James Raffan is a geographer, international speaker and the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Ice Walker: A Polar Bear’s Journey Through the Fragile Arctic. He is an international fellow of the Explorers Club, a past chair of the Arctic Institute of North America, and a fellow and past governor of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, service for which he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In 2020, a massive controversy today is often a blip tomorrow. But in 2006, 27 seconds of animation in Saint Al of Gore’s Oscar-winning film about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, was enough to be an enduring fit of pique.
It showed a polar bear swimming around in a warming ocean, struggling to get to an ever-shrinking ice floe. That clip spawned its own cottage industry of critics; when some scientists said there was insufficient evidence to suggest polar bears were drowning, some conservatives used the animation as a cudgel to discredit the entire film.
But that, to my reading of the film, was not the point of the scene. Bears are creatures of the ice – that’s where they can hunt seals for food – and the movie was trying to communicate that the ice is disappearing. We might well argue about the mechanics of how polar bears will die, but what that short animation was trying to tell us was true: If humans don’t change their consumption habits, they will die and eventually become extinct.
Last week, a study published in Nature Climate Change confirmed that with a devastating declaration: Based on research on their current physiology and forecasts of Arctic Ocean sea ice, polar bears will vanish from the Earth by the end of the century. But what that study and Mr. Gore’s film don’t get into is how this specific but too-common tragedy affects us. They aren’t just another species at risk: We are polar bears, and the polar bears are us, and so a threat to their lives really demands a hasty course correction for humankind, too.
It all started at the beginning. Our own species emerged a scant 200,000 years ago or so, and concurrently, brown bears moved from the land onto the ice. We can only speculate on what pressures might have precipitated that shift in habitat and diet (from omnivore to carnivore); the fossil record of bears who have died in or on the sea is very thin. But we do know that once they were on the ice, lighter-coloured bears did better than darker bears. Through this process of natural selection – which also included improvements of claws and teeth and other morphological and physiological adaptations for hunting seals for their fat – some Ursus arctos, the bear-of-the-land, evolved into Ursus maritimus, the bear-of-the-sea.
Over the following thousands of years, polar bears and polar peoples have cohabited on the circumpolar sea ice and surrounding shores and, in doing so, built a complex, sustainable, living, breathing relationship in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. Polar bears also figure prominently in the habits, traditions, practices, cosmologies and mythologies of northern peoples. “We were bears once and we will be bears again,” was a refrain I have heard in various languages through 40 years of learning in the circumpolar world. Follow a bear long enough and you might see it place its back feet in the prints of its front feet, as if walking upright like a biped. Participate in a hunt and you’ll find yourself looking twice just to make sure that the skinned body being taken apart is a bear’s, not a human’s.
The health of the bear and the health of northern peoples are inextricably linked to the health of the northern environment, and we must not dismiss the unique humanity, wisdom and resilience of those hardscrabble northern lives. But losing the bears would also affect humans who don’t live on the polar ends of the Earth, where the effects of man-made climate change are particularly acute. It would also diminish all of humankind’s memory trove of how and what it means to live in tune with the Earth. If we lose the bears, a keystone species, we lose part of who we are.
Then there’s the polar bear’s profusion in our popular culture. In 1922, Coca-Cola published its first print ad with its polar-bear mascot, and from there, a mother polar bear and her two cubs became staples of the holiday-advertising season. While the fellow mammal and apex predator are best known in that realm for their relationship to soft drinks, polar bears have also been used to sell just about everything else: cars, shoes, appliances, cough drops, beer, ice cream, conservation, consulting, outboard motors, candy bars, civic events, fruit, liquor, underwear. You name it, polar bears will sell it.
The connections between bears and people are there, and they’re real. If only we would use them to consider what we’re doing to these magnificent beasts, and what we’re doing to ourselves.
Industrial development and increased shipping is destroying polar bears’ terrestrial habitat; sport hunting, forest fires, oil spills and the slow drip of chemicals into the environment (such as polychlorinated biphenyls, which in high doses can reduce the density of the bears’ penis bones, thereby making them more vulnerable to fracturing and being unable to reproduce) is hurting them more directly. But few of our threats are as insidious as the global warming we contribute to every day, which is melting sea ice and foreshortening the all-important winter hunting period. That means polar bears must bear the consequences of our appetites and pay the evolutionary price. As such, written into the lives of the shrinking polar bear populations is a portrait of a two-legged species out of control.
What’s happening to polar bears is true of other species as well, to be sure. Coral reefs are dying and the oceans are in crisis; other species have been extirpated, while still others are on the brink of extinction. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity estimates that we might be losing up to 150 species a day. But bugs and fish just aren’t cuddly, and people don’t care much about plants and microbes unless they have, say, pretty flowers or medicinal value. None of these have the charisma or the potential of the polar bear to command our attention. If even the majestic and beautiful polar bear can’t persuade us to change the course of climate change, what hope is there for the other species on the verge of extinction?
In the polar bear, perhaps our most potent icon of the wild, we have a tangible tie to the circumpolar world, to Arctic environments and to the Indigenous people who, in spite of conquest in its various insidious and continuing forms in all eight circumpolar countries, are still living, with a deep and abiding connection to the bear.
Consider that what is happening to the bear is not separate and distinct from any other life on Earth, especially the lives of those of us who contribute to climate change. Whether we have time, or the means – and as grim as their prescriptions, scientists and pundits agree we still do – living as if polar bears mattered is nothing more and nothing less than a choice we could make. That’s important, because if we lose the polar bears, we are also losing the very thing that many would argue distinguishes us from animals in the first place: the ability to choose our paths, to have rational dominion over our animalistic instincts, to enact the human wherewithal to put morality into action and to create a better version of the world we live in. By choosing not to alter our behaviour in any meaningful way, despite all evidence pointing to how destructive it is, we are losing part of what it means to be human.
Reframing the threat to polar bears would be an opportunity to rethink and rebuild our relationship with the planet and each other. Because, in many respects, I’m pretty sure Mr. Gore was right. We are the bear, swimming around in a warming soup of our own making.
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