Other than the handful of humans dwelling in research stations, Antarctica is inhabited almost exclusively by penguins, and the nearby waters are rich in whales, krill, seals and similar sea-based life. The continent does not have any (discovered) native warm-blooded mammals. It is a cold, wind-swept and desolate place which promises no riches or good life. Why bother discussing it?
Startup societies, though we may often forget it, are not merely profit-seeking businesses, however much we may like to stress the free market of governance. Fundamentally, startup societies are about the frontier spirit - building, exploring, experiencing and creating something worthwhile. The same philosophy brought steely-eyed men and women to the harsh and unforgiving areas of the American Rocky Mountains in the 17th century.
The frontier philosophy (or frontier spirit) is what keeps propelling humankind forward. Technology, business, art and engineering must all be constantly set upon by gadflies to prevent stagnation and eventual failure. Pioneers and frontiersmen are among us every day: In the fields of IT, financial technology and endless other pursuits. This is well and good, but we must not forget the true pioneers - the ones exploring the world around us. Even though the world is charted and measured to near perfection, so much remains undiscovered.
We thus turn our sights to one of the greatest mysteries remaining on this planet (barring the sea floor, more on that some other time) - which is the southern land of Antarctica...Terra Australis.
What is Antarctica and who owns it?
Antarctica is the world's southernmost continent - also the highest, driest and coldest. The continent's 5.5 million square miles are populated by just over 4,000 people in the summer month, which dwindles down to 1,000 in winter. Most of these people are scientific researchers, but student excursions and tourist visits are also arranged from time to time. Night and day cycles are different to what most people are used to - south of the 60th parallel, winter means night and summer means daytime - both lasting for 6 months.
Antarctica's territory is divided amongst several nations: The United Kingdom, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, France and Norway all have the right to use their respective territories for scientific research and other peaceful purposes, but are not allowed to exercise territorial sovereignty over the borders.
This was decided by the Antarctic Treaty System, which entered into force in the early 1960s. If the reader pays attention to the map displayed above, they will notice that there is an unclaimed territory between those claimed by New Zealand and Chile. Earlier in the previous century, it was claimed by the US in the years 1968-1972 by a US Navy research operation called "Deep Freeze". Today, however, there remain several "mothballed" (Abandoned, but kept in good repair) stations in this zone utilized in the summer months, built by Russia and the US.
This is a rather interesting area, as few other places on Earth are unclaimed. There is, effectively, over 620 thousand unclaimed square miles of land in Mary Byrd Land, and we believe that the contention for the territory may become somewhat of a political question in the coming decades. The most likely contenders remain China, Russia and the USA. However, with all these nations have to handle, it seems unlikely that they will commit many resources to claiming land of no strategic or economic value.
Nations act predominantly in their own self-interest: colonization, wars, programs and platforms exist with very concrete goals in mind - gaining resources. We must thus analyze if it is in the interest of today's nation-states to explore the opportunities of this unknown land. The modern global agreements regarding international waters, Antarctica, the Moon and other frontier territory will remain as it is for the foreseeable future and we must assume that nations will act in accordance with the articles contained therein. Most of these agreements specify that these territories must not be used for resource extraction, military activity or other non-peaceful and non-scientific goal. What else is there in the interest of resource gathering?
We thus have government-backed scientists in these territories who achieve marginal and slow results in research, but not much else. Surely there must be a more efficient method of employing the untapped potential of the Earth and unleashing the true freedom of humankind's genius and ability.
The pioneering market
Fundamentally, historic pioneers were merely those unsatisfied with the status quo.
"I must go to where I am free to follow my religion" said puritans leaving for the Americas. It is the nature of man to change something when he is not pleased with the goings-on. We build roads when we are frustrated with hacking through woods; we build walls to protect ourselves from marauders; we exit the societies that will not have our ways. Dissatisfaction is the driving force of human ingenuity. Perhaps things must get much worse than they are now before people will be dissatisfied enough to consider settling an icy wasteland. Perhaps, however, they may begin sooner than we had hoped.
More likely than not, the colonization of Antarctica will come from the individual drive of explorers and entrepreneurs rather than through an international collaborative effort of nations. Ever since the days of Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, the idea of domed cities has been in the heads of futurist pioneers. We've spoken at length about seasteading, and the obvious trend is toward decentralized societies which are easily exited.
Will this be through mining interests plunging the depths for wealth, founding mining cities like in the Wild West? Will it will be through tourism entrepreneurs, offering adventure and awe of the primordially serene landscape? In any case, an entire continent's worth of untapped possibility is standing at the ready for those with the drive and will to reach it. The environment must be cared for, certainly, but man and nature can peacefully coexist if proper guidelines are followed.
Most Antarctic expeditions in the last 20 years were privately organized and funded - through nothing but the gall and will of free people. This is mostly for thrill and adventure, but it needn't be. Potential startup society models may yet spring up that will harness the strengths of this wild, untamed continent. The powerful winds, extensive sunlight, and possible mineral deposits may make energy a trifling matter, with the right technology. After all, we've thrown away bauxite for 4000 years as useless, until we've learned the proper applications of seemingly unusable refuse.
If this does happen, there are domed cities dotting the landscape of Antarctica in 2070, what of it? They can't possibly be as populated, industrious, or culturally advanced as well-established settlements. It's an exercise in whim and little else!
True, all of it.
However, we must not lose sight of the frontier spirit, not for a second. We may discuss competitive tax policy and secession lobbying strategies until the cows come home, but these are all means to an end. Even the word "end" is false here: there is no end to human development. We do things because we can, because it's challenging, because it's beautiful. This article was less about the intricacies of territorial splits on the continent and potential startup societies that might develop there (how uninteresting would that be?), and more about the "why" of it. The reader may find endless literature and regulations about the situation of Antarctica, both political and scientific - but to what end?
In conclusion: Startup societies are the future. Competitive governance, secession, seasteading, decentralization and e-government are all the modern and cutting-edge forms of startup societies, but we'd be foolish to think that the age of frontier settling is over. There's barren land out there ripe for people to turn into beautiful gardens of human achievement.