What can we learn from the polar bear? Be aware. Be curious. Be compelling

10/31/2013 10:14:58 PM

Lessons from the Polar Bear

My husband, Scott, and I try to follow a rule in our family: be optimized for spontaneity. When life presents a wonderfully unpredictable opportunity, we say yes.

This past summer, I had the chance to exercise this policy when an email arrived from Mike Bellamente, executive director of Climate Counts. Would business and sustainability leaders be interested in participating in a Polar Bears International (PBI) initiative to raise awareness of climate change? I answered affirmatively without hesitation. Three months later, I arrived in Churchill, Manitoba during the polar bear migration to take part in the PBI Tundra Connections program.

For the last five years, my professional sustainability work has focused intensively on agriculture and the built environment and the impact each contributes to climate change. I spend a lot of time thinking about the accessibility—physical, economic, and cultural—of the food system, and so I find myself considering the same for polar bears. We are here on the subarctic tundra because the bears are here, waiting for the sea ice in the Western Hudson Bay to form so they can begin to hunt again and refuel after several months of mandated fasting.

Physically, while it is not uncommon for polar bears to roam a territory twice the size of Texas, they remain constrained by the availability of their primary source of food—the ringed seal and the bearded seal, respectively. Culturally, unlike their fellow ursine (as those with competing interests from the bears have suggested), polar bears cannot subsist long-term on alternatives—animal, berry, or other. And while bears don't typically carry a wallet, economics is just as important to their ability to consistently access their food as it is for humans. In the case of polar bears, however, decision-making by humans that favors short-term economic returns over long-term economic health is what poses a threat to their lunchbox.

Climate change is eroding bear habitat at a rate of approximately one day a year. That means that every spring the sea ice is receding earlier and returning later. This situation, along with all the other consequences of a melting ice cap, warming ocean, and higher temps, will accelerate until we decide to seek more sustainable alternatives to our fossil-fuel intensive practices.

So, let's take some lessons from the polar bear. Be aware. How is your own environment changing? Who influences the change you see? Be curious. Ask questions and make credibly informed decisions that consider immediate and extended social, economic, and environmental factors. Be compelling. Not only can you contribute to designing a more sustainable future with individual actions, but you can also engage others to amplify the positive impact for all.

Start now on the PBI website. See you on the ice!

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