Michel Rocard: an extraordinary man, by Neil Hamilton
Neil Hamilton (at right) with Stanislas Pottier, Michel Rocard and Laurent Mayet on the Weddell Sea seaice, novembre 2011 - © Rax Axelsson
I first met Michel at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Tromso in 2009. It was an extraordinary meeting at the height of the Arctic Governance debate, and the first at which true political notions had ever been raised (by him, of course). I remember well the speech he gave, a brilliant oration alluding to the complete lack of leadership of Arctic nations, the bureaucratic toothlessness of the Council in a time of great change, and the overt suggestion there were other ways of leading in the region that would benefit all of mankind. He even mentioned the taboo words "Arctic treaty", if my memory serves me, and overshadowed the other important figures who were present.
This meeting changed the way I viewed the Arctic, and introduced me to a person who until then had played an almost mythical role in my career: the man who saved Antarctica.
Since then I have met, worked, and travelled with Michel almost to the ends of the earth. I learned of his work with Algerian refugees, his leadership of the unions in the May 1968 strikes, his time in the French government and European Parliament. I learned of the incredible job he undertook to solve the conflict in New Caledonia, and his reform of the French social welfare system. But most of all I learned of his deep intellectual and moral compass, his decisive way of communicating what is right, and what is wrong.
Michel's role in changing the way humanity viewed Antarctica has been documented in detail by others. It is sufficient to say that without him there would be no Antarctic Environmental Protocol, there would be mining and resource exploitation in Antarctica, and potentially much worse. To have turned the world away from mining after the opening of the CRAMRA treaty for signature in 1988 was a unique achievement. To convince the world that wilderness, environmental protection, and science should be the guiding principles for the management of an entire continent was perhaps even more important.
These results are to me an extraordinary, singular achievement: against all odds (and the positions of almost all the nations of the world) to ensure the protection of an entire continent that had been ( as a result of intellectual neglect and deliberate action by world leaders) on the verge of becoming the world's quarry. Other actors, notably Bob Hawke (prime minister of Australia) and NGOs including Greenpeace played important roles in achieving these outcomes, but I believe that without Michel they would not have succeeded.
The protection of Antarctica was not simply a practical political act. It provided an incredible symbolic boost to humankind. It said to billions of people, including me, that we are capable of protecting places that have intrinsic values, that inspire, that give meaning to people's lives beyond the material. Michel Rocard understood that political leadership was so much more than implementing a party policy platform.
His work in the Arctic began the reforms needed to protect another vulnerable region, albeit with different constraints. It remains unfinished but guides, frames, and inspires those of us who know that the icons of geography that are the polar regions need constant attention.
Michel Rocard was a man who changed the world. I shall miss him dearly, but never forget him.
Dr. Neil Hamilton, Global Change research and Geopolitics advisor, Australia
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