We first went to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to see its famous polar bears, whose lives were being threatened by the vagaries of a civilization, in 2004. We went to touch the space of their frontier, because we knew that their continued presence on earth represents a critical buoy to our future.
Our carbon emissions are threatening the very life raft of their existence.
It was in 2008 that my wife, Marie Wilkinson, and I brought our son Lysander to witness the great white monarch of the north ambling across the icy stark expanses of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Lysander saw the ice bear as a marvel of power and beauty. His fascination and awe for this remarkable predator, the world’s largest, was boundless.
Humanity’s mind was partly forged by its ability to withstand the snows and the extremes of Hyperborea and Thule, the mythic kingdoms of the Arctic north. There in classical mythology, as Boreas, god of the north wind, breathes, the future of the planet is being played out.
We went to see the polar bear because in its stride an icon of the planet strives to hold onto the last vestiges of its world. As the icebergs and glaciers disappear, increasingly they are mirages on an overheated planet.
In the last few weeks, reports have come out that the polar bears might not be able to survive on land. Their normal diet of seal and other mammals has been disrupted beyond recognition in the last few years. That they might not be able to thrive on geese eggs should come as no surprise to any of us. Why it should matter ought to provoke serious soul searching in every one on earth. As the summer ice recedes at the top of the world, an iconic species could be consigned to a footnote in the historical memory of the world. In the April issue of Harper’s Gretel Ehrlich, a native Greenlander said: “Instead of nine months of good ice, there are only two or three. Where the ice in spring was once routinely six to ten feet thick, in 2004 the thickness was only seven inches even when the temperature was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Gretel Ehrlich also interviewed a hunter from the same area: “It is breaking up from beneath … because of the wind and stormy waters. We never had that before. It was always clear skies, cold weather, calm seas. We see the ice not wanting to come back. If the ice goes, it will be a disaster. Without ice we are nothing.”
Without ice we are all indeed nothing. The albedo effect, the reflectivity the ice provides, there at the top of the world, is indispensable for the heat regulation of the globe. Water reflects 2 to 10 percent of solar radiation. The rest is absorbed by the ocean while snow and ice reflect 30 to 40 percent of solar radiation. Without that crucial surface layer of ice, the planet overheats and trapped methane hydrates, many times more potent than carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere.
The Inuit predicted this decades ago. Native Greenlanders generations ago also exclaimed that there would be people “who change nature.” The Inuit also knew that the polar bear was at the top of the food chain and that we were merely one of its many inhabitants. Mariano Aupilardjuk, who grew up at a time when shamans acted as intermediaries between the natural and spiritual world, said, “We were forbidden to disrespect animals, so we avoided it at all costs. There were many strict rules to be followed, and they were different for each animal. Polar bears have souls. They are very wise.”
How remarkably different are the beliefs of our society that continues to dismantle the earth as a commodity and pollute it beyond recognition. Trophy hunters who are criminal abettors in the loss of the world’s wildlife continue to pay as much as $40,000 for a polar bear skin. While in the old days angakok shamans would meditate on the polar bear spirit seeking their totemic guidance, today’s trophy hunters persecute without the remotest sense of honor or dignity. Theirs is a code of cowardice and bloodlust.
The Inuit and native people of the world honored the other without reserve. The thinking in terms of quotas done by the federal government, hunting concessions, and safari clubs, are adding to the jeopardy this species and all the fauna at the top of the world are facing. Holding on to a very tenuous 20,000 population, already about half of the 19 or so subpopulations of polar bears in the world are declining in numbers, and many polar bears show a marked reduction in stature and condition.
Instead of being awed by their majestic stride and presence, humanity continues to persecute them and mount them on walls. Canada should take special responsibility for outlawing trophy hunting of any kind. In the old days, if a polar bear was hunted by the Inuit for fur or meat, it was done to survive. There is no place for high-powered rifles in what should be considered an emergency conservation effort in every country that still harbors this ineffable predator.
Who speaks for the polar bears? Even Coca Cola uses the polar bear in its logos for its sodas, but how concerned is the corporation for the future of this species?
While we have had a half century of theories about the limits to growth and overpopulation, the realities of what is happening to the thermal regulation of the planet is now being played out with the last polar bears of earth. The polar bear is the largest canary in the coalmine of a runaway technological society.
In 2012, we were very kindly invited on a Russian expedition ship run by One Ocean expeditions to do research on the three largest predators on earth: lions, tigers, and polar bears. Not far from where the British explorer John Franklin lost his ship over 160 years ago, Lysander witnessed polar bears in King William Sound feeding on beluga whales. Will this unbelievable pageant of life be possible in twenty years time?
Dawn bear, the ancestor of all bears, emerged from the mists of time about 27 million years ago. It was the size of a raccoon and its family grew to be the most significant group of totemic beings in the northern hemisphere, not least for its ability to survive the winter, go into partial hibernation, come back to greet the spring and thrive like no other animal its size. The bear family as a whole is one of most influential and totemic species in human history. From Winnie the Pooh, to America’s Teddy bear icon, to the Norse folktale the White Bear King, to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, bears have been an integral part of our identity as a species for millennia. We cannot fail them now and greatest of them all is the great white monarch of the north, the polar bear.
Can we with any measure of sanity continue to drill for oil in the Arctic, for the very substance that is evaporating the key cooling system of the planet? We need a new game plan for civilization. Society can no longer be held hostage by the petrochemical industry!
The native elders, who knew there would be people who would change the weather, cannot imagine or cope with what is happening to their world. And their world is ours. As one young Inuit told me in in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, Baffin Island, “After one has a bigger refrigerator, then what, and then a bigger house, then what, a bigger car, then what?” Our consumerist civilization bases its entire meaning on things and objects. It has no regard for the mysteries that hold the balance of life together.
While science tries to understand some of the strands of life, the web that supports the life force is being pulled apart. For all of human history bears and other beings were honored—as the Modoc of California honored the grizzly as the protector and nurturer of humans. Today there are no more grizzlies in the state. For millennia bears figured prominently in origin myths and stories told to children as they awoke to the splendors of the natural world.
Witness the mega-drought in California today. What will children in fifty years time awaken to? Will we have to tell them the polar bear and the frogs and the elephants and the rest of the natural world simply faded away and went the way of the dinosaurs? Will there indeed be anything left to look forward to?
In Svalbard, Norway we took Lysander to play in a playground while waiting to board our ship. There we talked to a Norwegian school teacher who told us of the polar bears who regularly prowl the outskirts of Spitsbergen. One day, a young woman climbed one of the hills surrounding the town but forgot to take her rifle, which is almost mandatory given the local predators. Once on top of the hill she came upon an unsuspecting polar bear at a few hundred feet. He charged, swiped at her, and killed her.
I asked the teacher if she would be happier if there were no bears in the area. She confidently answered, “No. They were here first. We are second.” Her attitude is of one who knows the greater order of things.
In Churchill town we met a Polish refugee from Nazi Germany who found refuge in the wilderness of Canada. He explained how occasionally polar bears would walk right through town, and that sometimes he has to renegotiate his tracks to move around a polar bear who came too close to his house. But in contrast to the mayhem and horrors of what he had escaped in WWII, Churchill with its bears was a haven.
In the wake of the unprecedented drought in the West and the near collapse of Sao Paulo’s water reserves and changing climate conditions worldwide, all eyes should be focused on the Arctic. Jean Malaurie, the great French explorer who spent years in the 1950s among the native people of Greenland, wrote the following in his magnum opus, “The Last Kings of Thule:”
“The Pole is the roof of the world, the birthplace of our climate condition, and the Earth is not eternal. Men of science, like men of state, have a duty imposed by ethics. The Earth is living; it can and will avenge itself; already there are portents. The Earth has no time left for man’s ignorance, arrogance, sophistry, and madness.”
Kananginak, an Inuit elder we met on the way to Baffin Island in 2010, looked at a photo of a fog bow we had taken in Svalbard two years before. It was like a gateway to the Arctic beyond and a portal to a mystic world transfixed in the mist with the arc of its reflection in the Arctic waters below. I wondered if Kananginak had ever seen one. He responded that he had and that in the old days elders would also see the pole, the tree underneath that upheld the world, like a bow. Today, few are the elders who behold such visions.
The coming December climate treaty in Paris should mobilize civilization that its hour of reckoning is now. Will we lose the summer ice forever? Will we lose the polar bear?
According to the Inuit, polar bears are our superiors. To think that some of them at the top of the world have begun in fact cannibalizing each other. Are we not doing the same to ourselves?
The Inuit hope that one day, those of us in this technologically-fixated civilization, the ones with the tools to harm or heal life on earth, “will grow up and become mature adults, stop fighting amongst ourselves and acknowledge the truth of the ancient prophecy that the ‘earth and the sky can be changed by people. Stop ‘burning’ the polar bears. They are Very Important Persons and worthy of our utmost respect. Look into their souls and you will be changed.” (From “In Predatory Light—Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears,” by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson Merrell, London 2013).
Cyril Christo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have travelled extensively around the world. They have published several photography books exploring ecological and man-made challenges and endangered bioregions and species. The couple is currently working on a documentary film, “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant,” which weaves a family’s personal journey in East Africa with indigenous people’s stories.