Polar bears on a Coke can.

Today, just before Christmas, finishing up my grading and trying to cut down on the caffeine that’s one of the many things spiking my blood pressure this month, I picked up a can of Coke from the cooler in our student union.  Those who knew me in grad school, when I drank about a case of Diet Coke (plus coffee) per week, would be amazed at how rare this is for me now.  The only carbonated beverage I still have a weakness for is sparkling water, and I don’t even buy that much, considering how the cans pile up in my recycling bin. (I never did feel too good about the Coca-Cola corporation anyway since my first – and lifechanging – encounter with Naomi Klein in grad school, when NO LOGO blew my mind.)  Maybe I should be glad I did pick up this can, since — following consumer complaints that the white is misleading to buyers, making them think it’s diet rather than regular – Coke seems to have pulled the cans from shelves.  (I can’t mock; in a hurry, I mistook the white can for Diet Coke too.)

But the white cans are pretty to look at.  They have a simple white background and three polar bears – parent and two cubs – outlined in silver, with faint little smiles on their faces, particularly the cub at the end, whose face is uplifted as if calling, “Wait for me!”  Of course, as Coke learned with its previous use of polar bears, this sort of anthropomorphizing, a commercial enchantment, was lying in wait for us, and our wallets, all the time.  Or, as that campaign says, “Always.”

Finishing my (inadvertent) Coke set me to thinking again about enchantment theory, as I have written about before, and about a kind of trap the great activist and writer Rebecca Solnit discussed with us in her nonfiction workshop at Bread Loaf 2010 — a sort of aestheticization of quirk and cuteness, a way to choose commercial “action” over anything real.  This is the kind of logic that says buying “green” products at Wal-Mart while changing nothing else about your lifestyle is all you need to do to save the planet.  Or you can buy something for your friends from the “50 Green Gifts for the Holidays” pages in every women’s magazine in the country.  Coke’s intertwining of its corporate mission with an environmental one, despite the good that may come from increased money and awareness, makes me queasy for reasons it took a little longer to see.

Following the URL on the can (coke.com/arctichome) I watched a beautiful video designed to make viewers feel as if we’re flying over the Arctic, watching real polar bears (including an undeniably cute cub playing with his toes.)  It’s cinematic — and that’s not a good thing.  Americans are really good at sentimentalizing cute polar bears and cute lions and tigers (of whose fascinating reality John Vaillant’s great book The Tiger reminds us) while  ignoring the fact that our lifestyle and media choices separate us from real knowledge of those animals’ worlds, and contribute actively to their destruction.  Not to mention all the uncute things about whose gradual smothering/extinction/destruction we just don’t care. Look at our nonparticipation in every international climate summit for, what, the last 15 years?  Look at how we let someone like Rick Perry, who wants to get rid of both the Depts of Education AND the EPA and denies not only that global warming exists but that fracking causes pollution (Really? Really???), get within arm’s length of the US Presidency.

Cartoon by Danny Shanahan, from The New Yorker, 9/22/11. Caption reads, “Momma? Is Rick Perry real?”

Polar bears and Coke cans.  What a twenty-first-century pair.

Once I went on a date with a man who had sailed around the world.  He said the most surreal moment of the whole trip was not when he brushed a whale’s back with his hand, or when he listened to the sound of wind against sail canvas, but when he spotted a tiny dot of red bobbing on the waves, hundreds of miles from land: a Coke can.  Since then I’ve learned about the circling floating islands of trash called the “5 Gyres,” and tried not to add to them.  Perhaps this process really began when I saw a bumper sticker on the back of someone else’s car during college, a question that has never left me: “Throw It Away.” Where’s “Away?” 

I will think of this again as I look at the wreckage Christmas commercialism leaves behind: heaps of paper and cardboard and plastic, especially because in the rural South, where I spend Christmas, there’s usually no recycling for anything but aluminum cans, and those you have to bundle up and take to the ironically named “redemption center.”  The means by which what used to be inside that paper and plastic was made, and what we vote for when we get into our cars and drive somewhere to buy it, is what we ignore when we pop our Coke and settle down with our children to watch animated polar bears.  It’s what we ignore when we stifle our uneasy knowledge of those real bears at the bottom of the world, swimming for miles, battling the threat of drowning, only — if they’re lucky — to haul themselves up at last onto ice that is shrinking because of the deciding-without-deciding that goes on in our own lives thousands of miles away, in a world they never know.