On Tuesday, I texted my friend Michelle a brief video clip of a polar bear.
The bear is starving, all jutting hips and elbows, its fur sparse except for a thatch along its spine and Clydesdale tufts around its plate-sized paws. As with any bear, there is something disturbingly human about the shape of its body, about its movements and mannerisms. It staggers along on a green mat of tundra, foam dripping from its mouth. Dips its face into a rusty barrel and pulls out what appears to be a hunk of rotten meat. Sprawls on the ground, nose to earth, defeated by the visibly difficult work of breathing.
Watching the bear, I covered my mouth with one hand, suppressing tears. This perfect summary of unchecked climate change was like a knife to the kidney. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt seals. And we are to blame.
“I honestly don’t think I can watch that,” Michelle replied. “I can’t get down with the voyeurism of photography generally.”
Michelle—an artist who’s been thinking a lot about polar bears and the Arctic these days—does not shy from engaging tough topics. What bothered Michelle was the lack of direct agency. The doing nothing in the face of such obvious suffering and then using the suffering to convey a message. Some key step had been skipped.
Neither of us was sure what the photographer could or should have done differently. To approach a bear is dangerous. To feed a bear is its own ethical wormhole, a mercy that is not clearly mercy, that carries with it a loss of wildness and the discomfiting admission that the system that sustains polar bears is beyond help. And to feed thousands of polar bears is impossible. We decided in a burst of desperate, dark humor, that oil executives should have to watch the film on repeat. Or perhaps simply be fed to the polar bear themselves.
As a journalist going on 11 years now, I can get down with the voyeurism of photography, but I understand where Michelle is coming from. For as long as I can remember, my intellectual life has been built around the idea that bearing witness is its own sort of action. We cannot come to value what we don’t know how to see, don’t understand, can’t name. Nor can we change something we weren’t aware was a problem. A writer, an artist, a filmmaker can catalyze transformation by showing, by connecting people to issues, creatures, other people, across time and space. With stories.
But as the climate crisis deepens, as the sixth mass extinction marches on, it’s been difficult for me to hold on to the idea that awareness leads to meaningful change. There is plenty of awareness that the climate is wobbling dangerously out of balance; yet no amount of additional evidence seems likely to budge the inertia stymieing the revolutionary societal and economic shifts that will be required to shave the edge off of its worse effects. The President of the United States lies regularly and in laughably obvious ways, is revealed to have lied by the press, and is not held accountable. People know polar bears are screwed, and yet most of us continue chugging along inside the machinery that will be their demise.
I spent the better part of this year reporting on the world’s most endangered marine mammal: A diminutive porpoise called the vaquita, of which fewer than 30 individuals remain. When I finished interviews, or published stories, the scientists involved in recovery would sometimes thank me for helping raise awareness of the creature’s plight.
I would think about this on sleepless nights. I was one of dozens of reporters covering the story, for everything from blogs to dailies to glossies: The New York Times. The L.A. Times. Scientific American. National Geographic. This attention, this cultivation of awareness, had been going for decades. Celebrities like Leonard DiCaprio had made the vaquita’s cause their own. And the creature’s freefall had only steepened.
When, I wondered, does bearing witness to tragedy cease to be productive, and become a pathological, performative and potentially exploitive exercise in staring into the abyss?
I don’t know.
In the end, I’ve had to conclude that effecting change isn’t the point of telling these stories. Or not the only point, anyway. Stories are how we understand ourselves and the world. They help us reinforce communities of common value, build empathy. Tragedies, failures, shocking lack of accountability—looking at them may not fix them. But to not look, to look away, is a sort of erasure. Its own injustice.
It’s important to act directly. But it’s no less important to document what’s happening, even if only so that we may navigate, to know how we got here and where we might be going. Even if only to remember, with grief or fondness, those who accompanied us along the way. What we did to them. What we tried to do for them. Whether it was enough.
Photo by Flickr user Christopher Michel