One hundred years ago this week, Ernest Shackleton pulled off one of history’s most audacious missions. With just five shipmates and a 22-foot open boat, he’d undertaken an 800-mile voyage to summon help for the shipwrecked crew of the Endurance, after their failed attempt to reach and traverse the Antarctic continent. On May 10, after 16 days at sea, Shackleton reached South Georgia Island, and later led rescuers back to his stranded crew — all of whom, remarkably, survived.
Shackleton’s story is routinely taught in business schools. The aim is to help students learn how good leaders adapt to changing circumstances and work to keep a team confident and motivated, even under dire conditions.
I’ve been thinking about Shackleton frequently in recent months — not about his leadership qualities, but about the economic context that propelled his explorations and what it can teach us about today. The most striking examples of contemporary explorers are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the other pioneers of the private space industry. As was true in Shackleton’s time, these rocketeers are driven by curiosity and competition, but also by commerce — and while those forces can create remarkable achievements, they can also carry significant costs and dangers.
Over the winter holiday, I was fortunate to travel with my family to Antarctica. Our cruise ship navigated the Weddell Sea, and each day we boarded smaller boats to venture onto the Antarctic Peninsula. Over 10 days, we experienced some of the continent’s vast, desolate, yet magnificent landscapes. There were no trees or flowers — just lots of ice, patches of rock dotted with lichen, and many penguins.
Apart from tourism, there’s no discernible industry in Antarctica today. That wasn’t true in Shackleton’s day — decades before men like him set out to explore the region, seal and whale hunters toiled in the waters around the continent. While we rightly celebrate Shackleton the explorer, we should remember that most of the seamen who ventured to Antarctica were seeking not glory, but whale oil. Indeed, the driving force behind the exploration of Antarctica was commerce.
When you tour Antarctica today, most of the man-made structures are the rusting remains of the whaling industry. There are hulls of old whaling vessels and the tanks used to store the whale oil that was the dominant fuel for lighting in the 19th century. At one port, we visited a tiny workshop where the whalers — who were inventive and inveterate tinkerers — could craft replacement parts for their ships or their hunting gear. We learned how the whalers shifted to a model of “factory ships” that allowed them to process their prey onboard their vessels, increasing the yield and efficiency of their operations.
I couldn’t help but wonder how vastly different this region would look if Antarctic whaling had continued unabated into the 20th century. Despite the continent’s unforgiving environment, there’s little doubt that if whaling had remained profitable and permissible, this coastline would have been much more developed — and the natural beauty retained from this lack of development would have disappeared.
Two forces combined to make the whaling industry less attractive. The first was creative destruction, as new fuel sources — primarily fossil fuels and electricity — made whaling a much less profitable activity. The second force was human restraint enforced by regulation, as countries took steps to slow the slaughter of species that, in some cases, were trending perilously close to extinction.
As our planet now wrestles with the environmental consequences of the energy sources that supplanted whale oil, our Antarctica trip made me wonder how we will respond to this new challenge. The answers might lie in space exploration. Entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk, whom I admire for their creativity and initiative, want to profit from launching satellites and providing novel experiences for rich tourists — and perhaps by finding and claiming valuable new natural resources. It’s a modern set of economic motives that aren’t much different from those that set whalers sailing south more than a century ago.
What will the commercial exploration of space mean for humanity? It may unleash yet another wave of creative destruction by providing a safer refuge for humanity if the environment on our planet continues to degrade. Some of our most polluting activities could be offshored to space to help save our planet. Or it could merely exacerbate our growing sense of inequality as only a precious few can enjoy the wonder of traveling into space. Will space explorers create new ventures that benefit us, or will they (like the old factory whaling ships) exploit and ravage natural landscapes that had been untouched? Will even less human restraint in space require even more regulation? However this next age of exploration unfolds, these questions will need to be answered.
It is exciting on the centenary of Shackleton’s famous voyage to reflect not just on his leadership but on how intertwined the spirit of exploration and enterprise are. It’s also an occasion to recognize how these uniquely human motives that are setting their sights on space can unleash a new cycle of creative destruction today with immense potential for both benefit and harm.