In my personal life, I try to practice Stoicism. I recognize that there are many things – most things, in fact – that I cannot control or change. I let go of those things and focus instead on controlling what I can control or change, which mainly centers around my own reaction to a thing. I can’t control traffic but I can choose not to get mad about it and enjoy listening to my audiobook instead. I can’t control that it feels like living on the sun in Arizona, but I can either accept that it’s hot here, or move. Recently, though, I went to a talk given by Paul Nicklen, biologist, photojournalist, and arctic explorer. As I listened to Nicklen’s presentation, I felt my Stoicism crumbling a bit more with each word he said.
Nicklen showed us a video he had taken of a polar bear who was starving to death. The poor creature, who should have weighed close to 1,000 pounds or more, clocked in at roughly 200 pounds and was too weak to do more than stagger towards Nicklen, who had waited for several hours nearby. The bear eventually came over to some garbage cans the film crew laid out to check desperately if there was food inside. Nicklen did not tell us if the bear ever found enough to eat, though the implication was that it did not and eventually died. Attempting to be apolitical, he was careful not to connect the effects of climate change to the bear’s situation, while at the same time making sure to be clear that it was precisely because of climate change that the bear had no ice to live on, and that it was the destruction of its habitat that had caused its starvation conditions.
Nicklen discussed, too, the effects of the use of drift nets upon ocean populations. The fishing industry uses drift nets that are up to a mile long, which are opened and then set loose in the ocean. The fishing boats then come along to collect the nets to see what they caught. Often, they catch dolphins, whales, sharks, rays, seals, and other non-food sea life. Many of these are endangered animals; many are highly intelligent and sensitive. Some are caught intentionally, such as sharks for shark fin soup. We had the dubious honor of seeing footage of a shark getting its fins cut off, while still alive, for exactly that purpose, and then thrown back into the water to flail helplessly. I couldn’t blink, because blinking would have made my face leak and possibly made sounds come out my mouth.
Nicklen’s talk was not all about the wanton death and destruction of the oceans and the arctic regions. The majority of it was awe-inspiring and filled with breathtaking images he’s taken over the years. He showed us many images of what a polar bear is supposed to look like in all its huge glory. They can be silly creatures as well, for as huge and deadly as they are. One enormous male Nicklen showed us made himself a giant snowball, put it on top of his head* (he was supremely proud of himself, judging from the expression on his furry face), and then snuggled up with it in his arms and fell asleep. This delightful encounter was documented by Nicklen’s lens. He showed us what a happy seal looks like, fat and sleek, her pup a butterball of soft white fur, so full of milk it can’t stuff its tongue back in its mouth. When elephant seals are weaned, they get really lonely. If you lay down in the surf near them, they will come and want to be close to you and will lay on your lap, even though they weigh around 500 pounds. The oft-maligned leopard seal, frequently described as violent or aggressive, provided another glimpse into arctic animal life. Nicklen got in the water with a female leopard seal moments after she’d killed a penguin to eat. She charged him, nothing but gaping jaws and teeth, but he shut his eyes and curled up and after a few minutes, she settled down, confused. Then she swam off and came back a few moments later with another penguin, which she tried to give to Nicklen. The penguin got away and she retrieved it, prodding it toward him again. He did not take the penguin for fear the power dynamic would change him into a competing predator to the seal. Instead, she kept bringing him penguins, each one more wounded or weakened, until finally she brought him a dead one and literally put it on his head. During his last swim with this female seal, she turned on her back and made a sound at him that is usually reserved for their pups. Maybe she thought he was a particularly inept pup and was trying to help him. These encounters, too, were captured by Nicklen or one of his crew.
Nicklen’s purpose is to show that animals are often misunderstood and that many instances of “animal aggression” is simply humans panicking or imposing and stressing the animals out. When the animals are allowed to dictate the encounter, using a modicum of common sense of course, it is far less likely that anyone will be harmed. They have personalities and feelings, not to anthropomorphize anything. But to be careless with our actions has far-flung and devastating impact on the environment and the creatures that live in it.
I shouldn’t think this would need explaining, but there are still people who deny that humans have an impact on climate change, or who deny that we can change anything. I simply cannot fathom or condone that kind of short-sightedness. We rush to insure our homes if there is even a 1% chance that it will burn down or come to harm. Why wouldn’t we take similar precautions with our one true home, the earth? It is exhausting to care about something so much, but Nicklen made a comment that really struck me during his talk. “It isn’t fun to care,” he said. I agree, it isn’t. But do it anyway.
I realized after the talk that I can still be Stoic about this. I may not be able to control or change these people or their views. I can’t force the climate to revert to pre-Industrial Revolution clean standards with a wave of my hand. But I CAN do my part not to use things that are harmful to the land or oceans. I can help lobby to ban things like drift nets, trophy hunting, and the market for shark fins. I can drive a car that doesn’t contribute to greenhouse emissions that makes the atmosphere hotter, and melts the ice so the polar bears don’t have anywhere to live. There are things we can do, even if they are a little inconvenient. We have to consider if there really is an inconvenience when we are keeping the ecosystem healthy. We can do better, if not for ourselves then for our children and grandchildren. It isn’t fun to care, but do it anyway.
*All the photo links will take you to Nicklen’s awesome Instagram page.