One of those programmes that showed the BBC at its best – a natural history programme on the migration of birds, following the flight of barnacle geese to their breeding grounds in the Norwegian Arctic. The exhausting flight brings them to grassland where the twenty-four daylight of the Northern summer provides ideal conditions for the breeding pairs. The offspring, fluffy bundles of feathers, the sort of creatures that might feature on birthday cards, lack even a fraction of the mobility of their intercontinental parents.
The narrator proceeds in a sinister tone, announcing a rare and unexpected visitor to the barnacle geese’s breeding ground – a polar bear appears. The mother geese try to usher their stumbling children to safety, but the polar bear seems hardly to need to hurry. The goslings provide snacks for the massive bear; the narrator explains that the bear could destroy the entire new generation.
At which point events take an unexpected turn, birds threatened by the predator decide upon collective action. Arctic terns, nesting near the barnacle geese, take to the air and begin swooping at the polar bear. The intention, the narrative explains, is to make life miserable for the bear. It seemed an unlikely proposition, that such a huge animal would even notice the terns, let alone be made miserable. The attacks continued, the terns being reinforced by skuas, which swoop and make physical contact with the bear. Initially, it shows annoyance by rolling onto its back, but the birds are undeterred from their assault and the polar bear slinks off. The birds are saved, particularly the goslings, the parents of which have taken little part in the defence.
The programme was an extraordinary example of the capacity of the weak and the vulnerable to act together. If Arctic terns and skuas can outdo a polar bear, then what else is possible?
At a time of declining levels of political participation, and when protest action seems to have become the sphere of small groups whose agenda is the destruction of the current order, there is a perception that there is nothing ordinary people can do that would achieve any change. There is a counsel of despair, that in the face of the overwhelming debts of the banks and the overwhelming economic power of the international institutions, there is nothing ordinary people can do to defend themselves.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once suggested that anyone who thought themselves too insignificant to make a difference had never been in bed with a mosquito. Anyone who thinks they can do nothing to face down the power of the IMF and the European institutions has never seen a skua drive away a polar bear.