Book Review: On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear, by Richard Ellis

Author’s Note: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.On_thin_ice

Whether or not you like polar bears, Richard Ellis’s book On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear (affiliate link) is a fascinating read. Ellis is the author of more than a dozen books on various animals and, in particular, on the relationships that humans have with them, so he brings years of expertise to his present subject. In addition, he is a self-confessed lover of polar bears. The result is a book that probes deeply and critically the age-old relationships of humans and polar bears on planet Earth–or, as we come to understand, the conflicts between humans and bears.

Made famous by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Knut the abandoned cub in Germany, and of course the animated stars of Coca-Cola ads, polar bears are perhaps the greatest symbol of the dangers of climate change. Ellis’s goal in On Thin Ice is to show us the living, breathing beings behind the image and hype, and then to help us understand why the image is in fact both accurate and useful for gauging our impacts on the environment.

Thus, Ellis begins by reminding us that, in the words of two polar-bear experts, “the polar bear is an ideal species through which to monitor the cumulative effects [of climate change] in arctic marine ecosystems because of its position at the top of the arctic marine food chain” (11). That is, the polar bear is the “Lord of the Arctic,” the northern predator par excellence due to its size, strength, skill, and intelligence–but also because of its specialized diet. Unlike other (omnivorous) bears, the polar bear lives almost exclusively on meat–seal meat to be precise—which, in its habitat, is both its great triumph and its tragic flaw.

Humans and the Great White Bears

But Ellis actually begins the body of his book by recounting the history of humanity’s engagement with the bear. Unfortunately, this is a bloody tale, a tale of white snow (and fur) stained red. For, as Ellis tells it, every chapter of the story that has unfolded ever since humans discovered them has “ended badly for the bear” (35). While aboriginal peoples have had longer interactions with the bears, Europeans in particular have interacted with polar bears for more than half a millennium, and Ellis describes how every new encounter involves new perils. Historically, humans have perceived bears as immediate threats, not just sources of food, and have adopted essentially a “shoot on sight” attitude.

The tragic part of this is that much of the perceived “threat” from bears may result from one of their predominant traits: a keen curiosity. After his skillful depiction of the bears as tragic victims of human brutality and greed, Ellis then presents the facts about “the great ice bear”: how they are similar to but not descended from brown bears, the unique ways they hibernate and rear their young, the feeding behaviors and prowess they bring to the hunt…and of course their inimitable curiosity, precocity, and beauty.

Amidst the data of polar bear biology, Ellis never lets us lose our empathic connection to the creatures themselves. Photographs appear throughout the text, some of which are even in color, and then there are vivid descriptions and lively prose from the author. For example, Ellis quotes from a description of triplet cubs playing on a hill, and it is impossible not to smile at the clear image of one cub’s “gleeful look and big grin” as it slid repeatedly down the snow-dune, like a child in a toboggan, while the others leaped and rolled in a big furry ball (86).

But still, always lurking just behind these cute tableaux is the bloody visage of humanity…

Where the Polar Bears Roam

Ellis then takes us into the field, as it were, and discusses the various places that polar bears call home. These cold, icy lands far up north encompass several different countries (Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Russia, the United States) and cultures (from aboriginal Inuit and others to the European-descended upstarts). The tie that binds them all, though, is the presence of the polar bear within their boundaries—nothing but imaginary lines on an imaginary map as far as the polar bear is concerned.

But these “Polar Bear Nations” are also bound by a long history of abuse and exploitation of the bears, as well as various efforts (whole- or half-hearted) to protect them. We learn, then, about the ongoing “conflict between polar bears and humans” (137), both at specific population sites and on a global scale. We also learn about the various national and international agreements that have been enacted to help preserve the bears and their habitat–all beginning in the 20th century, of course, after hundreds of years of exploitation.

The result is an undeniably schizophrenic relationship between humans and bears. Polar bears are at one time and place seen as man-eating brutes, varmints to be exterminated lest they disturb our peace and spill our blood. But at another time and place, they are beloved icons of national pride, emblazoned on license plates, souvenirs, and even government logos. And at yet another time and place, they are trophies, the targets of hunters and the indigenous peoples who look to make a killing from the profits that polar bears can create before, during, and after a (guided) hunt.

Here Come the Humans Again…

For much of the human-bear history, this latter aspect of the relationship has been the greatest threat we pose to them: overhunting, which reduces both the living number of bears and their ability to reproduce, since hunters favor the bigger, scarier-looking males. Ellis explores this in his chapter “Hunting the Hunter,” which is painful because it recounts such direct, real-time violence and brutality…by the humans, of course, hardly ever the so-called “man-eating” bear.

Ellis recounts how, driven largely by fear, ignorance, and greed, humans have hunted bears with ruthless and reckless abandon. In addition, the aboriginal cultures who generally used bears sparingly for their livelihood have taken part in the hunting frenzy, since much of the polar bears’ land is their home as well, and many of the preservation laws allow only native peoples to hunt the bears. The result has been a thriving industry for “arctic safaris,” with the biggest and baddest predator a prime target for glory-seeking hunters.

But wait, it gets worse. Ellis moves on to yet another form of human predation of the bears: capturing them for use as entertainment in zoos and circuses. It is hard not to weep when we learn that polar bears are the sine qua non for any “self-respecting” zoo, with a high return value for the owners because of their marketing cachet. Yet “a polar bear’s typical enclosure size is about one-millionth of its minimum home range” (240). Is it hard to understand, then, why they so often are to be found swimming in circles, pacing, or otherwise wasting away in zoos–some of which can be in far-from-polar climates, from Singapore to Florida? Is it not an utter travesty of nature and ethics to see polar bears jumping through hoops and performing other tricks solely for the titillation of circus goers?

Dead or alive, then, humans seem to have a lust for polar bears–either a lust for blood or a lust for money. But Ellis has more to tell us in this harrowing tale. Even when de-natured in a zoo or circus, “the polar bear still serves as a reminder of our precarious relationship with nature” and “in its whiteness…might be the beacon that can light the way to a better understanding of our place–and our responsibilities–in the world” (257).

Threats from Afar: Global Warming and the Bear

While direct brutality by humans is horrifying enough, the damages we have done to the polar bear and its habitat from afar through anthropogenic climate change are surely far more terrible. Ellis devotes the final chapters of On Thin Ice to this the latest, and most unfair, conflict between humans and bears.

As most of us know by now, human-caused global warming has far-reaching effects, but none so acute as those at the poles. In the Arctic (and similarly the Antarctic), ice is melting at precipitous rates…creating a likely scenario of an iceless North Pole in the very near future. As the ice melts and Arctic temperatures warm, polar bears are forced to find new habitat (usually farther south, where the humans also live in greater numbers). Moreover, their ability to find food and survive their seasonal fasts decline, and their reproduction rates plummet as well.

People who care (and believe in anthropogenic climate change, of course) have long recognized this, and so the polar bear has at various times “fueled a firestorm of almost hysterical sympathy for the bears” (306). As this quotation suggests, Ellis approaches the depiction of the polar bears in the media with critical care, maintaining his focus on human perceptions and, yes, schizophrenia. He is blunt about some of our proposed solutions to the polar bears’ problems, “as if we could put Humpty Dumpty back together again, just because we were the ones that tossed him off the wall” (322).

However, Ellis lashes out in these ways only when various people fail to address the true threat facing the bears (and the planet): “the loss of habitat as a function of global warming.” After all, the great question of his book (and the title of his final chapter) is, “Is the polar bear doomed?” And if the answer to that question is going to be “no,” then it absolutely requires us, those who caused the problem, to admit the facts of climate change and take serious, effective steps towards undoing as much as possible the damage we have done.

Sadly, even with various protections like the Marine Mammal Protection Act or a listing as “threatened” in the Endangered Species Act, the polar bear still is suffering from various forms of human schizophrenia, ignorance, and greed. For many, many people still deny anthropogenic climate change, still oppose protecting habitat from oil development, still consume resources and spew pollutants back out. And every year, every day, every moment, the sun strikes our planet and the polar ice melts…

In On Thin Ice, Richard Ellis presents all of these aspects of the magnificent polar bear and the humans that have threatened it, loved it, hated it, and fought for it over generations. And it is without doubt a gripping tale, even when the book is at times flawed by weaknesses of organization, such as bringing in a full explanation of global warming in the final chapters, after innumerable mentions of it and discussions of its implications. In reading about the Lord of the Arctic, we learn about much more than just a unique bear far from most of our own homes.

We also learn about ourselves and our place on the planet, a planet that we have put into peril and must take great strides to restore. Richard Ellis shows us that, if we are to survive, we have to cure ourselves of our schizophrenia and enter into a nurturing, mutually supportive relationship with all of nature. As the polar bear goes, then, so may go us all.

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