In the rousing stories of climate change news this spring, polar bears are never far away. As a visual reminder of the melting ice from which they hunt seals, the devastation that carbon-powered societies seem to cause these majestic animals is a serious issue.
But they also demonstrate that nature is not nice.
In 2018, two attacks with fatal outcomes were reported from Nunavut, the northernmost region of the Canadian Arctic. On Sentry Island in western Hudson Bay, Aaron Gibbons put himself between his daughters and an approaching polar bear. While the daughters radioed for help, the bear ripped Mr. Gibbons apart, making him the first polar bear casualty in almost twenty years, reported the BBC.
Less than two months later and some four-hundred miles southwest, a female polar bear and a cub stumbled upon three stranded caribou hunters who, undeterred by the hunters’ rifles, mauled and killed Darryl Kaunak. Before being rescued, the survivors killed the attacker and at least one other bear in self-defense.
These tragedies are remarkably rare, which is why they make headlines (for example, fatal encounters with Black bears and Grizzlies are much more common). In addition to the sympathy we may feel towards these animals losing their habitats, such attacks also illustrate the inherent dangers and ruthlessness of nature.
In recent years, communities from Arviat to Igloolik are reporting abundant sightings of polar bears – often dangerously close to residential areas – all while scientists are claiming that the bears are fragile, underfed, and threatened by climate change. Whether polar bears are more numerous than scientists think, or they are simply moving closer to human settlements, the Inuit living there are the most vulnerable – with many communities doing regular morning runs around their settlements to ensure that the streets are safe for kids to go to school.
The 2018 attacks resulted in reawakened controversies over polar bears in Northern Canada. In an interview with the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, Naujaat elder Donat Milortok said that “once the bears were our food. Now we’ve become the food.” Polar bears, despite the furry looks that make them iconic climate change victims, are not naturally nice.
While the local details differ, similar stories are present everywhere humans live. Snakes and spiders in the Amazon or Australia; hurricanes and earthquakes in California; mosquitos in sub-Saharan Africa. Nature is powerful, and rarely careful with human life.
Thankfully, climate-related deaths are on a century-long decline despite the environmental changes that scientists inform us about. The reason is the widespread affluence and the technology it affords: We have become much better at protecting ourselves against the elements.
Fire, fossil fuels, and ancient wisdom have allowed us to live and flourish in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, such as the far North: warning systems prevent tsunamis from claiming incredible numbers of human lives; heating systems and air conditioning offer millions of people protection from wildlife, the elements and extreme temperature. Wealth and technology is why the Dutch can live under water, safety protected against the wrath of the North Sea, why the Scandinavians and Alaskans can live comfortable lives despite darkness and a bitter cold.
Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times earlier this year, reflecting on the engineering wonder that is the Dutch Delta works – the series of dams and sluices and protective barriers that keeps the low-lying Dutch river lands safe:
“Though most of the Netherlands is either below sea level or prone to river floods, the number of people killed by flooding since 1953 is zero.”
While health and wealth are important, impressive water protection is not only accessible to a rich country. The Dutch, “masters of the water,” says an episode of Extreme Engineering, have for millennia “tamed the waters.” Some of the oldest living financial documents are perpetual bonds from Dutch water companies that, almost four centuries later, are still paying interest on money raised in the 1640s to build dikes and fight flooding. Yale financial historian William Goetzmann writes in Money Changes Everything that
“whether the country was run by the Spanish, French, or Dutch, the water companies maintained power of taxation and the ability to raise their own armies in times of need – armies to fight floods. […] Without their own capabilities, the great threat to the citizens would not be from their neighbors but from the ever-present risk of inundation.”
The Bambi Syndrome
The scientific advancements of a richer world allow us to better control nature and mitigate the damage it may cause. As more humans today – certainly in the Western world – are well-protected from the elements and wildlife and have abundant access to food from the local supermarket, a detachment from the ruthless goings-on of nature can result in all kinds of mistaken beliefs.
The “Bambi Syndrome” is an often derogatory term for someone who – thanks to the wonders of progress – can feel an awe for nature and animals uncoupled with respect for the dangers they represent. Protecting polar bears, mountain gorillas, and rainforests becomes an uncomplicated moral imperative when their preservation does not threaten your home and sustenance.
The Inuit communities of Nunavut harbor no delusions about the peaceful nature of wildlife. They are intimately familiar with the ruthlessness of nature – the cold, the treacherous ice, the capricious polar bears.
Calling for better human control of nature is neither the climate denials of oil executives or the early Christian convictions that man was created to shepherd animals and dominate nature. Fundamentally, it points to the threat that nature routinely poses to humans – seemingly needless to point out in the midst of a pandemic with a virus bent on killing its host in all manner of unpleasant ways. Disease, earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, floods, and extreme temperatures are other ways that nature displays its power over all life.
In many ways we tacitly admit this. Last summer in England alone, over 900 deaths were attributed to summer heatwaves, often because of insufficient cooling in care homes. By improved indoor building standards and air conditioning, 28 major U.S. cities have lowered the number of heat-related deaths by three-quarters since the 1960s.
The converse also holds, and much more so: cold weather and temperature routinely kills upwards of 25,000 people in England and Wales, an “excess winter mortality” frequent among women above the age of 90. These are deaths frequently preventable by upping the thermostat a notch. Thankfully, this count is gradually falling, currently at half of what it was in the 1950s and 1960s when the population was two-thirds of what it is now (and fewer people reached that age).
Recognizing that cold winters kill, that the elderly may both be more vulnerable and financially less able to afford heating their homes properly, the UK government has since 1997 paid a “Winter Fuel Payment” – a no-strings-attached benefit to help pay heating bills. New Zealand’s “Winter Energy Payment” is an even more generous scheme, targeting the same outcome: assist those who might struggle to afford it a better protection against harsh winter elements.
These examples point to a basic truth: with wealth and technology, we can better protect against the destructive powers of nature – be they through storms, extreme temperatures or other climate-impacted events. The takeaway is this: the protection afforded to us through wealth and technology far outstrips any increased damage that nature may impose on us.
In the age of global warming, protecting humans from a destructive nature is even more important. As climate change means more frequent and more severe storms, droughts, and fires, the imperative becomes stronger. We must keep enriching ever more sways of the world’s almost eight billion people, allowing them access to the technological devices required – and the financial means to afford them.
Humans have affected the planet and its ecosystem in many ways – quite a few through mindless experiments, accidents or sheer ignorance. Through affluence and knowledge we are making amends for that. But when nature threatens human life, be it through encroaching polar bears in the Arctic or the gradual chipping away through climate change, we seek to protect ourselves. The polar bears were shot, the thermostat increased, air conditioning installed.
Nature may be pristine, but nature is not friendly. With climate change making nature even less secure, we would do well to let technology and global economic growth protect us. With wealth and technology, we can both tame it and protect against its worst excesses.
We must retire the myth that the Bambi Syndrome presents.