A polar bear crosses a frozen pond near Churchill, Manitoba. Spending time in this pristine, remote environment helped bring home the message that we're all interconnected and that humans must, as a species, work collaboratively to solve the climate change crisis.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

11/1/2013 7:11:01 PM

Gift from the Tundra

The sense of being in a remote, isolated place, far away from the majority of human activity, reinforces my sense that we need to come together more frequently—and much more urgently—not for our own individual gain but for our collective long-term well being.

Although I am very familiar with the huge body of science that shows that climate change is real, that it is happening at an accelerating rate, and that it is human created, it wasn't until this week that I truly appreciated the urgent need not only for action, but for a different type of action—one that is much more collaborative.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of joining Polar Bears International on the journey of a lifetime, to see the polar bear population of Western Hudson Bay near to the small town of Churchill, Manitoba. This is place to which no road leads. You can only get here by train, or a 2 ½-hour flight from Winnipeg, the closet major city. Pristine, natural environments like this are increasingly rare, and remind me of my smallness. Out here, you feel like a mere speck on the planet. Some people who come out here also say they feel "insignificant" and maybe individually we are, but I think that underestimates our mutual dependence and the immense power of people working together.

Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at PBI, shared a perspective with me this week, one which will profoundly shape my own teaching to business students, our future business leaders. He made the parallel that, like polar bears, humans—and businesses run by humans—are not mere observers but interconnected, mutually dependent participants in our ecosystem. Without sea ice, polar bears cease to exist. If as a human race we continue to emit greenhouse gases at our current rate, the laws of physics require that we likely won't survive either. The good news? Because we know that human activity is the problem, it also means that the solution lies on our hands, if we choose to take it.

If we want to survive as a species we need to think and act more consciously with regard to our mutual dependence in the ecosystem. That certainly requires billions of individual actions, but we also require our policy makers to lead by example, and we require leadership by our major corporations, not to just think and act individually, but to work collaboratively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  And in my own world of academia and higher education, we need to find ways much more often to come together across our traditional disciplinary lines and work together to share our knowledge and inspire others to action. 

Aside from the immense gift of being able to see polar bears in their native habitat, this week for me has been a gift of another kind. I have had the chance to spend long, quality hours over several days listening to and talking with an incredible group of colleagues who are experts in climate science, wildlife ecology, as well as business practices. I learned about the intimate connection between climate change, the loss of Arctic sea ice, and the threat to the polar bear species. My colleagues also learned from me about how businesses can—under the right circumstances—be part of the solution and not the problem. And as we discussed our frustration about the degree to which the general public do not seem to fully appreciate the reality and consequences of climate change, we all realized that we need to more clearly and effectively communicate the message. We realized that because of our different areas of expertise and perspectives, we can communicate more effectively together than we can alone.

In the Eskimo Museum in Churchill, Manitoba there is a tiny ivory carving that delivers a big message. It depicts a native scene where collaboration in communal hunting was understood to be the means to survival. The small sign in the case by the carving says, "There are consequences to greed and laziness." For too long, as a human race, we have been consuming at an unsustainable pace the finite resources that were created over billions of years, and in doing so we are also stealing from future generations. Not only did early native populations appear to understand the importance of working collaboratively for their mutual survival, but it seems they also understood the concept of finite resources.  We should learn from their wisdom.

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