It seems like a world ago, but there was a time that everyone on earth had an obsession with a certain little polar bear named Knut, who lived in the Berlin Zoo. At the time I was a wide-eyed child with hair as white as the bear in question, so I was definitely no exception. One of my favourite teddy bears I named Knut that my dad had brought from the zoo of Berlin. People even nicknamed me Knuts. Knut’s tragic backstory was that he had been abandoned by his mother and thereafter been raised by his caretakers. There was much I didn’t understand of the matter. But instinctively I knew: I stand with Knut.
Organisations like the WWF know how to use this benevolence of children. They thrive on cuteness. For years I was an active WWF Ranger, along with most of my friends. Every dinner party my parents threw, I would make my rounds with my little Rangerpamflet and ask the guests whether they were interested in perhaps (symbolically) adopting a gorilla. After all, how could anyone say no to my big blue eyes?
In this era the drama of the world was unambiguous. Polar bears were lonesome creatures, like Knut, who spent their wild lives wandering through vast frozen landscapes. The melting ice would alienate them from their habitat. In my imagination, they would drift melancholically towards the horizon on a floe, only to disappear off the edge of the earth. How the money that I collected for the pandas, sea turtles, and elephants would help them wasn’t something I thought about. All I knew, was that humanity was responsible for a great injustice towards the animal kingdom, and I could help to make it right.
One day, a certain philosopher turned my whole world upside down. You see, an important element of my upbringing were the audio books that my parents made me listen to during the long drives in mom’s red hot Opel Zafira to visit family in Germany on holidays. And suddenly there was Bas Haring booming through the speakers with ‘Why?’ (Waarom in Dutch). He asked a sneaky question that haunts me to this day: ‘Who cares if the panda goes extinct?’ Turns out pandas don’t want to fuck. Why would we force them to? Kind of sick of us, to be frank. Maybe it was a bit too early for me to learn about the concept of panda porn. And you could say it’s insipid for a philosopher to crush a child’s enthusiastic naiveté by making them feel bad for wanting a world without suffering. But mister Haring had me right where he wanted me. For the first time in my life, I felt like the passions and reason were hopelessly incompatible.
This feeling bothered me for a long time. When we collectively adopted a polar bear with our year 1 biology class (brugklas in Dutch), we were sad to learn there wasn’t an actual polar bear attached to the transaction. So naturally, we decided to track a random polar bear for months on end, checking in on his nomadic journey every Friday morning through a website tracking polar bears. Our biology teacher, who travelled to Spitsbergen (ed. also known as Svalbard) on a regular basis himself, showed us how less and less ice returned each summer. Meanwhile, in the zoo of Berlin, Knut had tragically passed away. We called our adopted polar bear Knüdels. As tribute. For me, the magic was gone.
Polar bears are no sweet huggable teddy bears. Just as little as panda bears, gorillas, and elephants. Climate change does not make these animals depressed, or existential. It makes them desperate. Without ice to use for hunting, polar bears roam into populated areas to scavenge for sustenance. This has lead to an increase in conflicts, which are just as potentially dangerous for the bears as for the people. I remember gagging the first time I saw blood on that white fur coat. The tears in my eyes when another bear was shot in a video, even if it only were with a tranquilliser. The last polar bear will not silently drift off towards the horizon. It will fight for its existence. Sadly, in the last decennia (Western) society has fought back ten times as hard.
A recurring subject in this discussion is the aversion towards individualistic action. We are such tiny humans. Climate change is a matter of big money, big business, and most importantly institutional change. For 2023, teddy bears are out, discarded as the cheap devices to lure children that they are. Remember those VSCO girls with their scrunchies and hydro flasks who wanted to save the turtles by refusing plastic straws? How ignorant they were! We really should focus supporting the microbiome that is crucial for any ecosystem. In 2023, it’s all about stuffed amoebae. Sorry, what’s that you were saying about institutional change?
On an evolutionary level, we have a preference for baby animals with big eyes. It’s easy to write off childish passion as weakness, but it is the driving force of our existence. The thing we derive our hope from. The thing that makes cute small polar bears grow into awesome big ones. For my studies, I write essays on nature conservation and climate change policy. I protest from time to time. Not exactly childish behaviour. But it all started with WWF for me. I miss it sometimes. The world seems to have changed so much already. It’s not just the academic level I operate on now. Almost everyone seems to have embraced the reasonable and calculated approach to climate change. Who could ever be so stupid and unthinking as to think throwing soup on a painting and glueing yourself to a wall would do anything?
Most young people in climate change activism have similar memories that made them care about the environment. My fellow students remember Knut fondly as well. One of them even got the chance to see Knut. In Berlin. Even after all this time, I can’t help but feel envy. When I’m in my childhood bedroom, my blue eyes still tend to find that eponymous teddy bear on my bookshelf. It comforts me. You might not be the destined hero to help the polar bears, but you could always become that person. It is not unreasonable to care. Knut taught me that a long time ago.
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