Polar bears, our environmental bellwethers | Eva Hayward | Indy Week

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Polar bears, our environmental bellwethers

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In 1897, filled with patriotic verve, Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée attempted to float to the North Pole in a balloon inflated with hydrogen gas.

He lifted off from Svalbard, Norway, and headed north over the pole to Canada. Tethered to a bubble of possibility, he shouldered against the Arctic. Andrée knew the insurmountable odds of making the voyage, and yet hope in technology and disregard for the hostile climes buoyed his spirits.

The mainspring of adventures is a conflict between hope for expansion—of knowledge, resources, land—and radical unbinding—one's death or transformation. There are rarely happy endings: Andrée's balloon iced over and began to leak hydrogen, crashing on pack ice. Walking into the unending cold, Andrée and the two men with him died. Historians believe that their cortège ended in the hungry maw of a polar bear.

More than 100 years later, the world of the polar bear is nearly gone. Some bears will find themselves in zoos, where they will pace endlessly. Others will cling to hunks of ice, a last-ditch effort to get somewhere, anywhere. And when the ice melts, they will swim and swim and swim until they just can't anymore.

When they are gone, things will be different for us too. Our air will be even more heavily jeweled with sulfur and nitrogen oxides and gorgeously gilded with carbon monoxides and dioxides. (Alien landscapes are not unbeautiful spaces—see Jennifer Baichwal's 2006 film Manufactured Landscapes—they are our new Eden.)

As for the Arctic, an ice-free seascape will make oil drilling a cinch—good news for those of us committed to fossil fuels. So chin up, Sarah Palin! Her 2008 op-ed in The New York Times, "Bearing Up," argued that there is "insufficient evidence that polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct within the foreseeable future" and therefore environmental agencies should not stall industry efforts to drill in the Arctic. But with the bears gone, their defense is hardly necessary. So maybe Palin was right: Why agonize about a bear?

Nanook, Ursus maritimus, ice bear, umka, ours blanc, isbjörn, polar bear: They are real animals with real problems. They are not cuddly stuffed toys but beings that live and die in extremity. The polar bear, like its Arctic home, has known more glorious moments. Most of us have never seen a polar bear on an ice floe. But in their ice-covered world, the bears kept their own stories in a language of smell that made possible parts of our own animal imagination that has helped us become ourselves, to become human.

Cannibalism is not unprecedented for these apex predators, but biologist Ian Stirling argues that the intensification of bear-eating in Svalbard is worrisome. Cannibalism is only one worry; they are also dealing with increased rates of cancer and immune system failure due to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The ocean's waters are saturated with toxicities, and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program claims that contaminants become highly concentrated due to their significantly lengthened life span in the Arctic. Bears beware; your time is up.

The irony is that this list of illnesses, exhaustions and stresses sounds like the kvetching you just heard over the holidays with your family: Everyone is sick, your brother is drowning in debt and your sister's boss is harassing her. We are all competing for the most coal in our stocking, while platitudes deck the halls: "Things will get better," "It could be a lot worse" and a surrendering "I'm so sorry."

To distract myself, I turned on the television. You'd be surprised by what's streaming into your home. For example, I had forgotten that Coca-Cola uses polar bears in their wintery advertisements. Cute nuclear bear families: happy cubs guzzling pop with momma and papa bears lovingly nearby.

These ads represent more than anthropomorphic portrayals of bears and the saccharine nature of consumerism. While we have downed cans of Coke, something has been happening between us and bears, something unexpected.

Industry rages on as environmental changes intensify: melting polar caps, drought-ridden landscapes, and tainted rivers and estuaries. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her 2010 World Water Day speech, "The water that we use today has been circulating through the earth since time began." Systems of water use and misuse shape us earth-based lifeforms: bear, human, cactus and octopus alike. We are drinking in one another. Polar bears swallow industrial runoff and melted ice while Americans drink up deliciously composed chemicals and ill-gotten international water.

Coca-Cola's 100-year-old slogan—which was co-opted a decade later by Maxwell House Coffee—"Good til the last drop," describes its own role in extracting water from countries, particularly India. The arrival of Coca-Cola facilities in India has coincided with drought and severe water shortages.

To rewrite a troubled past of environmental abuses, Coca-Cola joined the World Wildlife Fund with a new campaign "so polar bears will always have a place to call home." Buy "white Coke cans and caps" and you will help the white bears. So much concern about whiteness: white bears, white ice, white cans and caps. It sounds more like a tea party convention on the "white man as an endangered species" than a plea for consumerism to save polar bears from extinction.

The sentiments of the Coke ad are echoed in the new Nissan Leaf commercial. The advertisement starts with a forlorn polar bear swimming from iceless waters to woodlands, highways, cities and into neighborhoods. In the final seconds, the bear stands face to face with a man and they embrace, an icy blue Nissan Leaf at their side. Her jaws agape, breath smelling of feted seal, she towers over the middle-aged man. He buries his face into her underfur. She can smell the coffee he drank, the rise of his anxiety hormones and the rankness of his guilt. She would like to gorge on hunks of his flesh, but she is a trained bear. A trainer purchased her when she was 8 weeks old from a zoo in Switzerland.

The homeless bear has found a new home in human arms. I wonder if the end of polar bears foreshadows our own endings. Will we be treading water and avoiding the furtive looks of hungry neighbors?

Though not with hydrogen balloons and missions to the North Pole, we find ourselves again at the crossroads of technology, knowledge and the environment. We deploy voguish, if also necessary, green technologies in a hope that green money will save our blue planet and its white poles. Dare we place our hope in consumer capitalism? Buy a floating chunk of hope in an ocean of despair? Maybe we can buy our way toward a future, I don't know. Global capitalism is a creative force. Consider the future of "slime mold neuro-computing." Toshiyuki Nakagaki has found a way to harness the problem-solving skills of slime mold for information processing. Having survived hundreds of millions of years, the slime can readily adjust to changes in their environment and even establish networks to cope with unexpected stresses. Perhaps such technological innovations fueled by consumer demands will help us solve our conundrums. We could ask the slime how to survive ecological catastrophe. And perhaps the slime will have an algorithm of fixes. Or, these slimy computing systems might simply tell us to follow the polar bears.

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