I have something to admit about what happened while I was in Germany last summer: I had a European love affair. Far from being tall, dark and handsome, my crush was a dainty 110 pounds with razor-sharp teeth and a body covered in thick white fur. His name was Knut.

Knut is the famous polar bear born in captivity at the Berlin Zoo. Unlike the lack of interest Americans have in environmental issues, I was struck by how much passion and concern the German people had for Knut’s well-being and protecting biodiversity. This was put in sharp contrast for me when I learned what was happening to Knut’s bear cub compadres.

Polar bears have been having a bit of trouble lately. First of all, there’s the whole global warming thing. Polar bear habitats have been severely cut back as Arctic ice melts, a result of global warming. The problem has become so concerning that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering whether the species qualified to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Originally, the organization was scheduled to hand down its decision this month.

Then, rather mysteriously, the organization announced it was postponing its conclusions. In a surely unrelated act, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service announced at the beginning of the year that it would allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska to start at the beginning of next month. Drilling will take place in a 46,000 square-mile area off of the state’s northeastern coast in the Chukchi Sea. This area just happens to be one of the two remaining polar bear habitats under U.S. jurisdiction.

Maybe this is a coincidence, but allow me to speculate. Allowing drilling in this area at the expense of biodiversity is unacceptable. Prior to this month, not many people had even heard of the Chukchi Sea. And if you are like me and lack abstract spatial reasoning and estimation skills, 46,000 square miles doesn’t mean all that much. Imagine my surprise to learn that this number represents an area roughly the size of the state of Mississippi. This represents a major piece of habitat.

Chukchi doesn’t have the notoriety that other wildlife habitats do. If this was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, all sorts of alarm bells would go off and every Birkenstock-wearing college student – myself included – would surely take to the streets with pen and paper to petition. And this concern would be justified. Shifting drilling to an area with less name recognition doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. It just encourages reliance on a fuel source that is becoming obsolete.

But more importantly, this should be a warning to the American public. As the Bush administration’s last months wind down and coverage of the Oval Office takes a backseat to election drama, now is a time of great danger. After suffering through seven years of poor decision making, we cannot leave the administration to its own devices in its final hour.

This drilling is unacceptable. Hell, I’ll make the jump and say it if the Department of the Interior won’t: Endangering a threatened species’s habitat for the sake of our own energy consumption isn’t a solution to our long-term problems.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that more than 66 percent of the world’s polar bear will be gone by mid-centrury. The polar bears in Alaska are expected to be extinct in the same time. Allowing this habitat destruction, which would directly contribute to lose of biodiversity, would set a scary precedent.

We should also be asking if this drilling is really necessary. Continuing to search for oil instead of an alternative is not only environmentally unfriendly – it also ignores this country’s larger cultural problem. Like the Detroit auto show taking place right now, this is just another display of how behind – not to mention shortsighted – we are in energy policy. Finding new sources of oil only helps us hobble along with our unsustainable consumption. And that’s the problem that really needs to be addressed. Our outdated attitudes are embarrassing.

More to the point, let’s care about Knut’s kin. Besides, polar bears are cute.

Kate Truesdell can be reached at ketrue@umich.edu.

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