What Are We Willing To Do For A Starving Polar Bear?

Watching this video will make you very sad (backstory here). It should. It is heartbreaking.

But the real question is: what are we collectively willing to do about it, if anything? Is it enough to inspire changes in the choices we make and the way we live. Because how humanity lives (what it values and what it doesn’t) is what is starving this polar bear.

Here is just a partial list of all the things we can do that relate to this polar bear and his fate: have fewer children, eat less or no meat, drive less (and walk, bike, or use public transportation more), stop flying so much, reduce electricity consumption, shower a few times a week instead of every day, stop buying so much stuff, and stop wasting so much food. Vote for politicians who believe climate change is happening and are willing to ask for sacrifices to deal with it. Support leaders who are fighting global inequality. Support the global education of women, and family planning. Put the lives and needs of ALL species, and stewardship and conservation of the natural world, above your personal convenience. In short, simplify your life and radically reduce its environmental footprint. What else?

Yes, it involves doing less of a lot of things marketers and our culture want us to do a lot of. Doing fewer things that we associate with comfort and convenience. To live in a way that is radically different from the way we have been raised and acculturated to live. But it really isn’t that hard. And it feels good, because it feels right, to DO something.

So let’s work our way through the list, and then we can honestly lament the condition of this polar bear. Because our tears won’t do him any good. Only actions.

Elephant Slaughter: A Call To Radicalism

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This brutal photo comes from a heartbreaking gallery on elephant poaching in the New York Times.

It accompanies a New York Times oped-ed plea for a global response to elephant slaughter, from the authors of a recent study detailing the devastating impact of poaching on African forest elephants:

THERE is nothing a mother elephant will not do for her infant, but even she cannot protect it from bullets. About a year ago, poachers attacked a family of forest elephants in central Africa. The biologist who witnessed the attack told us that wildlife guards were completely outgunned. In the end, an elephant mother, riddled with bullets and trumpeting with pain and fear, was left to use her enormous body to shield her baby. Her sacrifice was for naught; the baby was also killed. Such is the reality facing African forest elephants today.

This mother and child were just two of the tens of thousands of forest elephants that have been butchered over the past decade. A staggering 62 percent vanished from central Africa between 2002 and 2011, according to a study we have just published with 60 other scientists in the journal PLoS One. It was the largest such study ever conducted in the central African forests, where elephants are being poached out of existence for their ivory.

In China and other countries in the Far East, there has been an astronomical rise in the demand for ivory trinkets that, no matter how exquisitely made, have no essential utility whatsoever. An elephant’s tusks have become bling for consumers who have no idea or simply don’t care that it was obtained by inflicting terror, horrendous pain and death on thinking, feeling, self-aware beings.

They make a powerful argument that the ongoing elephant slaughter is immoral and completely unacceptable. But they finish with an almost polite plea for sanity:

Poaching is big business, involving organized-crime cartels every bit as ruthless as those trafficking narcotics, arms and people. Existing international laws against money laundering should be used to follow the money trail and to prosecute these criminals.

A universal attribute of humanity is compassion. We protect those in harm’s way. We need to show this compassion to forest elephants, giving them space to roam and protection from danger. Most crucially, people must stop buying ivory. If we do not act, we will have to shamefully admit to our children that we stood by as elephants were driven out of existence.

This struck me as a little anti-climactic. The clock is ticking, the cruelty is extreme, the implications catastrophic. Does anyone think a nice plea like this will save the elephants? Why not call out political leaders and international regimes like CITES? Why not raise the possibility of more radical responses, like boycotts or economic sanctions against countries and economies that are tacitly supporting the slaughter?

I understand there are rules about scientists and advocacy, and that care must be taken not to alienate institutions or potential funding sources. But the time for such niceties is long past, because we are long past the point on so many crises where standard, moderate, calls for action will do the job.  And I am frequently struck by the fact that the urgency and radicalism of the problems we face is rarely matched with similar urgency and radicalism when it comes to proposed solutions.

Extremism is often disdained or dismissed. Given the scale and implications of climate change and species loss perhaps we had better start seeing extremism as a virtue. Or a necessity.