Watching Our House Burn Down: Exploring the Symbolic Representations of the Polar Bear by Non-Governmental Organisations

by Hannah Strode

University of Exeter


Abstract: The body of work undertaken to analyse symbolic representations of non-human animals has left opportunity for the critique of NGO representation of the polar bear within the context of anthropogenic climate change. Here, the symbolic use of the polar bear by two of the largest NGOs, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund for Nature (hereafter WWF), will be analysed. The formulation of the polar bear as charismatic megafauna is discussed, and attention drawn to missing aspects of their representation by NGOs. This is then developed to discuss the differences between anthropomorphic representation and the corresponding “egomorphism”, while an alternative, centred around Van Dooren’s work on vultures, is laid out. Further to this, the concept of a “companion species ontology” as a potential approach to reformulate the saviour complex that is endemic within climate change conservation discourses is suggested. Only by holding NGOs to account for their representations of non-human animals can we hope to formulate climate change and conservation strategies true to the multiplicity of wildlife in the Anthropocene.


‘“Them bears, like watching your house burn down.”’ (Yusoff 2010, 85)

Human beings have used non-human animals as symbols of experience throughout the thousands of years of our history as a species. Indeed, the now infamous phrasing of Claude Lévi-Strauss is indicative of the vast array of non-human symbols which fill our consciousness; non-human animals are ‘good to think with’ (2007, 268). The symbol of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is embedded in the discourses of the largest non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who use its image as an emotive symbol of the effect of anthropogenic climate change (York et al. 2014; Slocum 2004, 414). Stranded and starving, bears are utilised to evoke strong emotive reactions and promote a change in behaviour (Slocum 2004, 413). A vast amount of conservation is taking place to prevent population decline (York et al. 2014, 36-37, 41-43; WWF: Polar Bears). However, very little work has been done on the implications of these symbolic uses of the polar bear. The use of charismatic species as “icons” has become second nature within conservation discourse (York et al. 2014, 8), and certainly demands analysis.

Further to this, the notion of the Anthropocene is another foundational aspect of the symbolic use of the polar bear. The Anthropocene describes the beginning of a new geological epoch, in which human influence on the earth’s climate has become the “primary driver” of the hugely significant changes being witnessed and predicted by climate scientists and geologists (Dryzek et al. 2013, 111). The Anthropocene follows the Holocene, and necessitates a challenge to its “timeless” and “pure” definition of a classical Nature separate from humans which can be understood through traditional scientific methods (ibid., 1- 2). Instead, it consists of a more confusing and complex hybridity, characterised by the potential for multiple futures, and the significance of human activity for the outcomes of the future (ibid., 2; Dryzek et al. 2013, 111).

The diagnosis of the Anthropocene is crucial for our understanding of the relations between humans and non-human animals, as it forces us to recognise the earth-changing impact of anthropogenic action and accept responsibility. The use of the polar bear as symbol of climate change in the Anthropocene is clear in the output of NGOs, but whether this representation is true to the complex nature of the non-human is contentious, and there is much room for critical analysis of the symbolic power of the polar bear. Here, the use of the polar bear’s image by two of the largest NGOs, Greenpeace and WWF, will be analysed, through use of both their websites and several documents they have  produced. In keeping with the careful semantics of previous anthrozoological research, this work will use the term “non-human animal”, in recognition of the continuity between humans and animals (Hurn 2012, 218).

Charisma Capital

An understanding of the reasoning behind the depiction of polar bears as symbols of climate change is crucial to any analysis of its impact. There is agreement, both by the activist groups proliferating the symbol of the polar bear, and amongst scholars, that the species is one of the significant examples of a charismatic megafauna (York et al. 2014, 47; Slocum 2004, 428). While Lorimer states that many conservationists use the term only loosely to describe the non-human animal through the adjective ‘charismatic’ (Lorimer 2015, 39), non-human charisma as a concept is based on the features and ecological processes of the non-human which contribute to the perception of the organism by humans (ibid.). Furthermore, this charisma is often left unexamined (ibid., 9).

The polar bear’s physiology is a significant aspect of its status as charismatic megafauna. As a large mammal (Schliebe et al. 2006, 7), it is easily recognisable by human beings, and this means that polar bear conservation is far less complicated than the methods required for many other non-human organisms. Further to this, charisma is also linked to the more subjective aspects of relations between humans and non-human animals. Lorimer refers to this as ‘aesthetic charisma’ (2015, 44), and it is what NGOs and conservationists tap into when they utilise the images of charismatic megafauna for their campaigns. Aesthetic charisma is grounded in emotive reactions to non-human animals, which can be extremely powerful (Ingold 1988, 14). The polar bear’s strong body and lethal claws contribute to a perception of it as a formidable hunter, which heightens human reactions of awe.

Fig. 1. Polar Bear cubs nursing. Frozen Planet: Spring, 2011, British Broadcasting Corporation.

The “cute response”, elicited by documentaries such as Frozen Planet, is also central to the polar bear’s charisma. It is indicative of a phenomena called neoteny, which reflects the perceived ‘human weakness for small, cuddly, infantile animals’ (Serpell 1986, 81). While Serpell finds his main evidence for neoteny from the selective breeding of dogs, ‘pander[ing] to the human cute response’ (1986, 82) is clearly evident in depictions of polar bears also. Figure 1 is taken from Frozen Planet’s ‘Spring’ episode, and is part of a sequence which depicts polar bear cubs emerging from their den and nursing for the first time. Certainly the goal of such depictions in documentaries is to elicit an emotive “cute response” from the audience, and this contributes to the perception of the polar bear in the common consciousness. This neoteny may even apply to adult polar bears, whose fluffy bodies are reminiscent of the stuffed toys played with in childhood, even if they hide lethal claws and teeth. NGOs use similar techniques, as even in their Species Action Plan WWF include images of neotenic cubs, as seen in Figure 2 (York et al. 2014, 17). Baker suggests that this ubiquitous neoteny may veil over hidden meanings (2001, 226), as it plays a central role in human representations of non-human animals. Certainly, there is more to the symbol of the polar bear than an adorable cub playing in the snow, but these images are nonetheless used to elicit convenient emotive responses within conservation discourses.

Fig. 2. A first year Polar bear in the Southern Beaufort Sea, Alaska. Margaret Williams, ‘WWF Species Action Plan, Polar Bear, 2014-2020’. WWF International.

Not only do polar bears possess the dual charisma of awe and neoteny, they also inspire strong emotive reactions due to their perceived link to climate change (York et al. 2014, 35; Slocum 2004, 428). They have become inextricably bound to the notions of melting polar ice and global warming (Slocum 2004, 415). The fact that they ‘appear to be most at risk of disappearing from the planet due to anthropogenic causes’ (Serpell 1986, 47) creates an emotive aura seeped in panic that surrounds their image wherever it is used. While anticipation of the effect of climate change upon their Arctic environment gains international attention (York et al. 2014, 31), polar bears have become ‘symbolic of all wildlife’ that resides in their ecosystem, similar to the way that Einarsson describes whales as representative charismatic megafauna of the oceans (1993, 74). The ‘animal magnetism’ (Lippit 2002, 127) which draws us into a caring and emotional relationship with the image of the polar bear also transforms them into ‘cryptological artifacts’ (ibid., 126), unable to escape their association with disappearance and death. Ingold describes how these background relations transform the non-human from living organism to human sign (1988, 14), creating a ‘chunk of concentrated information’ at our disposal during ‘social interaction’ (ibid.).

NGOs openly admit to their blatant focus on the charismatic megafauna of the world, describing them as a “priority” (York et al. 2014, 36). Indeed, Hurn suggests that it is far easier to make the case for considering ‘gregarious terrestrial mammals’ than it would be for other organisms that face a similar fate (2012, 209). WWF’s website articulates this focus, as they state in Figure 3 that they are protecting the planet’s “iconic animals”. In the drop down menu of species WWF work with, polar bears share the space with other large mammals such as tigers, elephants and pandas.

Fig. 3. Still from WWF International’s website. (accessed May 17, 2017).

Utilising the emblem of the ‘charismatic victim’ (Slocum 2004, 428), environmentalists and conservationists seek to ‘inspire citizens to care and act’ through symbols, as they undoubtedly draw a more powerful link to climate change than abstract scientific data (ibid., 415). Yusoff and Gabrys describe the ‘media feeding frenzies’ that occur around polar bear enclosures at zoos (2007, 74), and the sheer proliferation of “save the polar bear” style techniques seen on the website of Greenpeace UK attests to the significance of this image in their campaigns. An example is seen in Figure 4, which is the homepage for Greenpeace’s “Save the Arctic” campaign. The viewer is immediately confronted with the image of a polar bear staring though the screen, accompanied by a large red “donate” button. The text refers to the campaign to end Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, and this reveals the way in which the image of the polar bear stands in for the entire Arctic ecosystem in the public consciousness. There is no explicit link to effects on the polar bear specifically, and so Greenpeace themselves here perpetuate the link between polar bear image and Arctic destruction.

This use of the polar bear’s image contributes to the establishment of a “mediagenic megafauna”, which Gouabault et al. attribute to the charismatic non-human animals in use by conservationists and environmentalists today (2011, 78). Once established, the polar bear has the capacity to stand alone as a symbol of anthropogenic climate change, with few textual or descriptive additions (Slocum 2004, 427). Throughout WWF’s action plan (York et al. 2014), images of polar bears are also placed to elicit strong emotional responses from readers, who are highly likely to frame the polar bear with concern and care as a result of its association with the negative impacts of climate change described in the text.

Fig. 4. Still from Greenpeace’s website. (accessed May 17, 2017).

This representation is not unmotivated. NGOs rely on the participation and action of stakeholders and the general public in order to have a meaningful impact on the fate of the polar bear (ibid., 36). Within the NGO discourse, charismatic framing of nonhuman animals is seen as hugely important for creating a ‘transformational effect that multiplies the impact of…conservation efforts’ (ibid.). As a symbol, then, the polar bear becomes a fundamental aspect of the work of these NGOs, and a “boundary object” that can traverse the global cultural divides and varied motivations of stakeholders, publics and governments (Slocum 2004, 418). Once the polar bear symbol has been all but divorced from the lived reality of individual polar bears, it is clear that human groups are able to use it to elicit products, emotions, actions, or monetary donations. This is seen directly in the close link between polar bear image and “donate” button in Figure 4. These come together to form a kind of charisma capital, which NGOs and other organisations cash in on regularly. As the burden of responsibility for funding and action increasingly fell onto the shoulders of the non-profit sector (Lorimer 2015, 142), the symbolic use of charismatic non-humans helped firmly establish the modern conservation organisations within a ‘new conservation ethic’ that cites the power over the non-human image with the NGO (Gordon 2001, 223).

The symbolic constructive practices used by NGOs are all part of the reification of the archive of the polar bear (Yusoff 2008, 118), which serves environmental conservationists extremely well, but may have less than positive outcomes for the living polar bears themselves who have been trapped within the coalescence of environmentalist discourse. Lorimer certainly takes issue with the use of symbolic nonhumans, stating that the commercialised politics they contribute to are ‘superficial and ineffectual’ (2015, 143), and entirely insufficient for addressing the very real threats of anthropogenic climate change and the conservation problems that it entails (ibid.). Berger suggests that the widespread commercialisation of non-human animal imagery is a demonstration of the ways in which non-human animals have been ‘rendered absolutely marginal’ within human society (2007, 260-261). NGOs would argue that their work is essential and extremely beneficial to real polar bears in the Arctic (York et al. 2014, 8). However, while conservation based NGOs undoubtedly have some impact on the lives of real polar bears, there has been some recognition that their work is ‘often undesirable’ (Lorimer 2015, 143), and that it stems from a ‘disembodied calculation of instrumental value’ (ibid., 180) that is likely at odds with the complex lived reality of nonhuman wildlife.

The concept of a multi-natural wildlife is not something that has permeated conservationist rhetoric thus far. The trend of polarisation of non-human animals in relation to definitions of charisma or “flagship” status (Gouabault et al. 2011, 78) is notable for the absence of species that do not fit inside its bounds. A multi-natural environment is one made up of a multitude of lifeforms (Lorimer 2015, 5), and the polar bear’s link to climate change is not something unique to the species. Sea ice depletion is recognised, even by NGOs themselves, as a problem for the entire ecosystem, ‘from the tiniest plankton to forage fish, the ringed seal and the polar bear’ (York et al. 2014, 25). Given the stakes of habitat destruction during the Anthropocene, the choices made by conservationists have the potential to decide ‘which life is made to live or left to die’ (ibid., 13). Therefore, the symbolic use of polar bear as representative of the entire Arctic ecosystem becomes polemical, potentially seeped in the blood of those uncharismatic non-human animals that have been left behind in the fast-paced and commercialised world of the NGO giants. There is no question; Arctic plankton are far less likely to elicit donations than the playful, fierce, awe-inspiring, cute and charismatic polar bear. The future looks increasingly bleak, not only for the commercialised polar bear who has become a two dimensional symbol with which to capitalise on the emotionally charged public, but also for those non-humans not “blessed” with charisma (Lorimer 2015, 76), and so left to the harrowing future of climate change destruction.

When discussing the representation of polar bears in relation to climate change, we are not discussing real polar bears, nor the hybrid and multi-natural state of the Anthropocene (Lorimer 2015, 192). The symbol of the polar bear and the polar bear that lives on the ice are distinct and separate entities, so perhaps the problematic nature of the symbolic polar bear is its misalignment with the reality of a contemporary nature formed by anthropogenic climate change. While their use as a symbol affords NGOs and other groups an ‘almost inexhaustible fund of […] meaning’ (Tapper 1988, 47), it risks ignoring the breadth of the ecosystem which conservationists aim to protect. The ontological choreography that NGOs perform certainly privileges charismatic megafauna, but we cannot assume that those we regard as charismatic glean any benefit at all (Yusoff 2008, 117). Allowing this division of wildlife to continue unchecked and unexamined would be an affront to the non-human others it is claiming to protect, and so we must strive to do better before time runs out on the multitude of wildlife that is at risk from anthropogenic climate destruction.


It is now clear that the polar bear’s position as an “iconic” and “flagship” species with dual awe-inspiring fierceness and cute fluffy neoteny places it perfectly as the commercialised representative of the melting ice caps. However, in addition to this charisma, it is important to examine the significant idea that ‘the aesthetics of organisms appear to be arranged along an axis of anthropomorphism’ (Lorimer 2015, 46). Einarsson suggests that anthropomorphism is ‘one of the most powerful metaphors’ at use in whale hunting and tourism scenarios (1993, 78), and there are important ways in which it seems that anthropomorphism is a metaphor used by conservationists in regards to representations of the polar bear also.

Anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman others (Milton 2005, 255). In the context of polar bears, their perceived intelligence (York et al. 2014, 8), playful nature (ibid., 10), caring interactions with their young (Schliebe et al. 2006, 17), and expressive faces all contribute to the creation of a “humanized” image (Einarsson 1993, 79) which maps interspecies affection based on shared characteristics (Lorimer 2015, 47). This emotive response is intrinsic to the work of conservation-based NGOs, as they must inspire public support for greenhouse-gas mitigation measures (Slocum 2004, 413). However, many are highly critical of this anthropomorphic outlook. Ingold states that these representations are laden with ‘species-specific bias’ (1988, 9). Indeed, the polar bear and the human being inhabit very different worlds, but despite this it is easy to assume a privileged position when forming emotive reactions to charismatic non-human others (Tapper 1988, 59), especially if they are based entirely on our perceived similarities. This is why images in reports and documentaries focus on what little social life the polar bear does have (Frozen Planet: ‘Spring’ 2011), accompanied by a rhetoric of loneliness which is perpetuated by the aims of the conservation movement. This suggests that polar bears need saving from the lonesome journeys through icy waters which they must now make in the face of the dwindling sea ice (York et al. 2014, 26; WWF: Polar Bears).

This symbolic use displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the real-world ecology of the polar bear. While Slocum suggests that focus on charismatic megafauna often accompanies a representation of the “natural” world as ‘far removed from the social’ (2004, 428), anthropomorphism is perhaps a false equation of human and non-human worlds (Tapper 1988, 59) which simply cuts and pastes human traits onto the “other” in order to provoke an emotional response. Inherent in this technique is an assumption that humans cannot sympathise with non-human animals unless they perceive them as humanised, which is suggestive of an anthropocentric outlook inherent in contemporary Western capitalist thought (Lorimer 2015, 192).

However, Milton suggests that any such accusation of anthropomorphism assumes that “humanness” is the primary point of reference (2005, 255). While anthropocentric in its understanding of emotions, intentions and motives as uniquely human traits, she suggests that in order to actually be anthropomorphic, we need to assume that the organism concerned is not capable of the inner states that are being projected onto it (ibid., 259). In Milton’s eyes, this is not a fair assessment of either nonhuman animals or the humans who perceive them. She sees the view of non-human animals as intentional, emotional and individual beings as recognition of their personhood, not their similarity to humans (ibid., 257) and, as such, replaces the label “anthropomorphism” with “egomorphism” (ibid., 255). It is this egomorphic understanding of non-humans which grounds emotive reactions to them (ibid., 261), and it would seem to fit far more comfortably into the “multi-natural” biosphere of the Anthropocene which Lorimer describes (2015, 2).

Yet this is not what NGO discourses purport. While individual encounters with non-human animals seen in whale watching and other tourist activities may well be based on an inference of an inner world of feeling that is common to both species, even Milton admits that an environmentalist has ‘clear motives’ for representing non-human animals as thinking and feeling beings (2005, 260). Representation and understanding are separate ways of seeing the non-human, and while direct interspecies encounters like those with whales may well be egomorphic, the use of the polar bear symbol by NGOs certainly requires the ‘detour into metaphoric thought’ (ibid., 266) suggestive of anthropomorphism. NGO representation is the genesis of the view of the polar bear as central to the climate change narrative (Yusoff 2008, 117), and this ‘moralizing [of] the natural world through humanizing metaphors’ (Einarsson 1993, 78), which is a major rhetorical device in such environmental campaigns, is intrinsically anthropomorphic.

The global nature of environmentalist discourse is a significant problem for any NGOs attempting to evoke an active response fuelled by emotive reactions, as climate change is perceived as ‘spatially and temporally distant’ from the public they address (Slocum 2004, 413). But when NGOs do direct our gaze to penetrate these alien spaces, what we see can be ‘equally startling and disturbing’ (ibid.). Importantly, this ability to reach into the alternate spaces inhabited by non-humans may only be possible through the problematic use of anthropomorphic representations of charismatic megafauna. Indeed, Yusoff states that the Arctic is ‘removed from the world’, but still remains a place where the impacts and wastes of modernity come to rest (2008, 122), and this link must be recognised in any ethical associations that we form across the divide. The dramatic changes of the Anthropocene are those that inhabitants of the Arctic must bear as contemporary experiences (ibid., 117), and so Slocum suggests that the distanced responsibility NGOs promote is inadequate to meet the demands of these encounters with the non-human (2004, 432).

Van Dooren advocates a focus on individual suffering as the basis of our ethical awareness in the conditions of the Anthropocene (2010, 272). Conservation efforts encapsulated by a focus on charismatic anthropomorphic megafauna require our motivation to be grounded in a third party, future generations of humans who we agree will be somehow impoverished by the disappearance of polar bears (ibid., 277). But while this is not a trivial concern, in order to properly conserve and protect those nonhuman animals who we share the earth with now, we must focus on the vulnerability and pain of the individual other. This forces the responsibility evoked by our reaction to be based on the finite suffering of the individual in question (ibid.). Certainly, just as the vultures Van Dooren describes will die painful and lengthy deaths at the hands of diclofenac poisoning (ibid., 274), so too will individual polar bears meet their ends at the hands of starvation as the reduction in ice cover renders them unable to hunt (York et al. 2014, 426; Schliebe et al. 2006, 11). This is certainly a highly emotive and distressing fact, and Van Dooren believes that true understanding of such realities is far more effective at motivating action to aid conservation or reverse climate change than the charismatic images of symbolic polar bears that have been so central to the work of NGOs (2010, 278). There are examples of this individualisation of the polar bear in the public discourse. Wildlife documentaries such as Frozen Planet purport to follow individual non-human animals through a journey, and this can be seen in the story line surrounding the mother polar bear and her cubs in the “Spring” episode of Frozen Planet. However, this individualisation is often centred on neoteny rather than pain and death, and it is also a tactic not often employed within NGO discourse, who instead use more abstract references to the polar bear as an entire species. This works to erase the individuality of those that make up the species population, and draws the lines of the ecosystem along strict Linnaean boundaries that do not fully represent the multi-natural reality of the Arctic. Indeed, if the abstract notions of species and populations which are seen in much of the literature discussing the plight of the polar bear (WWF: Polar Bear; York et al. 2014) are ethically prioritised over the corporeal beings which constitute those populations (Jones 2000, 280), then individual rights and well-being are easily overlooked by the NGOs who purport to protect them (Hurn 2012, 217).

Additionally, it is hugely important to connect the fates of polar bears with our own, because we share the destructive future that it is possible if we ignore the impact of human actions on climate change. But we must do so in a way that does not oppress and erase the realities of the non-human animals who share a stake in that fate (Van Dooren 2010, 273). Considering polar bears as individuals does not necessitate an impossible understanding of every one of the 25,000 members of the species that live today (Schliebe et al. 2006, 7), it recognises the countless individuals who have already died, those who will die in the future, and those who we may yet be able to save (Van Dooren 2010, 278). They animate ecologies, and make real the multispecies assemblages of Lorimer’s “Wildlife of the Anthropocene” (2015, 3). The absolute alterity of the polar bear must not be veiled over by anthropomorphic characterisation, but instead accepted and celebrated as part of the entangled reality of our complex lives (Van Dooren 2010, 273). We as humans are not only accountable for the maintenance of biodiversity which defines the narrow focus of conservation rhetoric (ibid., 272), we are also culpable for the suffering of the individual members of other species, and this is a fact that is not currently apparent in the NGO use of the polar bear image.

Climate Change Companion Species

If we recognise that the representations of polar bears by large scale NGOs is constitutive of a charismatic and anthropomorphic “humanisation” of the species at large, which erases both individual suffering and the multiplicity of the ecology of the Anthropocene, then some analysis of what alternatives might be preferable may assist in guiding conservation and environmental policy in years to come.

Focusing on individual suffering, as advocated by Van Dooren, may go some way to benefit both human and non-human by recognising the agency of polar bears as distinct beings while providing an effective method of engaging the public in discourses surrounding conservation. Facilitating some degree of an egomorphic engagement with non-humans which affords them personhood (Hurn 2012, 217), this avoids the polar bear being locked into place as a ‘natural symbol’ for moral dilemma (Richards 1993, 144), increasing the scope and incentive for deep and complex understanding.

While the form of conservation advocated by NGOs seems to support the belief that ‘every animal that can be reproduced and kept alive seems to be another small victory against the threat of total extinction’ (Yusoff and Gabrys 2007, 66), the stakes are higher than this attitude presumes. While reintroduction from captivity may “work” in so far as breeding pairs are successfully replaced into the complex ecosystems their species once inhabited, it is important to ask in what sense catastrophe has already taken place for these non-humans and the multi-species environments that they were a part of (Van Dooren 2010, 285). Many individual lives will already have been lost, and so too will the entangled relationships that they once formed (ibid.).

As seen, conservation representation is often based on a sense of ethical responsibility for the fate of non-human animals and the natural world. While the individualisation discussed in the previous section highlights and improves upon several problematic aspects of NGO discourses surrounding the symbolic use of charismatic and anthropomorphic non-humans, this strategy still attributes humankind with the role of guardian. Environmental conservation discourses are formed around the idea of a human responsibility for stewardship of non-human life (Lorimer 2015, 4), and this complex has become increasingly concentrated as humanity has recognised its own impact on the geological record. The Western “cult” of conservation in action today has been founded on an understanding that from now on humanity will determine the fate of non-human life, and as such shoulder the obligation to decide which species survive and which go extinct (Ingold 1988, 12). The spotlight placed on the charismatic polar bear symbol is a prime example of this, as it provides the basis for prioritisation of polar bear conservation over that of other non-human animals in the Arctic ecosystem (York et al. 2014, 11). Human beings are certainly culpable for anthropogenic climate change, and as such it seems correct that they maintain a healthy sense of ethical accountability for their actions. However, this accountability risks descending into a saviour complex that places the focus not on the non-human animal at risk, but the anthropos that is doing the “saving”.

Indeed, Einarsson suggests that we must save whales not only for their sake, but also for ours (1993, 77), and in some cases it is even stated that wildlife conservation is the source of our ‘salvation’ from the guilt of anthropogenic changes we have evoked (Isenberg 2002, 60). Isenberg states that the value of non-human life is that which we ascribe to it (ibid.), which falls back into the anthropogenic outlook on the alterity of all wildlife which has already been critiqued here. Indeed, WWF’s focus on “iconic species” has little real conservation value, and is simply an attempt to appeal to human views about which species their audiences wish to help “save”. This promotes the idea of humans as causal actors, and nature as “effective object”, which drains nature of any agency and transforms the polar bear into a helpless victim (Slocum 2004, 428). While this may well appeal to an ethics of care towards polar bears and the planet at large (ibid., 430), it also neglects the “radical asymmetry” and “indifference” of non-human animals and geological processes which have no regard for human control (Lorimer 2015, 29). A commitment to this difference does not imply a rejection of the recognition of human impact on the environment, it demands ‘better science, better politics, and new forms of human-environment relation’ (ibid, 34). Conservation discourses such as those of Greenpeace and WWF must acknowledge that we as humans are not making decisions about something we are in charge of, but instead about an environment that we are part of and embedded within (Dwyer 2007, 86). NGOs must make this deconstruction of the nature-culture binary implicit in the messages they present to the lay public. Otherwise, while they take on the position of speaking for animals (Birke 2009, 6), they risk championing the wrong causes, and utilising their restricted focus on species and charisma to do further damage to those they are trying to protect.

Yusoff suggests that the work of conservationists and environmentalists should recognise that polar bears must become ‘our sidekicks…in planetary overhaul’ (2010, 89-90). This idea of polar bears as a “companion species” may be a significant realisation to be made within the NGO sector. NGOs must indeed recognise that humans do not form the centre of non-human lives (Yusoff 2008, 117), and that those lives are filled with uncertainty, multiplicity, and difference. But this does not prevent NGOs from seeing how non-humans are also equally as at risk from the impacts of climate change, and working within this shared fate to highlight the importance of the relations present in the world in which we share. This may draw upon the work of Haraway, who highlights the importance of non-humans in our companionship with them, and suggests that they are ‘everywhere full partners in worlding, in becoming with’ (Haraway 2008, 301). As shown, it is crucial to develop an egomorphic understanding of non-humans that recognises their ‘social and emotional complexity’ (Jones 2000, 282) as contribution towards a view of them as persons, rather than “humanised” caricatures constructed for human use. This develops a kind of ‘emotional fellowship’ (ibid.) with non-human others that realises the complex entanglements that we share with them (Van Dooren 2010, 284), inclusive of not only the charismatic megafauna of popular appeal, but the entire breadth of the multispecies Anthropocene (Lorimer 2015, 192). Applying this ‘companion species ontology’ to polar bears allows a blurring of distinction between pure “Nature” and heroic “Society”, which disrupts the security of the ontology of the human, and allows us to acknowledge the private sentiments of much of the environmentalist and conservationist movement, who profess a deep concern for wildlife and its future (ibid., 38).

Indeed, it seems certain that those NGOs that utilise the symbol of the polar bear species do care for its individual members and their futures. Problems arise when this representation is allowed to verge into the “saviour complex” that is rooted in the symbolic representations that their work is all too often founded upon. WWF state that one of their central aims is to build a future ‘in which humans live in harmony with nature’ (York et al. 2014, 11). However, simply “co-opting” polar bears into a distorted conception of familial relations transforms them into ‘human puppets’ (Berger 2007, 257), renders them objects, and separates “human” and “animal” into distinct ontological categories. It is certainly important to bring the non-human into a fold of companionship in the face of climate change, but it is crucial to do so in a way that treats non-humans respectfully whilst also recognising their status as “others”, and the complex realities that this otherness entails (Lorimer 2015, 192). Then, perhaps, humanity will achieve not only emotional satisfaction, but the necessary allowance for agency that otherness necessitates (Dwyer 2007, 74).

Furthermore, in light of the destruction and violence endemic within human-nonhuman interaction in a contemporary context (Lorimer 2015, 184; Van Dooren 284- 285), this agency and respect becomes all the more important. NGOs must in some way develop an ethical relation to non-humans in order to ‘actively participate with them in less destructive ways’ (Yusoff 2008, 118). Otherwise, it seems as though the relationship we are forming with the polar bear is one that constructs it as a symbolic canary in the coal mine of climate change, a ‘mythic and biophysical storyteller’ of ‘planetary loss’ (Yusoff 2010, 73-74) that allows us  to project and negotiate our own fate in the modern world. Just as ecologists measure populations of certain organisms in order to ‘learn about a possible apocalypse’ of climate catastrophe (Sax 2007, 277), so too do images and reports of polar bear survival and conservation perpetuate a rhetoric that performs climate change locally in an attempt to negotiate a change in behaviour beneficial to homo sapiens as a species (Slocum 2004, 414). It does not seem entirely clear to what extent real polar bears benefit from this characterisation (ibid.), as they become metaphors of ‘purely human concerns’ (Burt 2007, 290) that may not correspond to the most effective conservation action in any way.

The development of this conservation rhetoric has occurred in the context of rapid urbanization and industrialisation, which has been instrumental in securing the distinction between nature and culture (Gouabault et al. 2011, 78), and representations of non-human animals such as the polar bear as ‘clearly embedded’ in a renegotiation of the human relationship with nature and its symbolic representatives (ibid.). We must acknowledge that there has been no period, during the long and varied history of the human race, in which its members have lived in the harmonious or static relation to the environment which conservationists now seem to desire (Ritvo 2004, 206-207). In recognition of this, it becomes clear that the tactics at use by NGOs are also bound by this history, which positions “human” above “animal” in a hierarchy of being evocative of the Enlightenment thinkers (Gouabault et al. 2011, 78). But while there is no ‘Garden of Eden’ (Ritvo 2004, 207) towards which we can strive, there is ‘wildlife in the world that still needs conserving’ (Lorimer 2015, 34), and for its survival it is vital that action is taken to repair the damage and destruction wrought by humans during the Anthropocene. The archives of extinction that are formed around charismatic symbols utilise the same forms of thought to rank and discipline loss as are implicit in non-human destruction, which are grounded in the notion that there is no limit to the accumulated commodities of modern capitalism (Yusoff 2010, 95). If our ethics ‘rebound with echoes of an exchange dictated by the past’ (ibid., 94), then it is likely that conservation practices will endeavour to manipulate a false idea of Nature as means to anthropocentric ends, rather than adjust to the dictates of the lively and complex reality of the non-human world (Isenberg 2002, 56).

It is extremely difficult to break away from this mode of thought, as climate change discourses are intimately related to ‘scaled production and consumption processes of the fossil-fuel economy’ that are central to our modern lives (Slocum 2004, 432). Polar bears are furthermore paradoxically part of the group of non-humans with which modern urban, agricultural and industrial systems are least able to coexist (Lorimer 2015, 157). As such, creating an interpretation of them as anything beyond the commodified and constructed symbol of the NGO discourse requires a systematic shift in public understanding. This is a difficult task, and the full realisation of such a shift is beyond the scope of this work. However, several small practical alterations may begin this change in NGO discourses.

Fig. 5. Image of a Greenpeace march. (accessed May 17, 2017).

While several blog posts have been written on the Greenpeace UK website that discuss the plight of Arctic plankton, the banners and images that are used on the Save the Arctic page are of polar bears only. Additionally, graphics of polar bear bodies are used when a quick reference to the campaign is needed elsewhere. Members of Greenpeace dress up as polar bears or use their image in marches and protests, as seen in Figure 5. An inclusion of images of other non-human animal species that are at risk in the Arctic environment in these contexts would go some way to highlighting the multi-natural reality that conservation’s focus on charismatic megafauna ignores. Likewise, a movement away from WWF’s focus on “iconic species” and an alternative focus on the reality of complex ecosystem conservation would be advisable. NGOs are positioned as trusted and valuable education resources for the public in regards to wildlife and conservation. They must capture this opportunity in order to recognise the complexity of the ecosystems they are trying to protect, and perhaps even the beauty within such tangled multiplicity. This diverse approach is not the shallow conservation of iconic flagship species seen in NGO representation of the polar bear image, but a discourse that attempts to bring the “uncharismatic” into the picture in order to tell a more faithful and ultimately more interesting story about why we must save the world in which we live.

It is clear that such a shift would be necessary to afford the polar bear and its non-human neighbours the agency they require to be conserved in any true sense. The inconsistencies of the dual celebration of charismatic megafauna and culpability for their anthropogenic destruction that characterises modern conservation discussion must change, and instead the ‘fullness of the world’ (Yusoff 2010, 92), replete in its vast and changeable truth, must be in some way met as it slips away into extinction. Only then could the emotive discourse surrounding the sixth great extinction be harnessed to provide palpable change to the non-humans that will share in Earth’s demise, given the current trajectory of the Anthropocene.


While NGO representations of polar bears are deeply embedded in the history and legacy of non-human disappearance exacerbated during the Anthropocene, there are certainly methods by which representations of non-human animals can be made less problematic. Both Greenpeace and WWF utilise the symbol of the polar bear in what appears to be a genuine sentiment of care and concern for their anthropogenic decline, and bringing the realities of climate change to the global public is a difficult and complex task (Dwyer 2007, 74). However, the neotenous and anthropomorphic characterisations that are currently common within environmental conservation discourse are symptomatic of the human relation to a “pure” Nature that erases much of the multiplicity present within ecosystems across the planet. The framing of polar bears as a ‘charismatic victim’ (Slocum 2004, 428) at the mercy of humanity may have some impact on Western lay people, but it does little to capture the vastly diverse lives of individual polar bears living in the Arctic Circle today. Furthermore, it strips them of agency, and veils over the other species that may not have been “blessed” with the charisma that forms the foundation of NGO use of the symbolic polar bear image (Lorimer 2015, 76).

Furthermore, polar bears are inextricably bound to climate change, and their survival in the wild is tied to that of the melting ice caps and warming climate that are endemic in the time of the Anthropocene. However, while in many cases the Anthropocene represents disaster and destruction, it also presents opportunities for a more hopeful and democratic environmentalism, which benefits humans and nonhumans alike (ibid., 193). The conservation rhetoric that has been analysed here has the chance to develop and refine its representations in order to be more loyal to the entangled and complex relationships and individuals that constitute the lively environment of the Anthropocene and beyond. Work must now be done to establish the exact practical form these changes will take, to ensure that the important benefits that environmental NGOs could make are realised. Currently, the distanced responsibility formulated by large scale NGOs contributes little, and makes it easy to switch off the screen and turn away from the suffering that is veiled over in their depictions.

‘Everywhere animals disappear’ (Berger 2007, 261), and though they may seem to do so quietly within human discourses, it is in fact ‘in bright bursts of violence and pain’ (Van Dooren 2010, 284-285). NGOs must endeavour to shine their influential light on this suffering, especially that of the non-human animal that do not seem to be easily manipulated by charisma and anthropomorphic representation. Plankton and polar bears both hold an intrinsic place in the tangled web of the Anthropocene’s environment, and we must recognise their disappearance now, before we are forced to mourn the loss of beings that are intrinsic to the survival of the entangled multiplicity of life, beyond what subjective and narrow value humans are capable of perceiving. Our house is burning down, but so is theirs.


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