by Maura O’Shea
Polar Bears have become the most well-known or popular symbols of global warming today. I don’t know if I have actually seen this image, or just absorbed the visual from conversations, but I can picture a mama polar bear on a large chunk of ice, with a look of animal distress as she watches her baby polar bear float away on a renegade slab of ice that has broken free of the main slab. The uncertainty of a little bear on a little piece of floating ice in the vast and undulating sea seems to have captured the popular emotion surrounding the entire dilemma in some way.
When I watched An Inconvenient Truth, I remember watching everyone’s faces as they watched the projected water level rises in various metropolitan cities in America, and around the world. My sister’s boyfriend joked that, living in the neighborhood in San Francisco that we did at the time, our apartments would become beachfront property. As if we owned property.
When we were kids, we were offered the option of becoming members of the “Polar Bear Club.” The only activity of the club was waking up at an ungodly hour to jump into the lake that was only not frozen over because it had waves. But it was freezing. In retrospect it seems insane, like if I did that today, I would immediately get sick and remain so for a month. Nevertheless, everyday I woke before dawn and voluntarily jumped into frozen water, mainly because I wanted to be a part of this or any club, that was exclusive, and somehow proved that I was more extreme and hardcore than other, more delicate girls. I think really I was just desperate to do something I could be proud of.
When I was around this age, my father stopped eating meat and started donating heavily to the World Wildlife Foundation and Greenpeace. All of his shirts sported some sort of message to promote environmental awareness. One shirt we made fun of mercilessly had tons and tons of frogs all over the front of the t-shirt, different colors and sizes, and the words “Going… Going…” On the back appeared one lonely, small, green frog, and the word “GONE” in all caps. We thought this was so dorky and absolutely hilarious.
Where I live now, the government controls the sky. When there’s a big national holiday, for example, the government shuts down factory operations for weeks ahead of time, to assure blue skies and clean air for the big day. There’s an actual term for this called “Parade Blue.” All the headlines leading up to the big event read: “Blue Skies or Bust.” They did this for the 70 year anniversary of the end of the “war against Japanese fascism” when tanks rolled through the streets, and martial law was declared. They also did it to impress Obama on his visit.
I talked to a twelve-year-old student one time about the pollution. She came in wearing a fashionably printed facemask. She knew that part of the problem was taking coal from the ground and burning it, and then the coal going into the air. “From the air, it goes into your lungs, and gets stuck there, and makes it black” she said, jabbing at her breastplate with her pointer finger and middle finger joined together, firmly.
Another thing the government does to prepare for a big public event like a military parade is to catch all the random birds flying around the city so that the skies are absolutely clear. They no shit train actual falcons that are released into the city to trap and kill pigeons, and actual macaque monkeys trained to destroy birds’ nests around the city.
My lungs ache, and the days of blue skies come and go. For months after the parade, video footage of soldiers from various countries marching along plays on loop on the little televisions installed in the subway cars, where normally only advertisements play. The soldiers march with a singular focus, without bending their knees, while the camera zooms in on the President and other powerful men standing below an utterly birdless and crystalline sky, frowning and squinting, nodding just slightly to show their approval, under the piercing blue brightness.