Friday, December 29, 2006

Polar Bears and Existentialism

Polar bears are in the news (and Coca Cola advertisements) lately. How can something so cute be so politically polarizing?

I have been worried about them for years, ever since I read an article about the declining body fat of female polar bears. Like humans, they can't ovulate if their body fat crosses a threshold. When that happens, the species cannot reproduce and becomes essentially walking ghosts. If we continue on our current course, it is likely that polar bears will cross this threshold in a few years, not decades.

Read this CBC News background article about polar bears and scientists who track their declining health. It was written in 1999 and the problem has only worsened since then.

I find the thought of a future without polar bears deeply troubling, even though I am unlikely to ever see one firsthand in the wild. I don't want to see the earth become a habitat solely for humans and the things that humans eat. Who can put a price on seeing the look on a child's face when they learn about a new and wondrous animal? That does not appear on a balance sheet anywhere. However, a world without polar bears would make me feel poorer.

What does this have to do with existentialism?

Extinction always recalls to my mind, Graham Swift's short story, "Hoffmeier's Antelope". The unnamed storyteller's uncle, a zoo keeper, had been trying unsuccessfully for years to breed the last known pair of Hoffmeier's antelopes in the world. If the pair die without reproducing, the species will become extinct.

In an act of desperation, the uncle disappears with the pair of antelopes so that their fate will be unknown. As long as no one knows for sure if the remaining Hoffmeier's antelopes are alive or dead, they cannot be declared extinct.

Graham Swift's short story collection, Learning to Swim, has been republished in paperback and I highly recommend it.

Read critiques about time and existentialism and Hoffmeier's Antelope.

That's all folks.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous03:38

    Earlier this year I saw a talk by Paul MacCready in which he rambled on various topics.

    He had a slide I found striking, showing the relative amounts of wild biomass and human-plus-domesticated biomass over time. The crossover point was about 1940 with human-plus-domesticated biomass dramatically dominating thereafter.

    [Slightly longer version of this comment apparently eaten by Blogger. This Blogger "Beta" business has been a real pain in the neck.]

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