Polar Bear Blues

It’s the end of June and I just realized I haven’t posted on my blog yet this month. An attempt at summer is being rained out, it seems. But the quasi-deluge is nothing compared to what some of our fellow creatures are facing, in both the human and animal worlds. Take for instance just one majestic creature, the polar bear. Thanks to what is grandly dubbed by scientists ‘anthropogenic-driven climate change’ (meaning human-generated carbon emissions spewed by the tons daily), it’s likely polar bear habitat will vanish within our lifetimes.

This struck me most powerfully in a photograph of a polar bear ‘grieving’ that led to the writing of the poem I append to this article. An image often bypasses our conscious filters to tap directly into our emotions and this one hit me square in the heart. Although this photograph has been used widely on the web – often frivolously – I have been unable to locate the photographer’s name. If I find it I will credit the photographer here.

1. The Predicament

Already in June 2006, “a climate scientist at the University of Chicago and 30 of her colleagues from across North America and Europe were urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as a threatened species because global warming is melting its sea-ice habitat.” This was followed by the National Wildlife Federation appearing before Congress in April 2008 calling for “immediate action to protect America’s polar bears from the impacts of climate change by listing polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.” (source: sciencedaily.com)

Balancing precariously on human-induced climate change. Image courtesy http://whatdopolarbearseat.net/

In August of that year, U.S. government scientists in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea found at least nine polar bears swimming in open water – with one at least 60 miles from shore. Their habitat is literally melting as climate change shrinks the polar ice caps at a breakneck pace, making a mockery of all scientific predictions. These desperate creatures are literally swimming for their lives. “As climate change continues to dramatically disrupt the Arctic, polar bears and their cubs are being forced to swim longer distances to find food and habitat,” explains Geoff York, polar bear coordinator for World Wildlife Federation’s Arctic Programme.

Being a mammal, polar bears may yet be able to adapt to the new climatic conditions emerging in the 21st century. A long-term study released in 2010 using data collected between 1979 and 2005 shows the changes in habitat associations of polar bears in response to sea ice conditions in the southern Beaufort Sea. In short, they are being forced inland, where human-bear interactions will become a higher risk. And given that humans have greater firepower, you know who will lose out in that scenario.

Adding to the grim outlook for polar bears is a study released this year by University of Alberta researchers Péter Molnár, Andrew Derocher and Mark Lewis, who observed a significant drop in litter sizes in the Hudson Bay region. They conclude that “projected reductions in the number of newborn cubs is a significant threat to the western Hudson Bay polar-bear population, and if climate change continues unabated the viability of the species across much of the Arctic will be in question.”

Although scientists and the WWF were successful in getting the U.S. government to list polar bears as a ‘threatened species’ due to habitat loss in 2008, incredibly, this did not extend to allowing for any reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. God forbid we should put any brakes on industry and profit! So another species goes down our toilet? So what? Meanwhile, island nations are watching their coastlines gradually shrink… (source: wikipedia: polar bears / endangered species legislation)

Canada is home to two-thirds of the global polar bear population, which is estimated at 20-25,000 worldwide.  (source: WWF, Environment Canada) So far Canadian protection for polar bears seems to be limited to inter-governmental conservation agreements, such as the one signed by the governments of Canada, Greenland and the province of Nunavut. The federal government has also signed on to other international accords for the preservation of this species. (see: www.ec.gc.ca/nature/default.asp?lang=En&n=A997D1CC-1) But as we all know, with a pro-corporate government in majority in Ottawa, when push comes to shove it will be the bears who end up in the open water.

The David Suzuki Foundation as much as confirms this on its webpage explaining Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). “Under the SARA, the federal government receives recommendations from an independent science advisory body – the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – on whether a species is at risk of extinction. The bad news is that the Federal Cabinet often does not follow these scientific recommendations.” (www.davidsuzuki.org)

The terrible irony of politics is that while one demented political leader – such as George Bush – is finally ushered out of power, another one rushes in to fill his place. The Canadian election this year is a case in point, thanks to a hopelessly flawed parliamentary system in desperate need of replacement by some form of proportional representation. So while President Obama has worked to restore some of the American Endangered Species Act gutted by Bush, the Harper Conservatives continue to fiddle while the planet burns (or drowns). Under Commandante Harper Canada has gone from an inspiring world leader in the field of environmental protection to a global embarrassment – now the major exporter of asbestos and depleted uranium, to name only two examples.

And all this, as David Suzuki explains, while “scientists are united in their belief that the planet is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis on par with earlier mass extinction events in the Earth’s history.”

It seems we humans have a nasty tendency to destroy everything we touch.

2. The Bottom Line

In the face of such globe-encircling despair, one wonders: what is the point of writing about it at all? It’s clear to me that the mantra of the Left that we inherited from the glory days of social change in the 1960s and ’70s – educate, educate, educate and change will come – has failed miserably. The reasons for this are complex.

For one thing, the political Right realized even before the environmental movement hit its stride that if they wanted to protect the status quo that made them fabulously rich, they’d better get busy rolling back the clock. To that end, they poured millions into conservative ‘think tanks’ with the goal of producing a strategy to counter this new and virtually unprecedented consciousness for massive social/environmental change. While the Left looked down its nose at such think tanks as a waste of money, the Right seemed to realize that in a game of chess, you first build strategy before you ever make a move. Their success over the past 25-30 years has been devastatingly swift. Meanwhile the Left and environmental organizations especially have been kept busy running around putting out brush fires set by industry and government.

Professor Lakoff explains how the Right won out. Image courtesy http://www.liberadio.com

The reasons for this situation are explained in George Lakoff’s works. A professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, his magnum opus Moral Politics studied the phenomenon of the right-wing shift in American – and by implication Canadian – politics from the perspective of language. What Professor Lakoff discovered through his research was that conservative think tanks realized early on the value of ‘framing’ issues in a way that appeals to voters leaning toward the right of the political spectrum. Hence, buzzwords like ‘family values,’ ‘big government,’ ‘tax and spend liberals,’ etc. Just as the phD psychologists employed by mass marketing are well aware, humans can be surprisingly easy to manipulate. Pavlov’s dog slavering when the right button is pushed isn’t far off. Lakoff has attempted to counter the right-wing drift by summarizing his thesis in handbooks such as Don’t Think of an Elephant and Talking Points. In it he urges Lefties to get with the program and use framing to their own advantage. ‘First out of the gate, frames the debate’ would be one way of saying it.  Imagine a bumper sticker that reads: ‘My taxes support civilization,’ as just one example. (see georgelakoff.com)

Industry has been highly successful in framing the debate. In their terms, it’s either economy or ecology, take your choice. Yet as environmental commentators from Rachel Carson to Bill McKibben have pointed out, once the environment is ruined, there are no jobs. In framing terms, ‘No environment, no economy.’ Even the so-called ‘triple bottom line’: people, planet, profit, also known as ‘the three pillars,’ is proving both ineffectual at the global political level and not nearly a radical enough paradigm shift. A ‘nested circles’ model of economy, ecology and society is being proposed by environmental educators such as Dr. Liza Ireland, Associate Professor at Royal Roads University, emphasizing the vital interconnectedness of all three. Everything done in one sphere will inevitably effect the others. Each one impacts the other in complex ways, so it’s not realistic to separate one from the other in any economic model. While the ‘three pillars’ at least disabuses us of the lie of ‘externalizing costs’ from industry onto society and the environment, it still risks placing economy as the central pillar of policy. Or at least, is conveniently interpreted that way by corporations seeking to merely capitalize on ‘eco-economies’ by slapping ‘green’ labels on everything from energy-saving appliances made with toxic chemicals to microwave radiation-emitting ‘smart’ meters.

Perhaps part of the problem is an inherent human flaw: the desire to have it all without any sacrifice – a concept that would have been laughable just a few generations ago. And powerful corporate interests are well-placed to exploit just such an inherent flaw by skillful psychological framing.

So ‘check your head carefully’ if you want to avoid being manipulated. The real bottom line here is nothing less than Earth – this one-of-a-kind, gorgeous planet and all its creatures.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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