Treehuggers no doubt remember Knut. He's the polar bear cub who would likely have died after being rejected by his mother, save that he became a media sensation when his Berlin zookeepers decided not to let Nature take its course. While some animal activists objected, the public at large seems to have responded in unison: "How could anyone let anything this cute die?"
You've no doubt also seen equally captivating pictures of many of Knut's' wild cousins—images that distill all of the scientific complexities of global warming and melting sea ice into a single powerful concept: this magnificent animal is going to drown in front of your eyes—this is global warming, and it's your fault.
Obviously, such images hold great power to shape public discussions about the environment and our effect on it. It's also clear that there's a wide range of options to choose from when deciding how to depict animals and what we feel about their place in an environment we shape: a universe of aesthetic choices live between the extremes of, say, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Dogs Playing Poker.
Like anyone who works in "eco-comms," I think about these things nearly every day—whether I'm working on the Earthwatch website, our print publications, or the briefings that go out to volunteers before they join an expedition.
Most of the time, selecting these images is one of the more rewarding aspects of the job. We have a 37-year visual archive of amazing work done in some of the world's most transfixing places, with some of its most arresting creatures.
But sometimes we struggle. Pictures of animals get tricky for a variety of reasons, and pictures of people interacting with animals—even under trained supervision—get even trickier. (We encourage people to think of animals as something other than props in a photo shoot.) We're aware of the power of the images we choose to represent not just one project or another, but even to shape conversations about larger environmental issues.
And when that issue is global warming, the picture truly better be worth a thousand words—and those words need to be the "right" ones to convey the seriousness of the challenge and motivate people to make a difference. How do we tell which ones work best?
Pictures of drowning polar bears--despite the lingering scientific uncertainty over how many are actually "out there," how widespread bear drownings are, etc.--have taken center stage in the public consciousness as the images of global warming. It's easy to understand why: polar bears are classic "charismatic megafauna," melting glacial ice is understood even by lay people as being a key indicator of a warming globe, and the fear of drowning is deeply ingrained, trans-species, primal. It's remarkably easy to see ourselves in bears, given their general frame and features, and we've been anthropomorphizing them for millennia.
No surprise that as we come to terms with our own anxieties about what we've done to our planet, we see ourselves in these pictures. How's your backstroke?
And while I laud what images like these have done to bring more members of the public into the conversation about global warming, its extent, its likely effects, and the best ways to address it, I have to wonder about the images we're not seeing as much of.
Here's one from an Earthwatch expedition in the Bahamas, taken by the lead scientist John Rollino:
This shows damage to a coral reef. We should be very worried about what this image represents and how it may be tied to climate change, since reefs are dying worldwide. Ocean acidification, increasingly severe storms, coral bleachings—all these and more have been linked to global warming, and we know far more about reefs that are dead or dying than we (yet) know about drowning polar bears. But, for obvious reasons, pictures like this one don't have the same emotional impact as that bear up top.
Here's another to consider, taken in 2007 by an HSBC volunteer on our Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge expedition:
Before I learned about this project, a picture like this wouldn't have made much of an impact on me; now that I know what's being studied here, it scares me deeply. Dr. Peter Kershaw and his colleagues are measuring the melting of "permafrost" (a word that was never supposed to need irony-quotes .) near Churchill, Manitoba, along with the rate and amount of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere as a result.
Pictures like this unnerve me even more than drowning polar bears because I know their context: an estimated 20% of the world's carbon has been stored in these perhaps-not-so-permanently-frozen peatlands. The warmer things get, the more of that 20% gets released, making things even warmer and well, let's just all agree that "positive feedback loop" is not a phrase you want to hear when contemplating the future pace of global warming.
But, as with the image of a damaged coral reef, this one doesn't grab you. It just looks like a bunch of--you should pardon the expression--treehuggers standing around getting their feet muddy. I understand its shortcomings on both aesthetic and emotional terms, but—as with the coral reef picture—the science behind this one means that as a representation of global warming it should be far more compelling than a whole feature length film of drowning polar bears, because its implications are far more serious for humanity as a whole.
I'll close with just one more, from a study being conducted by Dr. Christina Buesching and Dr. Chris Newman on the mammals of Nova Scotia:
This little critter is a red backed vole. You've probably tried to get his relatives out of your garden at some point. Here, in a picture taken by a volunteer this past April, he's being held not for his close-up, but so his presence and range can be documented, along with those of lots of other furry denizens of the region. In part, the study is designed to show how mammals and their habitats may be responding to climate change.
Like Knut, this vole's got cuteness cornered. Unlike the adult polar bear in the Arctic, it doesn't appear to be in any imminent danger from what we could identify as climate change.
And that's the big problem, as I see it: pictures of drowning polar bears ultimately risk reducing the issue and the threat too much. They are meant to convey a sense of immediacy over global warming, but end up primarily conveying a sense of an individual polar bear in terrible trouble. Such individualization, along with the ways we project ourselves onto the bear, risk a kind of eco-catharsis: we can feel pity and terror at the plight of that bear, or even that group of bears, and don't necessarily get pushed to feel or think much beyond that.
Again, that's understandable—as compelling as the coral reef or permafrost pictures should be, they undeniably lack an emotional focal point. As Emerson put it, "man brings the test of all things to himself."
Nevertheless, the more I learn and think about global warming, the more I think the now-iconic drowning polar bear picture misses the mark. In addition to the risks discussed above, such images (along with those of reefs and melting permafrost) let us keep global warming global rather than local, since most of us don't live in the environments they depict. The unexamined implication is that global warming's effects are showing up dramatically, yes, but in distant, extreme landscapes—not in our backyards.
Except, of course, they are, and attention must be paid.
At the risk of performing the kind of anthropomorphizing I've just critiqued, I confess to seeing a lot of myself in that vole lately, particularly when I think about how global warming is already affecting places where I live, places without reefs or polar bears or permafrost, unless you count what's hiding the Ben and Jerry's in my freezer.
Like that vole, I suppose, I'm a pretty lowly, ordinary critter being moved against my will by powerful and practically inscrutable forces. I'm struggling to keep my footing on something that makes sense. And all I really want is sense that home is solid ground, be it ever so humble.