Iced up Imagery 2

The next installment of icy films and TV
The Polar Bear Family and Me

So, polar bears. They have been fascinating to me from the point where they started being flag ship species and campaign motives for action on climate change (which I’ll come to shortly). However, since starting this project, they have started to haunt my dreams (nightmares) in a rather different sense, given getting eaten by one is a possibility when I head out to Svalbard! Don’t worry, I’ll be taking all the necessary pre-cautions to minimise the risks, but I think it’s good to have a healthy respect for these arctic residents, and watching this series has been useful in cultivating this.
I don’t often watch TV, in fact I don’t even have one,  largely down to the fact that I find most of it repetitive, sensationalist and somewhat patronising. There was a fair amount of that kind of thing on in this 3-part series, but I have to admit, I got over it on this occasion. The filming was impressive (and as you can see from the above pic, quite extreme at times); I learnt a fair bit about bears and the concept of following a family really worked for me . It was compelling watching, I really wanted to know what happened to those bears.

Lyra and her two cubs Mikey and Luka set off across the ice.

I doubt one of the key reasons for filming this series was as an ‘action on climate change campaign’, however, the gloomy message for the future of polar bears in an Arctic with less and less ice was not something it shied away from . Indeed the specific family’s plight they chose to follow hammered this message home strongly, with or without Gordon Buchanan’s heartfelt summary:

‘My time with Lyra and Mickey has shown me how vulnerable polar bears really are. They belong here, and only here. They are part of this extraordinary Arctic world. But their world is changing and their future is unsure. … For thousands of years polar bears have been shaped, been fine-tuned by this landscape, the climate, the ice, the seals that they hunt. To that extent that polar bears aren’t just a symbol of the Arctic, they are the embodiment of all life here in the Arctic. It’s easy to understand how polar bears have become this powerful emblem. And it is almost unimagineable that there could be a future without them’. 

Just a few days after watching the last episode, I spotted an article in the Guardian suggesting it might not long before we need to start feeding polar bears (something that is currently illegal, at least in Svalbard) to supplement their dwindling access to sea ice seals . The fact that enthusiasts are already standing by to fund raise for this speaks volumes for the attachment we have to the animals.

PictureGreenpeace international Save the Arctic Campaign

There is no disputing the fact polar bears have become an emblem for the Arctic, a ‘charismatic species’, though how useful and appropriate this is does merit critical discussion. Without turning this into an epic piece, I’ll outline the main points and recent things I’ve come across which relate.

Climate change, as mentioned in the previous post, can be hard to relate to, some researchers cite the lack of clear imagery to associate with climate change as one reason for this [1].  As with Chasing Ice and its calving glaciers, images of polar bears and how climate change is affecting them, can make this abstract concept come to life. One could argue the polar bear gets a few steps closer to us, we engage emotionally with the living species, and certainly with a named family of bears we are ‘getting to know’ through this series. Slocum [2] shows that in Northern regions, the polar bear is also employed as a familiar character and as a way to localise climate change:

PictureOxfam International’s Polar Bears December, 2007 Photos: Ng Swan Ti.

because of the magnificence of the bear, the knowledge of the melting Arctic, and the Northern identification, the polar bear is a symbol that does not need text with it – the bear can stand alone’. (p.15)

They are also politically significant in that the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (signed in 1973) to prohibit hunting them was one of the first of its kind to protect both species and its habitat [3].  Whilst there are still some issues with managing the kinds of hunting that is allowed (e.g. to support traditional ways of life), it is generally considered a success, one which climate change puts into jeopody.

However, as Manzo [4,5] points out, some ways of visualising climate change leave the geopolitics out of the picture. Appeals to saving ‘wildlife’, ‘nature’ or the ‘environment’ can certainly appeal to those with eco-centric values and interests, but they leave untouched the issues of global justice and the effects climate change will have on the world’s poorest populations. This had led some campaigns to adopt the polar bear as a tongue in cheek protest by getting ‘polar bears’ to campaign for humans to be saved.

Polar bears as a species to save are located firmly in ‘nature’ (and one which is for most of us rather remote and exotic): Slocum argues that by appealing to ‘save’ them, we are reinforcing the binary that puts humans over and above ‘nature’ with the power to save or destroy in our hands only, which surely does not give bears, or ‘nature’ a fair run. I think perhaps the relations between humans and bears, and their potential to surprise and adapt is something that was portrayed quite well in My Polar Bear Family and Me and indeed the above quote nudges us towards thinking whether we as a species would be the same if polar bears were extinct. Yet this is undoubtedly a worthwhile critique.  

There is surely a lot more I will have to say about polar bears in the future, and the necessity of learning to shoot one (only as a last resort for self-defence) is looming in the foreground. I’ll leave this post on a more cheery note though. Climate change campaigns are often more interesting when a little bit of humour is involved, and I think this topical song strikes a good balance between a funny/ ironic ditty and deadly serious/ sad: 

[1] DiFrancesco, D.A., Young, N. (2011) ‘Seeing climate change: the visual construction of global warming in  Canadian national print media’, Cultural Geographies, 18(4), 517–536.

[2] Slocum, R. (2004) ‘Polar bears and energy-efficient lightbulbs: strategies to bring climate change home’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 22, 413–438.

[3] Fikkan, A., Osherenko, G., Arikainen, A. (1993) ‘Polar Bears: The Importance of Simplicity’, in Polar Politics: Creating International Environmental Regimes, Cornell University Press: London, 96–151.

[4] Manzo, K. (2010) ‘Imaging vulnerability: the iconography of climate change’, Area, 42(1), 96–107.

[5] Manzo, K. (2012) ‘Earthworks: The geopolitical visions of climate change cartoons’, Political Geography, 31(8), 481–494.

5 thoughts on “Iced up Imagery 2

  1. I found reading about the plight of the polar bears quite upsetting, esp the video at the end – they’re such beautiful creatures, and how will they understand the loss of their habitat, and life?
    On a lighter note, they’re quite yellow, not the pristine white we see in posters!

    1. Agreed, sorry I didn’t mean to come over that insenstive at the end. The polar bear song is sad too, but I think the tune etc makes it sound a bit daft and so it lightens the mood a bit (might be digging myself a deeper hole…)
      Aparently they get more yellow as they get older, its some sort of algal grow, if I remember correctly.

  2. It’s a shame humans are generally so arrogant that we have to be given reasons to stop behaviour that harms the other residents of this planet. O for a world where we would have avoided expanding across and polluting a planet that doesn’t belong to us to begin with!
    I agree on TVs, I generally find at least one thing subtext/assumption I disagree with every time I turn one on. (And that’s just the adverts!)

    1. Yes agreed, it would save us a lot of hassle analysing our crazy behaviour if we were just, well more sensible and sensitive!

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