My husband and I just returned from an Alaskan cruise. Yes, life is cruel. We ate dessert at every meal, had our very own butler, and enjoyed every type of hedonistic frivolity. We also experienced Alaska for the first time and had our first encounter with a glacier. And it looked, well, cold. And hard. And not nearly as much fun as the ship’s chocolate buffet.
It seems to me that glaciers are suffering from a public relations problem. As temperatures rise, they’ll continue to disappear, altering sea levels and destabilizing ecosystems. Only idiots and corporate zealots think global warming isn’t happening or isn’t harmful. The rest of us are at least aware that glaciers are going the way of popsicles in an August sun. And after seeing a glacier firsthand, I’ve decided the problem is one of image. Glaciers simply aren’t cute.
In one of my recent posts, Six Loves Seven, I wrote about our natural inclination to personify objects. We are social animals and we naturally ascribe genders to our cars and personalities to our misbehaving gadgets. Historically, we’ve even personified nature. We had gods of the sea, of the sun, moon, and earth. And with that personification came respect, or at least awareness. We’re such social animals that we can’t make ourselves care about a hunk of rock, even if that rock happens to be our home. But call that rock Mother Earth and the guilt pours in. Guilt and maybe even the action that it engenders. When we personify, we make ourselves care.
Humans can feel some strong emotions toward inanimate objects – just think of the look of yearning on a window shopper’s face. Or how people will fight over possessions – from divorcing spouses to those divvying up a loved one’s estate. But inanimate objects can’t engender the love and guilt that seems uniquely able to spur us to philanthropy and self-sacrifice.
On an intellectual level, we may understand that glacial melt poses a serious risk to our planet and possibly ourselves. We may even feel anxiety about it. But all of that knowledge and self-interest has probably amounted to less individual action (and certainly less personal agonizing) than the reports that polar bears have been dying as a result. The image of exhausted polar bears searching in vain for sea ice evokes a personal empathy that a block of frozen water never could. If you’re like me, you feel physical discomfort when clips of hungry children flash on your TV screen or when mass mailers stuffed with sad photos arrive in the mail. We understand misery best when we see it on a face.
The solution came to me as my husband and I sailed away on our luxury ocean liner. What we need is a mascot. Maybe a new cartoon franchise featuring Glen the Baby Glacier. Little bitty Glen wants nothing more than to grow to be big like his dad. If only it weren’t so gosh darn hot! Maybe if he’s cute enough and famous enough, kids will start asking to ride their bikes to school. Adults will shell out for the energy-saving light bulbs. And next time my husband and I will opt for a more eco-friendly vacation. Maybe, if only glaciers seemed a little more, well, warm and fuzzy.
My money’s on you, Glen.
Photo credit: Sabin Dang