Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


NOVEMBER 26, 2010 4:22PM

Indulging my Pro-Life Leanings

Rate: 23 Flag

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Obama administration is “setting aside 187,000 square miles off Alaska as a ‘critical habitat’ for polar bears.”

A consequence of this is that oil and gas companies wanting to drill in the area would come under increased scrutiny and possible restrictions.

I'm a big fan of polar bears. But the danger is to the entire ecosystem, not just polar bears. Climate Change threatens pretty much all animals, including humans.

I like setting aside conservation land, and I'm also in favor of stopping offshore drilling for oil and gas. But that's not just because I'm pro-polar-bear, it's because I'm pro-life.*

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while this action by Obama will have some effects that I really like, I'm still not sure the cited rationale is a good one. In fact, I think it's the kind of politically well-intentioned act that could backfire.

This move appears to blame some very useful and important conservation on a rationale that is not compelling to many people. The political opposition will use it as fodder to claim that once again, animals are being seen as more important than people. I don't personally buy that argument, but I perceive that there are many who do.

I'd like to see those bears saved as much as anyone, but there's a risk that this particular action could trivialize what's really going on and end up being counter-productive. What we need is a serious discussion about the need to fix the real problem, which is that looming Climate Change risks a mass extinction, possibly to include humans. That problem cannot be fixed by setting aside more and more refuges.

By blaming drilling restrictions on the polar bears, we draw attention away from stronger reasons not to drill. And if we don't address those stronger reasons, it won't matter about the polar bears. All this will do is delay the inevitable. Frankly, Climate Change is such a serious threat to the planet that it probably won't be until we start to lose species in a visible way that we all start to pay attention. And if it takes losing a fine and visible species like the polar bear to make this point, I'm not so sure it would be a bad trade.

Polar bears are just the canaries in the coal mine. Creating an oxygen-filled safe-room in that coal mine to protect these metaphorical canaries from deadly gases just isn't the point. When the canary starts dying, that's a shame, but what we must do first is get out of the coal mine—or start repairing its air flow. And since I don't see us investing in any desperate NASA efforts to immediately colonize another planet, it's time we started to take care of the planet we have.

If you got value from this post, please "rate" it.

For more information on Climate Change, see my Climate Change page.


*Relax. In calling myself “pro-life,” I don't mean the term in the sense it's been hijacked to mean in the abortion debate. Rather, I intend the more general meaning indicated by the actual component words: I want the ecosystem we live in, the system that keeps us all alive, to continue to function. And, right now, I think that ecosystem is at serious risk—that we are at risk of a mass extinction or some other highly disruptive event that threatens human society globally.

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for the bravery of using that term in an enviornment that wouldn't like it very much.
go polar bears!
Don, I think we should take it back so that they have to pick a different, more descriptive term. Life is a lot more than what they've made it out to be. It turns out that most or all of life happens after birth, and yet many of the people who call themselves “pro” life seem so often not to support that aspect of it so much. They seem, from all I can see, to think it's a real nuisance to have other people living around them at all. But the issue won't even be around to debate if we don't fix Climate Change, since there pretty much won't be any people or perhaps even many mammals.
I'm with you all the way. Great use of the term.
The problem you describe is very real and we are already paying a price for it, I fear. The endangered species list was--and is--a good thing, but focus on individual species has actually diminished our ability to do what needs to be done now. It's fine to use cute and cuddly animals as symbols of what we are fighting to save, but we need to give people the larger context. We need to do the hard work of teaching the public about the environment and why all those threatened species are truly "canaries."
My husband works for The Sierra Club, so I have rad many an article about this.
If you are interested look up The Spirit Bear.. There are only 500 left on the west coast of Canada. They look just like polar bears.
rated with hugs
Lea, as our resident world traveler, it's great to see your support here. Thanks for stopping in.

Susan, yeah, I hate to go against the list, but I kind of hope that by taking a non-standard position (and not just for shock value, but because I think it would work better), I can wake people up a little and cause them not to operate on automatic. The two positions seem to be “Endangered? Yeah. Ok, check box. Move on.” or “Endangered? Damn, not again. Those damned animals.” Both of those miss the point.

Linda, maybe you can ask him what he thinks of my position. Pushing for saving the polar bears might win the battle and lose the war. I love all of those bears, but my present worry is that we'll lose basically all mammalian life on the planet pretty soon if, for example, the food chain breaks and/or the temperatures change radically in ways that destroy not just these but all customary habitats faster than they can relocate. Only part of the Climate Change issue is change, the other part is the expected rapidity. If it happened over a long time, people and animals could adjust. But over a very short period, it's much less likely.
Nice post Kent (rated)! Re:

"By blaming drilling restrictions on the polar bears, we draw attention away from stronger reasons not to drill. And if we don't address those stronger reasons, it won't matter about the polar bears."

No doubt about it, which is probably the reason that President Obama is habitually lumped in with the 'Progressive' crowd rather than the 'all-at-once-ers' in both parties who seem determined only to pillage and gauge at the Earth for reasons that can only begin to be described as selfish.
Excellent post. Good read. Nothing to add. Thanks, Kent
purple, nice to see you. Seems like it's been a while. I'm not familiar with the term “all-at-oncer”—can you elaborate? Thanks!

Rw005g, I knew they were into the new drilling, are they also into the shipping? In either case, yeah, it's terrible to see people profiting from such misdeeds. Probably one of the survival tests of mankind will be if we can stop ourselves from new drilling there. The last thing we need are more lucrative sources of oil. One of these days, it will be the straw that broke the camel's back, triggering the methane problem, perhaps validating the clathrate gun hypothesis. What a scary thing.

Walt, just your endorsement adds a lot for me. Thanks for taking the time to read and for your kind words of support.
Rw005g, I lived 4 years in the Panama Canal Zone, for two years of that with a view out my front window of the ships entering and leaving the canal, so believe me I understand the shipping issue. And the ultimate irony is that if the poles do melt, it may still be more climate-efficient to use such means of transport. One has to play the hand they are dealt, but it would be nice not to end up in that space.
Oh, I see, there was an ambiguity in my question. I wasn't asking if the shipping would be done—I know it will. I was wondering if specific companies that have contributed so much to the environmental issue are known to be the ones profiting now. (It's mostly trivia, though. If it wasn't them, it'd be someone else. I'm not very big on mega-corporations, for other reasons, but I don't know that a witch hunt against particular ones for being particularly unethical would really help. This stuff makes me irritated, but there are bigger fish to fry. We really need to fix the policies, then we can worry about the players later.)
Linda's husband here - and y0u hit the nail on the head. It may well take losing an iconic species before people really wake up to the threat facing our planet. The problem is that by the time that happens, it will already be too late. It's not going to help that nearly 1/2 of the incoming Republican class in the House are doubtful that humans influence climate change. I don't foresee our country doing what it takes to turn the tide in the next two years, and I see countries like India and China using specious arguments such as "if you are going to do anything , we sure aren't" at any world climate treaty talks. We are headed down a bad road, and I'm not very optimistic it's going to change anytime soon unless something cataclysmic happens.
Clever use of the wording for the title! I belive seeing or reading the analogy between polar bears and canaries used in mines or something about polar bears being a good monitor for the health of the planet somewhere. Good work!
rugrat, thanks for weighing in. Yeah, every time I read bad news I get two feelings: uh oh, this is bad, but also I wonder if this will be the thing that wakes people up. Unfortunately, I fear we're the frogs in the boiling pot of water. That's what happened at Easter Island. No one ever stopped it. Their civilization was just basically wiped out. We need to be treating it more like a cancer, requiring early action, as I suggested in my post That Creeping Feeling.
Hi, Kanuk. I don't know that the canary in the coal mine analogy is original with me. It's probably been used by others. A quick web search finds a lot of hits. It's a kind of obvious analogy that has been in my mind a long time. I'm just trying, as you probably know, to come at the Climate Change issue from as many angles as possible in hopes of getting people interested. Everyone seems to get the message in a different way.
"Pro-life" in this context is one I can support with joy.

Nice write.
JD, glad the phrasing and the article worked for you. Thanks for visiting.
Good post, Kent. You make the not-always-recognized point that we live in a very complex ecosystem, and that small changes to it can sometimes have outsized, unexpected effects. We human beings aren't always good at predicting those sorts of things, and we're not always comfortable with the results.
Seems like an excellent use of the term to me.
A great piece. I commend you on your relentless committment to helping others understand the dangers of Climate Change.
The polar bear appears to be the Bambi of forest fire prevention, so perhaps it helps to get the refuge.
On another front, the City of Pittsburgh has passed an ordinance banning fracking and establishing community and nature rights over corporations:
Excellent piece, and interesting comments. I agree about seeing the impact on polar bears in context of the bigger picture, but in some ways it's easier to talk about polar bears due to our societal tendency to short attention spans and preference for sound bites, as well as the cute factor of baby bears.
Rob, funny you should make a point about not being comfortable with the results. I was just playing with an idea for a post around this issue. Yes, I think you're right on that.

Liberal, thanks. :)

O'Steph, thanks for the info on the fracking. Good to know there is still some sense in the world.

mgin, I certainly agree about the attention spans. It's just downright weird having a political discussion on much of anything knowing how quickly people will tune out even if you get their attention.
Got me. I really liked that way you framed the narrative. Very good essay.
Sorry for the vagueness, Kent - earlier I may have felt that I had a lot of catching up to do (with my estranged OS friends' posts). I guess I may have rushed my response to this post a bit.

By 'all-at-oncer', I simply meant those folks on both sides of the aisle -although with Independents and 'Tea-Party candidates' it appears to have actually become *all sections* - all of whom insist on playing a zero sum game in which all Americans are the losers, and through which we are made to give up - or simply lose - more of our rights by the minute. I sometimes wonder if politicians have finally made trolling for the lowest common denominator obsolete; instead resorting to pandering directly to the dumbest of them all.

How is it that the politicians were able to accomplish this feat? It seems to me that they were able to bypass the middleman that is the *informed* electorate, by passing laws that have collectively homogenized the machinery we rely on to inform ourselves, and in the process (all at once) helped to speed up the dumbing-down of our country.

So while the takeover of the governmental mechanisms of the people has occurred gradually, albeit with our consent - the result of legislation that paves the way for the type of ice-free commerce which Rw005g mentions in their comment, is the steady and above all, heavy-handed obliteration of the possibilities for sustainable practices, as it regards the guardianship of the Earth which we find is our lot.

I just wish that we as a country - as one so adept at and in love with forming, destroying, merging and otherwise changing the forms of various business enterprises, will also one day soon hold the integrity of our intellectual capital in such high esteem.
I have been reading extensively on the polar ice and what is happening over the past decade Kent. At least the new technolgy they use now not only for measuring and searching for oil reserves, amongst other things, works excellently for ice sheets.
I about fell over reading that the Arctic has risen some 6C. And the last summer there the ice thinned much more. I expect the winters to continue to worsen here.
Climate change is real. Glad you write here Kent. I have learned plenty over here on your porch.
Cognitive Dissonance, I don't think I've seen you around here before (though I've probably used your name a lot in my writings). Thanks for visiting. Glad you liked it.

Purple, thanks for the clarification on your terminology. As to intellectual capital, I agree. We're up against some pretty big problems and we need to leverage our collective brainpower as much as possible.
Mission, I don't know if I've seen an assessment of the temperature in the arctic, and I'd want to know what that 6C comes from and what it measures. That's the scary number and if it were really that, I fear we'd be cooked. What's the source of that?
It seems remarkable to me that the same greedheads that gave us the current Great Recession are the same assholes who love the oil companies that have been doing everything in their power to deny any workable solutions to global warming until they've managed to extract the last drop out of the Earth's crust.

Most of the time, I view this species of homo sapiens as little more than glorified plants or dodo birds. I wish there was intelligent life on Earth, but it sure seems to be in short supply lately. The wildlife preserve in Alaska is a micro-bandage on a broken aorta.

Okay, so what, exactly, is the problem? What is the solution? Is climate change a problem? Is the answer allowing other species to suffer, or to perish, as "canaries in the coal mine"? Is Homo-sapiens the only species that matters?

We have senators in the U.S. Senate who think the christian god is the only source of knowledge and that we should just ignore science. Would the world unquestionably be worse off if Homo sapiens perished? How arrogant can we be?
I still say go Bears!
Agreed. Sadly, polar bears NEED ice bridges, not land set aside for them.
I'm guessing, but I think the three biggest polluters are likely the U.S., China and India and they all ran from the Kyoto Treaty as if they stumbled onto a pit viper. I don't see much hope for a serious climate change discussion when the big three refuse to do little more than half-heartedly acknowledge the problem.
It all comes down to money and as long as the biggest polluters put short term profits ahead of long term survival, there will be little reason for other countries to do their part. If the big boys won't even try, why should the little guys?
When the polar bears disappear, and they will disappear, those who control the money will shrug their shoulders and say "What a shame, but what could we do? It's a natural phenomena."
If half the population has been led to believe that climate change isn't man-made, then there is little the other half can do to slow the process. We either all bail the boat, or we all sink together. When we eventually get to the "I told you so" stage, it will be too late. I hate to say it, but I don't see this ending well.
Lefty, I think mankind has much intelligence but it's not evenly distributed, and it's not always turned toward supporting compassion. In some cases, I think the people opposing Climate Change do know, but are focused on getting all the toys they can before it comes. I hear a lot of “I'll be dead then, so why does it matter.” Some of them would switch teams if they thought it was coming in their lifetime, I think. Some not.

Rick, it seems a little late to worry about that. The polar bears will die if we die, almost certainly, since all the things that will kill us will kill them. But if what you're suggesting is that mankind dying and other species surviving is OK, I don't think that's so. I think sentience matters. It took nature a long time to get us here, and I think we have a duty to make it work.

Don, uh, ... noted.

Leigh, it's a good point. Thanks.

Michael, it's a complex space with much room to hide. That's very sad.
Thank you for this piece, Kent. You help us look at what we might prefer not to see, choices we might prefer not to have to make. I wonder how with our government behaving the way it is, anyone can break the current mold of nothing, let alone allowing once more truth to be spoken and heard instead of being pummeled into the ground by a conflicting interest with more money or power or ability to silence that which does not agree.
Anna, figuring out how to proceed is hard, I agree. My regular drumbeat is for Thought to somehow be involved. I so often think people on both sides react either inertially or reflexively.
A great piece, Kent, thank you. xox
Our own extinction may be the only "hope" for Gaia. Our intelligence is not growing as quickly as our capacity to destroy our home is, so unless the population as a whole has a cognitive epiphany I fear that doom is inevitable.
Robin, thanks.

Ablonde, one very complicated ethical question is that of what needs to survive at minimum. I'm going to “pull a Fermat” here and claim that my thoughts on that matter don't fit in this little input box. Although, it would probably be a variant of the initial quote I did in my article about Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged, where he talks about “the meaning of life.” I made notes for a future blog post.