Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Haven't we learned anything?

(Paul J. Richards, via The LA Times)

Remember, as a child in school, learning about the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the whooping crane? Remember learning about the slaughter of the buffalo, which once seemed inexhaustible? Or the whales, likewise? Even the forests in America were once thought too abundant for mankind to ever log out.

Remember learning about the mistakes we made in the past? Didn't you assume that we knew better now? Didn't you figure that we'd actually learned something from those mistakes? Weren't you really naive?

Here's a sobering article in The Los Angeles Times about the plight of the polar bear:
In one of the most dramatic signs ever documented of how shrinking Arctic sea ice impacts polar bears, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska have tracked a female bear that swam nine days across the deep, frigid Beaufort Sea before reaching an ice floe 426 miles offshore.

The marathon swim came at a cost: With little food likely available once she arrived, the bear lost 22% of her body weight and her year-old female cub, who set off on the journey but did not survive, the researchers said. ...

Polar bears spend much of their waking lives on the shifting Arctic sea ice floes. They survive mainly on the ringed seals that are also dependent on sea ice and swim in abundance in the relatively shallow coastal waters of the continental shelf.

But sea ice has been melting dramatically in recent years, forcing polar bears during the fall open-water periods to either forage from shore or swim longer distances in search of sea ice.

Bears that retreat to land usually find little or no food there, and "typically … spend the duration fasting while they await the re-formation of ice needed to access and hunt seals," according to a 2008 government study.

Polar bears are a dramatic, majestic species. They're not one of those nondescript species which are dying off, nearly without notice, every day. They're not hidden beneath the surface, like the ocean life we're wiping out through overfishing. If we're not willing to do something to protect polar bears, what chance does any other species on Earth have?

Yeah, but... it will cost us money!
In any case, they say, the bears are imperiled.

"They're drowning and starving now, and all the scientific studies show an incredibly high likelihood of extinction of two-thirds of the world's polar bears in the next 40 years … and that includes all the bears in Alaska," said Kassie Siegel, who is arguing the case for the Center for Biological Diversity.

But Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who is leading the charge against the Endangered Species Act protections, has said the critical-habitat designation will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic development and tax revenue.

Yes, you were hopelessly naive back then, back when you were in school, weren't you? We never learned anything from our past mistakes. It's just that we could criticize our ancestors, because it didn't cost us anything to do so. And we could criticize other peoples for failing to protect tigers or elephants or tropical rainforests, because we didn't have to pay for that, either. (And, indeed, we were busy clear-cutting our own rainforests at the time, here in the wealthiest nation on Earth.)

In the future, assuming we can still afford schools, our descendants will learn how terrible it was that we let the polar bears die out. They'll learn what a tragic mistake we made in destroying our oceans, and of the horrible consequences of that. They'll learn of the immense biological diversity of the Earth years ago, much of it lost forever due to our greed, our foolishness, our incredible ignorance.

And those children will assume that people had finally learned better. Yes, no doubt they'll be just as naive as you were.

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