With the presidential election coming up next week, I can’t help but think about the future of our world—mostly the next four years—and what it will look like. There are so many things that I would change, as I’m sure you would, too. So, what would my priorities be if I ruled the world?
In 1963, there was a song with that very title. “If I Ruled the World” was a tune composed for the West End, London, musical Pickwick, based on the Charles Dicken’s 1837 novel The Pickwick Papers. In the context of the stage play, the song is sung by the main protagonist, Samuel Pickwick, when he is mistaken for an election candidate and called on by the crowd to give his manifesto.
If I were in Pickwick’s place, I think, I would announce that the following three mandates should be enacted immediately:
1. Polar bears would have an inalienable right to sea ice.
Earlier this year, a study published in the science journal Ecological Applications concluded that polar bears are spending less time on sea ice, leading them to fast longer, become thinner and have fewer cubs—which is projected to continue for the next three polar bear generations (or 37 years).
For polar bears, sea ice is a crucial platform. They use it for long-distance travels to new areas and to hunt by waiting on top of it, anticipating the appearance of unsuspecting seals that pop their heads up out of the water. Sometimes, pregnant females dig in the sea ice to create maternity dens, where they give birth and take care of their cubs.
In recent decades, though, this critical habitat has been shrinking. Sea ice concentrations have declined by 13 percent each decade since 1979 due to increasing global temperatures. Arctic regions have warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world, so seasonal sea ice is also forming later in the fall and breaking up earlier in the spring. And when there’s no sea-ice platform, the bears end up moving onto land with no or minimal access to food.
The results of the 2020 study were not necessarily surprising for the scientists. For decades now, it has been well known that changes in the climate are having a negative effect on polar bears. Even if greenhouse gases were curbed immediately, sea ice would likely continue to decline for several decades because large-scale changes take a long time to propagate through Earth’s climate system.
If I ruled the world, polar bears’ rights to sea ice would be paramount.
2. Prairie dogs would have property rights for their towns.
Once thought to be destructive to grasslands, prairie dogs and their habits are now recognized as key to the health of prairie ecosystems.
Prairie dogs and people share some traits. Very sociable, prairie dogs greet each other with a “kiss” (touching noses and teeth). Some get up early; some get up late. Sometimes they care for one another, and sometimes they are murderous. They sound alarms when danger approaches. They establish boundaries, form clans and construct living quarters. They live in towns.
At the beginning of the 20th century, black-tailed prairie dogs occupied more than 100 million acres of the Great Plains down the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. One town in the Texas Panhandle stretched 250 miles long and 100 miles wide, and it contained an estimated 400 million animals. In the decades since, ranchers and government agencies have launched massive poisoning campaigns to clear prairie dogs off rangeland. By the 1960s, the rodents occupied less than 2 percent of their original territories.
Three other prairie dog species—Gunnison’s, white-tailed and the federally threatened Utah prairie dog—occur in areas that are farther west. A fifth species, the Mexican prairie dog, inhabits the highlands of central Mexico.
There is no question that black-tailed prairie dogs change their habitats. The animals clip the grasses in and around their towns, eating their fill and clearing the rest so they can see one another and approaching predators. In the center of their towns, this constant clipping eventually kills almost all the grass and allows broad-leaved herbs and small shrubs to move in. However, the rodents prefer to establish towns in the low grasses of heavily grazed areas. The heavier a pasture is grazed, the better the prairie dogs do. Thus, prairie dogs are often a symptom of overgrazed land, not its cause.
Modern researchers have concluded that the rodents are far less detrimental to livestock than previously thought. The proper way to measure the effect of prairie dogs on cattle is to compare heavily grazed prairies with and without prairie dogs. Once researchers did that, they found that prairie dogs reduced the forage available to livestock by only 4 to 8 percent.
In prairies that are undisturbed, cattle and bison prefer feeding in newer parts of prairie dog towns. By clipping off older grass blades and stems, prairie dogs stimulate tender, nutritious new growth and actually raise the quality and diversity of the forage for other grazers (though they decrease its quantity). Studies have indicated that young bison gain significantly more weight feeding in a prairie dog town than elsewhere. So, under the right circumstances, bison, cattle and prairie dogs can mutually benefit one another.
On top of that, wildlife biologists say that prairie dogs and their modified habitats attract and support many other animals, making their towns biological hot spots. Prairie dog towns hold about three times the density of wildlife and nearly double the number of species as prairies without the rodents. Vertebrate species associated with the towns number as high as 171, ranging from jackrabbits to mice, and from raptors to swift foxes to toads. The best known of prairie dogs’ dependents is the endangered black-footed ferret. Some animals, such as burrowing owls and rattlesnakes, rely on the towns’ underground architecture for shelter. A few, such as pronghorns, seek out the broad-leaved herbs that grow in the heart of the towns. Others, such as the mountain plover, favor the bare terrain where the dogs have their greatest impact.
If I ruled the world, I would say that if prairie dogs want to build a town, they have automatic building permits.
3. Music would have a place in our lives every day.
On a 2007 trip to Newfoundland, I not only came away with breathtaking images of the country’s landscapes but with an awe for how everyone I met—from boat captains to shopkeepers—broke into song at the drop of a hat. Every day on that tour, I heard one or another of Newfoundland’s citizens singing. Out loud. In the open air. When I returned to my normal life in the United States, I felt a great loss: that of music all around me.
Many countries use public funds to nurture homegrown musical talent. The amounts are often paid out by federal arts councils or public-private partnerships. Regional and municipal governments contribute, too.
For example, Arts Council Norway’s funding for music has soared, from less than $19 million in 2011 to nearly $111 million in 2020, which is impressive for a country with only about 5 million people
Sweden, which allocated nearly $220 million in funding to the arts last year—including at least $7.8 million for music—passed a law in 2009 that states: “Culture is to be a dynamic, challenging and independent force based on the freedom of expression. Everyone is to have the opportunity to participate in cultural life. Creativity, diversity and artistic quality are to be integral parts of society’s development.” The dozens of artists who received Swedish Arts Council funding for recordings the past few years include the indie-pop project El Perro Del Mar and free-jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson.
It might seem trivial to worry about music spending when so many other issues are now at stake. But in the countries with the strongest reputations for funding the arts, cultural expression, like other basic needs, is considered a universal right and not a privilege for the wealthy.
If I ruled the world, you’d never have another day without hearing a song.
My world would have smiles again
A section of the lyrics to that 1963 song goes, “If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring. Every heart would have a new song to sing. And we’d sing of the joy every morning would bring.
“My world would be a beautiful place, where we would weave such wonderful dreams. My world would wear a smile on its face like the man in the moon has when the moon beams.”
If I ruled the world, I think my three priorities would go a long way toward making this planet a far more beautiful place—perhaps making even the moon seem a little brighter in the dark.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,