Plight of the Polar Bear, Plus Answers to a Reader’s Questions

July 2011 National Geographic - ©2011 National Geographic

A visitor to the Enough of Us site raised some serious questions. We’ll get to those at the end of this post. But first, we direct you to the July edition of National Geographic.

We have been shadowing NG’s coverage of our human population reaching seven billion this year, and nine billion in another 34 years. The series will continue through many of NG’s monthly editions. The July magazine does not include a designated article in the “Seven Billion” series, but its piece on the plight of the Arctic’s fiercest predator, the polar bear, fits nicely into the sequence.

First, allow us to recommend the piece solely for its dramatic photographs. National Geographic seldom disappoints. But it’s the connection between climate change and the plight of these creatures that provides the link to human behavior.

In this blog and in our book, Enough of Us, we have discussed both the reality of climate change and whether humans contribute to it. We make the concession that there is a chance that human behavior is not precipitating it. We don’t, however, put stock in the notion – which is, we believe, entirely politically motivated – that there is no climate change. We don’t feel qualified to reject the overwhelming body of scientific opinion that confirms it. Just ask the polar bears.

According to Ian Stirling, retired researcher from the Canadian Wildlife Service, “Until about the early 1990s at Hudson Bay, bears were able to fast through the open-water season of summer and fall because hunting on the spring sea ice was so good.”

Since then Stirling and colleague Andrew Derocher noted that the bears have been getting noticeably thinner. Why? Most likely because the bears depend on ice in order to hunt. Both shoreline ice and ice floes provide vital habitat. But with spring arriving sooner and thelater of onset of winter, the bears’ seal hunting season is shorter.

Female bears are birthing less frequently and to fewer cubs. And not as many cubs are surviving. Since 1979, the extent of ice during the summer months has declined about 30 percent. This is threatening the Arctic ecosystem and the polar bear is at the top of the food chain.

Since naturalist John Muir explored the Alaska coast in 1881 aboard a steamer, the Earth’s average temperature has risen by one degree Fahrenheit. As the National Geographic article’s writer Susan McGrath states, “Even one degree of warming can noticeably disrupt an environment of ice and snow. It’s as if a giant hand has trained a magnifying glass over the Pole.” Sea ice on which bears hunt is available for ever-shorter durations, making fasting periods longer for the bears.

While polar bears are amazingly strong swimmers, covering great distances in open water is exhausting and sometimes fatal. We suggest you check out the film Planet Earth which offers dramatic video of just such struggles. The NG article provides us with the sad visage of a hungry male eating a cub and photos of a female and her cubs on the lam from a threatening male.

We are left with predictions that by no later than the end of this century, summer Arctic ice will be no more. While this may be great for shipping, it does not bode well for sea levels, or for the fate of these magnificent creatures.

Yet, we humans press on, duplicating ourselves without thinking twice, consuming natural resources, destroying our planet’s bounty, and wreaking who-knows-what degrees of havoc upon ourselves.

Now let’s respond to some concerns expressed by our reader, Hugo. First, thanks for taking the time to participate in this blog. Much appreciated. Hugo commented on our post of June 28, about growing population and the middle classes that are consuming like piranhas. The answers are discussed at length in earlier posts and in our forthcoming book, Enough of Us. He wants to know what we can do about the growing middle classes.  The briefest answer is, we stop glorifying childbirth like it’s humanity’s gift to God or to the planet or to would-be grandparents. We each need to think about the web of which we are a part. And America needs to wake up and show the world how to do it. So how do we get there? First by talking about it, writing to the politicians who are supposed to represent our values, and by not having kids and by explaining to others why we’ve made that choice. Hugo lays a lot of the blame on politicians who can only think ahead to the next election. We agree. We need to counterbalance the nutcases in Congress who believe free markets will take care of everything and who believe we need to get rid of the EPA (REALLY???).

As for the Redbook article about the mom who realized she got stuck with a daughter she so intensely disliked, that’s the first point we make in the book. Screwed-up, diseased and disadvantaged kids are not uncommon. Right, every kid is a work in progress. But often it gets worse, not better. Ask all the parents whose kids went haywire in their teens or twenties. Our survey showed that it’s rampant. People are not wired to automatically be happy.

And no, Hugo, we don’t think babies are bad. They are innocent. Whatever happens to them is not their fault. But the buck has to stop somewhere.  And yes, we should put the common good above our own. Except for this: who says making babies is for our own good? While you are right that people will always want kids, it doesn’t mean that we have to indulge ourselves.

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