The Polar Bear. Or the dodo we can cuddle

The press recently reported scientists finding the carcasses of four drowned polar bears floating in the sea. A polar bear drowning? How can a polar bear drown? It’s a powerful swimmer, equally at ease on land as under water. What happens is (possibly, apparently) that climate change is making their ice fields break up, so that they have to swim more from one place to another. And swimming more and further tires them out, and eventually they get hypothermia in the water and drown.

I imagined the anger and confusion and suffering of the bear as it weakened and began to flounder in the water. Perhaps it all happened at night. Perhaps they tried, hopelessly, to save each other, panicking and flailing in the dark in huge, ice-cold arctic waves. All because of climate change.

Of course my first thought was to be angry at the Americans. A “Thanks, George” emotion. They don’t want polar bears anyway because they will get in the way of oil drilling in Alaska. And it’s all their fault because of their SUVs and Exxon. But that is a silly response. It is all of our faults. Americans might be on average marginally fatter and greedier and lazier and more selfish and more profligate than the rest of us, but only half-an-inch around the waist more. And that average masks the fast that there are some quite nice ones, too.

Is there anything useful to be had out of this ugly tragedy of the ice floes?

There is something about a polar bear which is different from beetles or trees. So while we may be sad about the swathes of forest in the Ukraine which have been attacked by root canker apparently onset by climate change, the empathy is weaker for most people (although not for those of us who love trees). But a bloody polar bear, he’s a chum we can identify with. We’ve seen him in nature films, in the zoo, in cartoons, in books. We think he’s lovely and cuddly. He’s pretty much like our dog. Just bigger and whiter and lives in the north pole. We don’t want him drowning, going the way of the dodo, we want to do something about it.

Perhaps this is the first real victim of climate change we can feel passionate enough about to respond properly. Because we are always hearing about Bangladeshis and Indians drowning anyway. Hardly a week goes by without a crowded ferry capsizing. So what difference will climate change make? And is hasn’t happened yet, either. And we are always hearing about the rainforests being destroyed but it does not stop us eating Brazilian food grown in place of the forest (whether that would help or not, I don’t know). We can’t make the connections, we can’t connect with trees and we can’t connect with poor people a long way away. But we can connect with bears. They are deep in our psyche from when we were little: Winnie the Pooh, Rupert, Paddington, Barnaby, Goldilock’s friends, Yogi, and Baloo.

You could say: “Hey, let’s walk the two kilometres to the shops, it will save 500 grams of CO2.” The benefit seems a bit theoretical. No-one knows what 500 grams of CO2 look like, smell like, feel like. And no-one has a clue what impact it has.

Would it help to say: “Hey, let’s walk the two kilometres to the shops, it will save a bit of a polar bear.” It might not be true (it might be too late), but it’s much more thought provoking than talk of a chemical reaction we don’t understand. And provoking thought can lead to change in behaviour.

Assume it takes another fifty years for the polar bears to die out. Average life-span of a polar bear is about twenty years. Perhaps over the next fifty years a total of fifty thousand polar bears will exist before being wiped out by drowning. Assume the average weight of those polar bears will be 200 kg. This means that there will be about 10 billion grams of polar bear. During that time GHG emissions might average seven billion a year, over fifty years, that’s 350 billion tonnes CO2e. So, still working very approximately, one tonne of CO2e is about thirty milligrams of polar bear. A more sophisticated mathematician or climate scientist can probably give us a better figure. But let’s stick with 30 mg per tonne of CO2. What weighs 30 mg? Perhaps one of those amazing hairs on the polar bear which is actually a hollow tube which captures the sun’s rays like a fibre-optic cable and carries the energy into the animal’s skin.

So now instead of saying a MWh of coal-fired power emits a tonne of CO2, we can say that it shaves a polar bear a little bit, preparing him for drowning. The amount is quite small because there are not so many polar bears anyway, but don’t forget at the same time there are thousands of other species we are killing with the same CO2. It might be a small number but it’s still more tangible. It’s much more like hurting ourselves.

Bring on the campaign: Pictures of polar bears on light switches, on our cars, on the shower, on the DVD, on the aeroplane seat, just to remind us of what we are doing. Perhaps it’s time for the WWF’s Panda to make way for its northern cousin.

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3 Responses to The Polar Bear. Or the dodo we can cuddle

  1. Ines Manzano says:

    Beautiful expose of the problem, I di´dn´t like the part of your math, may be ironic but just don´t like it. Nevertheless you are so right about how to show a problem to the humanity that could provocate a positive reaction; so this leads me to a conclusion with a tremedous dimention: environmental education is not helping to understand the problems of climate change unless we include it in cartoons, advertising for food, other goods even collegues and universities, and professional services. What do you thing? X

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi, I found your site while doing a search for modern & antique dolls, and teddy bears. Wow, love your site. It really was a pleasure to read. Thanks.

  3. A typical dictionary definition of hypnosis states that it is: a state that resembles sleep but that is induced by suggestion. However, anyone who has tried hypnosis (and any self respecting hypnotist) will tell you that this is a very simplistic view of the subject!
    A much better description comes from the Free Online Dictionary which states that hypnosis is: an artificially induced state of consciousness, characterised by heightened suggestibility and receptivity to direction. So what does this mean and how can it be used to your advantage?

    Well, the subject of hypnosis has been discussed and pondered since the late 1700s. Many explanations and theories have come and gone though science, however, has yet to supply a valid and well-established definition of how it actually happens. It’s fairly unlikely that the scientific community will arrive at a definitive explanation for hypnosis in the near future either, as the untapped resources of our ‘mostly’ uncharted mind still remain something of a mystery.
    However, the general characteristics of hypnosis are well documented. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, deep relaxation and heightened imaginative functioning. It’s not really like sleep at all, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming, or the feeling you get when you watch a movie or read a captivating book. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the outside world. Your focus is concentrated intensely on the mental processes you are experiencing – if movies didn’t provide such disassociation with everyday life and put a person in a very receptive state then they would not be as popular (nor would TV advertising be as effective!). Have you ever stated that a film wasn’t great because you just couldn’t ‘get into it’???
    This works very simply; while daydream or watching a movie, an imaginary world becomes almost real to you because it fully engages your emotional responses. Such mental pursuits will on most occasions cause real emotional responses such as fear, sadness or happiness (have you ever cried at a sad movie, felt excited by a future event not yet taken place or shivered at the thought of your worst fear?).
    It is widely accepted that these states are all forms of self-hypnosis. If you take this view you can easily see that you go into and out of mild hypnotic states on a daily basis – when driving home from work, washing the dishes, or even listening to a boring conversation. Although these situations produce a mental state that is very receptive to suggestion the most powerful time for self-change occurs in the trance state brought on by intentional relaxation and focusing exercises. This deep hypnosis is often compared to the relaxed mental state between wakefulness and sleep.
    In this mental state, people feel uninhibited and relaxed and they release all worries and doubts that normally occupy their mind. A similar experience occurs while you are daydreaming or watching the TV. You become so involved in the onscreen antics

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