What Do Polar Bears Tell Us About Our Own Future?
Arctic Calamity Sheds Light on Learnings Closer to Home
Night-time and a piercing scream tore into the silence of the Arctic wilderness.
Matt Dyer, a 49-year-old legal attorney from Maine, had been asleep in his tent when the polar bear attacked. He opened his eyes to see the bear’s forelegs looming over him, silhouetted against the light of the bright moon. He remembers crying out for help as the animal bore down on him. His cries stopped when he felt his jaw break as the bear’s teeth cut through his head and neck.
‘He was trying to get me out of my tent with his mouth, holding the tent down with his hands,’ he recalls in one of many interviews about the terrifying attack.
Dyer was one of seven American hikers who set off on the wilderness adventure of a lifetime in summer 2013. They were dropped by seaplane at the edge of a breathtaking fjord in northern Canada to experience a place both pristine and magical – the sales ad called it ‘a land of spirits and polar bears rarely seen by humans’.
Dyer was dragged away, he explains, ‘in the mouth of the bear’, with his face banging against the bear’s chest: ‘I can remember looking out and I could see his belly, his leg and everything. He didn’t take his claws to me, which is good.’
The adventurer was saved by quick-thinking companions who used a flare gun to startle the bear into dropping him and making a run for it.
Near the top of the world, just 530 miles from the Arctic Circle, the group was alone in polar-bear country, experiencing the terrifying consequences of the man-made meltdown that is driving starving polar bears to attack people.
International Polar Bear Day is an annual event celebrated every February 27th, to coincide with the time when polar bears and their cubs are sleeping in their dens. It aims to raise awareness about their threatened status; and perhaps more pertinently, what their plight means for all of us.
Global warming is the wild card, the game-changer that threatens to throw a world already stretching planetary boundaries into chaos. Sea-level rises could see land disappear just when more is needed. It could disrupt the water cycle, just when freshwater is at a premium. And if there’s still enough soil for planting, it could reduce crop yields across the globe by as much as a fifth.
Only last December, we saw record breaking temperatures of 19.4C on the island of Kodiak – the highest ever December reading recorded in Alaska. The polar bears struggling with the loss of sea ice were being forced to migrate from America to Russia.
One thing is for sure – business as usual is not an option; not if we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren a world anything like as beautiful and plentiful as the one we inherited. Fuelled by runaway meat production, the way we produce food alone could take us to the brink of catastrophic climate change. That’s without the negative role of other industries, like energy and transport.
As the temperature creeps up, the world as we know it starts to change. Drastic changes are likely this century to water cycles, ecosystems and woodlands, which could mean whole forests disappearing and the Amazon turning to savannah or even desert. The world could be lashed by more severe storms, drought, floods and crop failures. This may sound apocalyptic: but it is only what leading climate authorities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been issuing increasingly stark warning’s about for some time now.
People are going to be deeply affected. Low-lying cities could disappear underwater, including hundreds in America. Bangladesh could disappear altogether.
Millions of ‘climate migrants’ are likely to be forced from their homelands by extremes of weather, crop failures and conflicts over increasingly scarce resources.
My fear is that instead of changing our ways and addressing the climate crisis, society may cling to business as usual for as long as possible. After all, we – together with our politics with its five-year time horizons and growth-driven economics – are only programmed to do what is in our own immediate interests, and perhaps those of our offspring.
If Homo sapiens continue to produce, consume and waste food as they currently do, they will continue to be able to feed themselves for another few decades or so – but there’ll be nothing left for nature. And clinging to business as usual could involve kidding ourselves that intensifying farming is somehow sustainable, ignoring the lessons of recent decades, instead keeping animals ever more cruelly in a desperate attempt to keep things as they are.
Yet, we have a choice. And as it stands, we still have enough time to make it.
As a society, we could choose the route increasingly called for by scientists and thought-leaders alike – changing our diets to be less reliant on climate-busting meat and dairy: ensuring that farming with less animals also switches to nature-friendly forms of production. Switching to regenerative and agroecological farming based on keeping animals where they should be, out in the countryside, roaming pastures and restoring soils.
The choice is ours. I hope we choose that better way, not just for polar bears, and the animals in the countryside, whether farmed or wild, but also for our children.
The hard truth is that it may not only be polar bears at risk; our future as a species too may just depend on it.
Note: A version of this article first appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 28th February, 2022