and legends surround the many explorers who have sailed to the southernmost tip of the earth — some never to return, while others, like Shackleton, Admundson, and Cook, have endured harsh and inhospitable conditions to pave the way for others to follow. Today, the ice-packed landscape of Antarctica remains ground zero for expeditions. Rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns have drawn scientists from across the globe to probe the ice for hidden clues about our past climate systems and to assess the rapidly retreating glaciers

When writer Elizabeth Rush had the “once in a life-time” opportunity to join an Antarctic expedition to the massive and rapidly collapsing Thwaites Glacier, writer Elizabeth Rush saw it as a chance to chronicle a never-before-told story: “We were headed to this place on the planet that literally no one had ever been to before us.” 

“I did 213 interviews while I was on the boat, from the cooks in the kitchen, to the chief scientists, to the folks who were on floating ice floes to tag elephant seals, to the able-bodied sailors who almost all came from the Philippines,” says Rush. 

Rush shares her thoughts that emerged from her voyage in her new book The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth.

“I tried to make the book mirror the kind of deep collaboration I saw taking place on board — a different kind of story around Antarctica,” she says. Rush’s voyage to Antarctica was part of a government mission to document and collect scientific data on the Thwaites Glacier and the impact of the  warming waters beneath the ice. Despite the difficulty of watching the surrounding ice collapse in real time, Rush says she “stood [up] there for hours trying to really witness what was happening all around me. And some part of me had to recognize that I was having a really hard time seeing it. Climate change is happening all around us, but our human body barometers are not particularly well tuned into this moment in our history to perceive that change.”

A central element to Rush’s book is her reflection on her desire to become a mother. The decision to go to Antarctica had directly collided with her plans to have a child. Not only would Rush put that off for a year, but she would have to confront the ethical dilemma of whether it was morally responsible to have a child in the era of climate.

“There's really interesting thought ruts that we have around how to analyze this intersection between regeneration and climate change,” she says. “The more I dug into it, the more I realized that the way I've been taught to think about reproduction and climate change is misleading on a lot of different levels.”

Rush sees rhetoric that labels procreation as part of a personal carbon footprint calculus as flawed. 

“The idea that the future stability idea of civilization, or the place where the child lives, might be in question is not actually a new one for Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas,” she points out. “They've been living through fundamental — deeply catastrophic, at times — environmental change for five centuries.” 

“I was attentive to this other thing that I wanted: The idea that I [would] become a mother,” says author Elizabeth Rush. “I decided to try to write about both in this book and see whether or not I would experience the ice differently because of the desires I carried towards it.”  Photo by Stephanie Ewens Photography.

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  • Elizabeth Rush - Pulitzer Prize finalist; author; assistant professor, Nonfiction Writing Program, Brown University.


Andrea Brody