The world is looking at the far North in response to news reports about climate change, and more often than not the poster child for that reportage has been the polar bear.
The credit goes, of course, to the bear’s natural charisma at the top of the Arctic food chain, but also to advertisers like the good folks at Coca-Cola whose “Northern Lights” spot introduced us to animated polar bears back in 1993.
A T-shirt produced by the Russian Geographical Society that asks people to "Think about it." Photo courtesy of James Raffan.
While the future of the polar bear is neither trivial nor certain, the human dimensions of the North are just as subject as animal populations to change from shifting climatic conditions. Sadly, with bear imagery front and center, northern science and development more often catches the climate change headlines on the front pages.
Northern people and their changes and adaptations are either absent or buried in the back pages in stories about suicide, high crime rates, unemployment, alcoholism, obesity, diabetes and other human ills that are omnipresent globally but seemingly more often reported from the North. Northerners have been quietly living with and adapting to change, all kinds of change, since time immemorial.
This map shows the demography of indigenous peoples of the Arctic based on major linguistic groups (click for larger version). Created by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal. Adopted from map by W.K. Dallmann published in Arctic Human Development Report (2004). Data and information compiled by W.K. Dallmann, Norwegian Polar Institute and P. Schweitzer, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
As a writer and geographer, I have spent parts of each of the last 35 years in the Canadian Arctic. Encounters with the North and northerners have been my most important education. Having marked these journeys—this “experiential curriculum” (curriculum, incidentally, comes from the Latin word meaning “path”) — on a circular map pinned to the ceiling above my desk, I decided it was time to venture out into the rest of the Arctic.
So I set out in the spring of 2010 to make my way around the world at the Arctic Circle. The idea was to travel in all seasons as opportunities arose and as resources allowed, and to see who and what I might meet along the way. There are, after all, some four million people representing more than thirty different ethnic groups in the Arctic according to the Arctic Council.
Circling the Midnight Sun presents a series of little vignettes from that journey, one time zone at a time. It’s a sneak peek of my upcoming book and future radio documentaries, all of which seek to put a human face on the circumpolar world.
And as for polar bears and Coca Cola, the partnership is still going strong. In a recent development in the co-marketing world, Coke has teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to raise awareness about the polar bear situation—producing for the first time a white can (that consumers hated because it confused Classic Coke with other products) and, with WWF, a slick Arctic Home campaign to help create an “Arctic Refuge” for the polar bear.