Category Archives: Uncategorized

What should we think about the starving polar bear?

This time with my excellent colleague Justiina Dahl as coauthor!


Images of a starving polar bear foraging through trash in a rather green northern Canadian landscape recently went viral. Paul Nicklen of Sea Legacy, who recorded the footage, placed the suffering of this individual bear in the wider context of climate change, “to convey a larger message about how a warming climate has deadly consequences.” Reporting soon became more cautious and the bear was even presented as evidence of how the media keeps getting the Arctic wrong.

There is some truth in both positions. Climate change is affecting sea ice levels, and will almost certainly affect traditional bear habitats for the worse. But what contemporary discussions tend to overlook is that polar bear populations were stressed well before climate change became recognized as an issue. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, signed by all countries that have polar bear populations, was a specific response to a sense that polar bear numbers were in retreat due to recreational human hunting. All this raises a bigger question. What is it about this animal that makes it so symbolically powerful, and how has this shaped its conservation?


From individual trophy hunting to international cooperation

Indigenous Arctic residents have long hunted polar bears. The long-term patterns of this subsistence hunt require a high degree of practical knowledge about polar bears and their ways – knowledge that comes from living in surviving in that same Arctic environment. Sport hunting, which was one of the more divisive questions when negotiating the 1973 Agreement, derives much of its appeal from the idea of conquest, the white person (usually but not always a man) who travels to a distant, exotic, and often inhospitable land and comes home with a trophy to prove his superiority. Much the same was true for those who worked in the Arctic and returned to their southern homes with a bear-skin souvenir.

Individual national governments started to impose their own bans on polar bear hunting from the late 1950s, motivated largely by evidence that populations were in decline. These motivations were later accompanied by a wider sense that the winds of public opinion were blowing green, symbolized by the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The 1973 Agreement did two things. Firstly, it committed its five national signatories to a program of practical action by preventing polar bear hunting with a small number of designated exceptions, and to collecting more data to enable sound management. Secondly, it used the bears as symbols of their of “common will and desire to protect the whole of the Arctic natural environment”, as Norwegian environment minister Tor Halvorsen put it in his opening address to the final negotiating session.

The Agreement proved broadly successful in protecting polar bears from human hunting, and in focusing attention on the ecosystems upon which their survival depended. It did not however lead spill over into larger-scale Arctic environmental cooperation between the five circumpolar states, something Norway in particular desired. In the revision meeting of the parties of the Agreement five years after its ratification in 1981, the Norwegians attempted to enlarge the treaty again. Part of the reason was the political situation in Svalbard. Indeed, Erik Lykke from the Norwegian government delegation confided to a Canadian diplomat during the meeting that his government wanted a multilateral approach to Arctic environmental management because it worried about the USSR isolating Norway in a bilateral agreement over the sensitive Svalbard archipelago.

It was only when Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev made a now-famous speech in Murmansk in 1987, calling for a de-escalation of tensions in the Arctic, that space opened for this larger-scale multilateral environmental cooperation. The concept of “charismatic megafauna” offers one explanation for why even though the Arctic states succeeded in multilaterally protecting the polar bear, it took nearly twenty years to achieve this desired spillover effect.


Charismatic megafauna

The history of the conservation of the polar bear is in many ways a classic example of charismatic megafauna – a term used to described animals whose combination of size, grandeur, and cultural resonance makes them ideal vehicles through which particular values or arguments can be advanced. Cultural resonance is not inherent in the animal: it is a human product that says at least as much about the people for whom the polar bear possesses meaning (and the culture they are part of) as it does about the bear itself. As a recent comment piece in Nature put it, charismatic megafauna are “large, interesting animals that the public — and donors — love.”

In the context of collective Western history with the polar bear, part of the emotional effect of the contemporary Nicklen footage comes from the incongruence of a majestic predator, king of an icy domain, being reduced to an emaciated bag of bones within a landscape defined by human presence (trash and a snowmobile). This is why Nicklen refers to polar bears as “unwitting mascots of climate change”, whose kingdom retreats with the sea ice. The conception of polar bears as vulnerable in turn relies upon a conception of humans as powerful. (This is perhaps why some at the 1981 meeting worried about the effect on public opinion in favor of bear protection if the bears caused too many human fatalities.) In relation to the success factors behind the polar bear treaty, we find it tempting also to wonder whether there is a parallel with the great whales.


The collapse of Antarctic numbers led to the collapse of the Antarctic whaling industry, and ultimately to an international moratorium on commercial hunting that was signed in 1982. In the process whalers have become demonized figures in many (though certainly not all) parts of the world, at the same times as that the whales themselves have ceased to be regarded as floating oil barrels and have even been regarded by some as possessing sentience. Banning whaling has proved much easier than banning the other activities that interfere with their habitats, from waste dumping to sonic pollution. In the same way, banning the commercial hunting of polar bears is far easier than addressing the underlying causes of anthropogenic climate change.


What should we make of the starving bear?

So what should we make of the starving bear? It’s clearly an image designed to evoke emotion, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that. Climate change is an important issue that will affect polar bears in general – even if this individual bear might have been suffering from cancer rather than being the victim of retreating sea ice. What is more problematic is trying to draw overarching conclusions on polar bears in particular and the role of humans in the Arctic in general based on a single uncertain albeit charismatic data point. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which had a leading role in the negotiations for the 1973 agreement, is cautious about making its assessment of polar bear populations appear “more reliable than it really is”, despite considerable effort invested in surveying their numbers. This attitude echoes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reluctance to make aggressively specific predictions. That’s not an attitude that seems to have much traction in the current political and cultural moment.

Northern Nations, Northern Natures: Workshop Report

On November 9-11 the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH hosted a workshop titled ‘Northern Nations, Northern Natures’, funded by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) and Formas. Eighteen scholars took part from Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

The aim of the workshop was to bring eight senior scholars working in northern environmental history – broadly construed – into conversation with ten graduate students and younger scholars, in order to share ideas and develop networks. Over the course of two and a half days the participants gave presentations on a range of topics, including the politics of fisheries management in the Barents Sea, the transplantation of muskoxen to Scandinavia, the commodification of iceberg water as a luxury product, the relationship of certain Inuit communities to forestry, and a great deal more.

In addition to provoking stimulating discussion (and not a few moments of genuine astonishment), the workshop raised some important questions about both the differences and similarities in various circumpolar environments. The diversity of experiences and opinions of indigenous peoples – as articulated by themselves as well as by others – was identified as an important issue, especially in relation to processes of modernization and industrialization. So too were the range of means by which states express claims to northern territories, from science to military occupation. Perhaps the most important theme running throughout the discussions was the breadth of material encompassed by the term ‘northern environmental history’, which participants agreed could function as a loose frame for all manner of interesting studies without the need to be exclusive or programmatic. The connections between polar and temperate regions (and even tropical regions, through the tentacles of the Danish colonial empire for instance) are clear from the age of European expansion right through to the concerns for global climate change in the present. Moreover, by emphasizing that nature can be constructed with particular national flavors – rather than being a foundational component of national identity – a more interesting take on the relationships between people and northern environments becomes possible.

The organizers of the workshop, Peder Roberts (KTH) and Tina Adcock (University of Maine), are extremely grateful to all the participants for a fascinating set of discussions and for an atmosphere of enthusiasm and goodwill throughout. Special thanks are also due to Sverker Sörlin, without whose guidance and efforts the workshop would not have been possible. A number of posts resulting from the workshop discussions will appear on The Otter, the NiCHE research blog and on the workshop’s website.

Science, geopolitics, and the global Cold War

Are you interested in the history of US nuclear testing in the Pacific? How about the Antarctic territorial dispute that once escalated into gunfire? The secret story of uranium prospecting in North Africa during the 1950s? Or the Cold War origins of the Global Environmental Monitoring Project? This coming Friday — July 26 — I’ll be part of the symposium Planet Earth, the Environment, and the Cold War, at the International Congress of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Manchester. These and many other topics will be covered in what promises to be a fascinating day. Here’s a link to the program.

My partner in organizing the symposium, Simone Turchetti, is principal investigator for the European Research Council project The Earth Under Surveillance: Climate Change, Geophysics, and the Cold War Legacy. Over the past few years Simone and the team have looked at how the geosciences developed in Europe and beyond, as aids to statecraft (through surveillance or intelligence-gathering) but also as forums for regional and eventually global cooperation. Studying the earth and its systems, the basis of the modern environmental sciences, could also be a means of shoring up strategic resource supplies and even detecting enemy military capability. The symposium will showcase some of the work we’ve done in the past few years while bringing in scholars with expertise from Eastern Europe, the Pacific, and yes — even the Antarctic.

We’re fortunate to have Jake Hamblin as commentator for the symposium. (If you haven’t got a copy of his excellent new book Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism you can rectify that here.) Along with John Krige, Ron Doel, and many others, Jake has done pioneering work on the political dimensions of United States military support for science after 1945, including on the international stage. You might also have seen his recent op-ed in the New York Times.