Photo by Paul Nicklen
Recently I saw two things I can’t get out of my head.
The first was a presentation by a National Geographic photographer named Paul Nicklen. His talk, “Spirit of the Wild,” is part of the traveling National Geographic Live! speaker series, which is currently here in New York at NYU’s Skirball Center. Paul grew up in an Inuit community in Northern Canada, became a biologist, and has devoted his life to working in the Arctic and Antarctica. I expected beautiful photos of animals in their natural habitats and stories of up-close-and-personal encounters with wildlife. On those points, Paul definitely delivered. What I didn’t expect was a serious education on the effects of climate change on polar ecosystems. In addition to photos of adorable penguins and seals, Paul showed us a time-lapse image of an ice shelf receding to almost nothing and photos of polar bears that had starved to death due to disappearing ice.
“If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem,” Paul said. “Projections are that we could lose polar bears, they could become extinct, in the next fifty to one hundred years.”
At the end of Paul’s talk, the audience’s depression was palpable. During the Q&A session, a woman asked the question that seemed to be on everyone’s mind: “What can we do to help?” In response, Paul said that he could advise us to turn off the lights when we leave a room, drive less, use less plastic, etc., but those are all small things. Instead, he encouraged us to talk about this. Tell our friends and families about his presentation and what we learned, spread the word about the disappearing ice and how important ice is for the survival of these animals, and incorporate that information into the decisions we make in our everyday lives. So that’s what I’m doing.
Paul was only in New York for one night, but there are more National Geographic Live! events coming up at the Skirball Center and across the country. If you live in Seattle, I urge you to go see Paul’s “Spirit of the Wild” talk on May 17, 18, or 19 (info here). And for those who prefer the online experience: Paul’s Ted Talk from 2011, "Tales of Ice-Bound Wonderlands," is a great (although significantly shorter) version of “Spirit of the Wild.” If you’re looking for a place to make a donation, check out Sea Legacy, the organization Paul founded with fellow photographer Cristina Mittermeier.
The other thing I can’t get out of my head is the Netflix documentary Virunga, which came out in 2014. It's the true story of a national park in the Congo that is at risk due to international oil interests, and the brave people who fight for the park, its animals, and its people. At the heart of the film is an orphaned gorilla sanctuary guarded by some of the most amazing humans walking the earth, such as Andre Bauma (pictured above). If you haven’t seen this film yet, go watch it on Netflix now. Yes, much of the film is sad and/or infuriating, but there is hope in more people learning about and discussing the issue. Plus, there’s footage of a young gorilla getting tickled. You don’t want to miss it.