Unbearable Future

Unbearable Future,” Limn 3, Sentinel Devices (2013).benson_polarbear_72-220x293

I wrote this piece in response to an invitation by Frédérick Keck and Andy Lakoff to contribute to a special issue of the new online/print magazine Limn on the idea of “sentinels,” i.e., what Keck and Lakoff describe in their preface to the issue as “signs of an ominous and rapidly encroaching future.”

Polar bears recently have come to symbolize the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change to biodiversity, or even to nature writ large. My very brief article is an attempt to understand the roots of this development by going back to a moment in the 1960s when there was also great alarm about the polar bear’s fate, but when the main culprits were hunting and Arctic development rather than melting ice.

This understanding of threat launched the construction of what one politician at the time described as a “machinery for the future” that would monitor the status of the polar bear. Much has changed since then, I argue, but many of the basic assumptions about the future, risk, and the human impact on nature remain the same. (The U.S. polar bear trophy import program that I have mapped here can be seen both as a result and a component of this machinery.)

Many of the other pieces in the issue focus on the use of animals as sentinels; see for example Chloe Silverman on bees, Adriana Petryna on swallows, Hannah Landecker on experimental rodents, Ann H. Kelly on mosquitoes, Christelle Gramaglia on shellfish, Frédérick Keck on poultry, and Lyle Fearnley on waterfowl.

All of these articles (as well as the non-animal-related pieces) are well worth checking out, as are the previous two Limn issues on “Crowds and Clouds” and “Systemic Risk.”

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.