Children’s books are filled with fantastic friendships between humans and beasts. From a young age, we learn that if a tiger comes for tea we should expect it to eat all our sandwiches, and if a Peruvian bear drops in for lunch we had better have some marmalade in the cupboard.
In this fantasy world, we can coexist peacefully with large mammals. Meanwhile, in real life, young people are having fewer wild interactions than ever before. In part this is a result of increased screen time and decreased access to wild spaces. Perhaps it doesn’t help that many countries drove out their most exciting inhabitants – lynx, bears and wolves – centuries ago.
Had they not, more people in the developed world might now be facing similar problems to those in Novaya Zemlya. The playgrounds of this remote Russian archipelago were recently invaded by a prowl of hungry polar bears, driven into human settlements in search of food and shelter after rising temperatures destroyed the last hospitable slices of the Arctic sea ice. It’s the same story we see across the world: habitat loss driving elephants to raid crops, human settlements spreading into tiger territory, and people losing their lives to big cats.
The Incident of the Polar Bear in the Playground is not an unanticipated sequel to The Humans Who Melted the Ice Caps. We have known for years that Arctic temperatures are rising at horrifying rates. It should come as no surprise that the polar bears we have evicted from their natural homes have ended up clamouring at humans’ front doors in search of their basic requirements for survival. Unfortunately, they are more likely to be met with the business end of a shotgun than a marmalade sandwich (crusts off). And who can blame the people in the main settlement, Belushya Guba, for wanting to protect themselves? If an 8ft carnivore stalked into my daughter’s nursery with a rumbling tummy, I know what my instincts would tell me. And I’m a die-hard vegan conservationist.
We’ve had years to address these issues. This is not a freak occurrence but the latest in a list of increasingly frequent human/polar bear incidents. And it’s part of an even longer list of rapidly growing areas where there is human/wildlife conflict. We can’t blame the local residents of Novaya Zemlya for their quiet town becoming a bear refugee camp. They are not the ones burning fossil fuels, intensively farming cows and jetting across the world for business meetings. It’s almost always the case that those making the decisions that are most dire for the environment are the furthest from the consequences.
However, Insectageddon – the fate towards which we are rapidly hurtling if we don’t soon change our farming practices, pesticide usage and attitude towards global warming – will be a disaster for all humans, tigers and bears alike. An estimated 84% of EU crops depend on a free workforce of pollinators performing a task that is valued at £12.6bn. The latest study, published on Monday, suggests the world’s insects could vanish within a century. Not only do insects pollinate our food plants and clean our water; they also recycle mountains of excrement and rotting corpses – and I for one prefer the world that way.
Without bees and other insects to pollinate the tea plants, orange trees and hundreds of other flowering plants on which we depend for food, we will be forced to pollinate by hand. This is already happening in China, where the eradication of wild bees has led to some farmers pollinating their crops using paintbrushes This means that the extinction of insect-kind will result in something that businesses fear even more than famine, suffering and death: loss of income
But amid all this gloom, there are beacons of hope, such as the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who is leading a protest at political inaction on climate change. She is a reminder that there are plenty of young people around today who are aware of the issues facing our planet. And they are more likely to be found protesting about climate change outside parliament than sitting around waiting for fictional animals to visit and share their snacks.
Just as well, because if the latest study is right, our children will soon have neither tea nor marmalade to offer their guests – let alone fruit for the very hungry caterpillar – assuming he’s not extinct.