Polar Bears: Why Save Them?

 by © Phil Wendt  2011


From time to time I will be posting longer essays concerning issues mostly related to our environment.  I worked as an environmental scientist for over 35 years both in industry and in public service.  The last 25 years I worked as a government scientist dealing with environmental and resource management  issues for the State of California, retiring in 2004.  During my tenure there I was careful not to speak out publically on environmental issues as it just wasn’t seen as appropriate to do so.  Now that I am no longer working I am enjoying the freedom of inflicting my views on the public at large on matters that interest me.  This is one such issue.

Polar Bears:  Why Save Them?

I read an article a while back that posed the idea that with all the troubles facing polar bears perhaps we should just let them go extinct.  After all, the author reasoned, extinction is a natural part of evolution, i.e., Darwinism at work.  This has also been a rather tired theme of the energy industry, especially Big Oil and their apologists.   Unfortunately the overall tenor of this article and others like it totally misses the bigger picture, and also reflects a more insidious problem of how society in general views the world around us.

As an ecologist, I think that we scientists may have done a disservice to the public by equating, or at least allowing the media to go unchallenged in their efforts to link broad ecological problems with a few ‘celebrity’ species.  I think this approach has created a disconnect between how we view these individual species and the broader ecosystem-wide problems threatening their existence.  The impacts created by climate change in the arctic regions have been reduced to a poster (or a bumper sticker) about saving the polar bear. What we should really be saying is that we have a serious problem manifesting in the arctic region, and it’s wreaking havoc on that ecosystem.  When a top predator is in danger of extinction it may be a sign of an ecosystem on the verge of collapse.  Creating zoos for the remaining polar bears will not fix this problem.  If you fix the ecosystem, however, the polar bears may just survive on their own.

Let’s look at this problem another way using the miner’s canary analogy.  When the canary in the mine starts to lose consciousness our first response should not be: “How do we save the canary?”  And it definitely should not be that perhaps we should just let the canary go, for its time has come.  The correct response is: “What’s happening, why is it happening, and how do we fix it?”  Continuing to focus our efforts on the canary only deprives us of the  ability to solve the larger and more catastrophic problem occurring in the mine.  We don’t need to establish a canary rookery here, or start a “Save the canary” campaign.  While the demise of that canary is unfortunate, it in itself is only a small part of a much bigger problem.  Solve the bigger problem in the mine, and then you can bring in all the canaries you want.

While the canary may serve as a good “Indicator” species for monitoring air quality in a mine because it is highly sensitive to changes in its environment,  the polar bear would probably not be the most appropriate indicator species for the arctic.  For the most part by the time an environmental impact works its way through the food chain to affect a top predator like the polar bear, a lot of environmental damage likely has already been done throughout the entire ecosystem.   But the polar bear IS affected now, so it is a de facto indicator species, and we need to focus on just what the polar bear’s current condition is telling us about its ecosystem, and ours.

“…this is not about  Darwinism, it’s about oil and other fossil fuels, and our inability to wean ourselves from them. “

Environmental impacts to the arctic region have forced the polar bear into the status of a bellwether species.  But the effects of global climate change on the polar bear are hardly something that can be considered as ‘natural’, i.e., back to Darwinism again.   Most credible scientists today see a significant component of climate change as a mostly man-induced phenomenon.  Darwinism is hardly at play here as we are not really in true competition with the polar bear, or any other species for that matter (with the possible exception of viruses and bacteria).  Long ago our species left behind our hunter-gatherer ways, and advanced to the highly industrialized agronomy we have today.  Since then, we haven’t really competed with any other species for any resource.  In fact, there is really no animal species that we can’t out compete.  We can annihilate any species, including ourselves if we so choose.  So the pending extinction of the polar bear can’t really be seen as a natural step in the Darwinian process of survival of the fittest.  We are always the fittest, so most species have already lost that battle.  The question is do we encourage this species’ survival by reversing the havoc we have inflicted upon it through our own actions or inaction; are we the stewards of this planet, or merely highly evolved consumers?

So the question of whether we should save the polar bear is really not the right question at all.  We really can’t separate the polar bear or any species from its habitat.  Environmental impacts are usually a blunt sword rather than a scalpel in how they cut through an ecosystem and the individual species within it.  The complex inter-relationships among species in an ecosystem make it difficult to isolate any one stressor as a culprit affecting all or some of its inhabitants.  But the focus should nevertheless be on finding the stressor(s), and not merely focusing on the survival of any one species, at least until we know more about the source and the nature of the stressor(s) in the first place.

Until we ‘get’ the idea that there is more than just a glancing connection between fossil fuel use and the plight of the arctic region (and elsewhere), species like the polar bear will be at the mercy of shifting ice flows and an ever-shrinking habitat.  Again, this is not about  Darwinism, it’s about oil and other fossil fuels, and our inability to wean ourselves from them.  You want to save the polar bear?  Fix the ecosystem in which it once thrived.  And while we’re endlessly debating the global warming issue, we also need to think what the plight of the polar bear is telling us about the health and welfare of another top predator…us.  That’s the real challenge, and one that won’t quite fit on a bumper sticker.

There’s also a broader issue at play here and it relates to how society views our environment and environmental issues as a whole.  My own experience as a scientist leads me to believe that a significant segment of our society still sees ‘the environment’ as an externality, something that exists ‘over there.’  They don’t see themselves as a part of it, or as a catalyst of environmental change, good or bad.  This problem is not new.  In the 1930s and 1940s two environmental pioneers, Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac) and Ed Ricketts (Between Pacific Tides, and The Sea of Cortez coauthored with John Steinbeck) were separately and unbeknownst to the other pondering the emergence of the new field of ‘Ecology,’ and what this new discipline told us of humanity’s place in the world (This was discussed in Michael Lannoo’s book: Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts Lab; the Emergence of Environmentalism, UC Press, 2010).

Both Leopold and Ricketts saw a society that seemed to put man over nature, or outside of nature, in what we call today ‘shallow ecology.’  Their view, based on decades of observation was centered more on the idea that humanity is an intrinsic part of nature, ‘…a mere panel in a large quilt’, what we today call ‘deep ecology.’  Leopold also saw a society focused on technology and its ability to increase the land’s carrying capacity, or man’s ‘take’, but also how society seemed to ignore the ‘give’, and further ignored how man’s actions affected nature as a whole.  He failed to see any sense of personal responsibility, i.e. an environmental conscience.  This was 1947.

At the same time, Ed Ricketts was also pondering the social plight of urbanites, and believed that their disconnection from nature made them spiritually unfulfilled.  They needed a connection with nature to be well rounded, where such a connection provided physical exertion, freedom, individualism and vitality.  Today rural areas now account for only 16 percent of the U.S. population, the lowest ever!  This doesn’t bode well for society as a whole reconnecting with nature in a way that fosters a more enlightened view of the world around us.  It bodes even less well for the more isolated regions like the arctic where global warming is already manifesting in reduced permafrost and wreaking havoc on top predators like the polar bear.

We need to be reacquainted with those early pioneers Aldo Leopold and Ed Ricketts and their view of humanity as an integral part of nature, each dependant on the other.  But I also believe that we also have a unique role that no other species can fill, the role of stewards of our planet.  In this one way we are apart from nature; in that our environment’s ultimate fate rests with us and our stewardship.  We are the only species on the planet that can choose to act on behalf of another species, on behalf of a greater good.  The question is, will we?