The Problem with Pandas: Rethinking Climate Change and the Environmental Movement

By Amber Murakami-Fester

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an in-depth report earlier this year that seemed just short of a climatic Armageddon. The report, released in three parts in September, March, and April, detailed the results of an extensive assessment of scientific literature on climate change in the past six years. Findings, perhaps unsurprisingly, were bleak: the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has increased by forty percent since pre-industrial times, sea levels have risen nineteen centimeters from 1900 to 2010 worldwide, and will only continue to rise. Human influence on the climate system, the report further emphasizes, is evident.

Scientists have long vouched for the direct effect humans have had on global warming. Some even propose that we have entered a new geological time period, dubbing it the Anthropocene, a name that refers to the fact that humans have affected nearly “every aspect of Earth on a scale akin to the forces of nature,” according to the Anthropocene website. The term gained popularity in 2012 among scientists but remains little more than a scientific buzzword, as several geologists maintain that there is not enough evidence to suggest that we are in an entirely new geological epoch.

The Anthropocene, buzzword or not, and the IPCC report together underscore one thing—the potency of human activity on our planet: we have managed to accelerate our effect on the world around us since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. This means the outcome for the natural world in the coming centuries will largely reflect the environmental decisions that people make today. It turns out that the side-effects of human activity aren’t limited to the apocalyptic indications of rising sea levels and global temperatures either. Human beings have the capacity to shape not only the climate, but have a huge say, for better or for worse, in which species of plants and animals will survive into the future as well.

The panda, for example, has been the cuddly mascot of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) since its inception in 1961 and has played a large role in eliciting emotional and monetary support for the environmental movement. BBC wildlife expert Chris Packham, however, made ripples in 2009 when he declared that giant pandas should be allowed to die out. Although human reduction of its habitat has spurred the panda’s endangerment, the argument goes, pandas are naturally slow to reproduce and rely heavily on one food source (bamboo). From an evolutionary perspective, this puts the panda at a severe disadvantage. The panda’s habitat has further been so depleted that pandas will likely never be able to survive by themselves in the wild again. Despite this, millions of dollars are spent every year to save the panda from extinction—something Packham calls “one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half-century.”

It’s not just the panda, of course; other animals have received a significant amount of funding and media attention as well, becoming mascots of sorts for the environmental campaign. Leonardo DiCaprio co-funds a tiger conservation project with the WWF, and France is set to spend three million Euros on an effort to save an endangered hamster species. But why the panda, the tiger, the hamster, the polar bear, the whale and the friendly dolphin? Why not the American burying beetle, the Chinese alligator, or the little known pangolin, all of which are critically endangered species as well? People seem to favor the survival of animals that play powerful parts in our imagination; being cute or at least humanized in the media, in effect, helps your specie’s chance of survival. Humans further have the formidable capacity to pick and choose which endangered species are worthy of our attention and will survive into the future—the Anthropocene indeed.

This goes for national parks as well. The national park system grew out of the American preservation movement beginning in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, and has undoubtedly saved vast swaths of land from development. It is, however, far from being politically neutral. Would Yosemite have been preserved, for example, if Theodore Roosevelt did not equate it to being the most beautiful place on Earth? If Yosemite, in effect, was not aesthetically pleasing, would it still exist today? The national park, a concept grounded in the American nostalgia for the last frontier of the “wilderness,” also reinforces the idea that humans and nature simply cannot coexist without the former destroying or tainting the latter. The creation of Yosemite National Park, for example, ironically required the removal of the Yosemite Indians who had been living in the valley for thousands of years.

This is not an ideology that died out in the nineteenth century; it continues to shape conservation movements both in the US and abroad to this day, sometimes problematically. A similar story unfolded recently in Botswana in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where San people, commonly known as Bushmen, who had been living on the land for generations were forcibly removed by the Botswanan government beginning in 1997. Although the national park was opened in 1961, the San were not seen to be problematic until the early 80s, when diamonds were discovered on the reserve. Since then, the government has tried to force the San people off of their ancestral homeland, prohibiting hunting and use of water boreholes on the premise that the San were damaging the environment. Although the San won the drawn-out legal battle for the right to live in the reserve in 2006, hunting in certain areas of the reserve was outlawed again in January of 2014, citing the declining population of certain animal species. Conservation, it seems, is not as simple as removing humans from nature.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that a lot of work needs to be done in the environmental movement today. Denying the existence of climate change simply isn’t a viable option anymore—perhaps John Oliver demonstrated this best when he staged a “statistically representative” debate on the existence of climate change on his comedy show Last Week Tonight. The discussion we need to be having, he emphasized, is not whether climate change is real, but what we are going to do about it.

Maybe, though, we need to take it a step further. As we move forward and continue to make as much an impact on the Earth as we have in the past 200 years, it seems necessary to re-examine the pitfalls of the environmental movement as well, because the political ideologies that underlie the movement will inevitably continue to change the natural world. What sort of world do we want to live in come another 200 years? That decision, terrifyingly enough, is something that we, as governments, businesses, and individuals, must be making today.

So: pandas or no pandas? The choice is ours, it seems, more than ever. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

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