“The Great White Bear,” by conservationist and environmental writer Kieran Mulvaney, delves into the lives of one of the poster species in the crusade against global warming. For all his activist credentials, including a stint as a prominent anti-whaling advocate with Greenpeace, he remains in his writing a consummate professional, stoking interest in, and garnering sympathy for, the polar bear with truly skillful storytelling and National Geographic-worthy panoramic prose. Only at the end, when discussing the fate of the bear as it intersects with global politics and policy, does he show his hand.
Though the reader, quite reasonably, expects any book on polar bears to come with a certain environmentalist agenda, Mulvaney’s work stands out precisely because it does not preach, at least not until the last 50-or-so pages, by which point the reader is so captivated by his furry protagonists that she is happy to keep reading.
That’s not to say it is at all difficult to win over the readership when the leading lady is, for the first few chapters, the endearingly protective mother of a pair of rowdy cubs. Mulvaney starts the reader on a boat bobbing recklessly in an ocean full of icebergs – never mind that he reassures his audience of the competence of his skipper; he has anyone who’s ever seen “Titanic” on the edge of his seat – and then zooms in on the expectant mother, who peers curiously at the boatload of researchers before deciding that they are not a threat, and wanders away to excavate her den in the snow.
Mulvaney shows us other bears – males, as mother bears won’t emerge until they give birth in early spring. There is a pitifully emaciated bear, trapped by the dwindling Arctic ice, contrasted with a larger, healthy one, portrayed in all his quiet majesty, the unquestioned king of his domain. And finally, after an interlude sprinkled with the accounts of Inuit hunters, pertinent research of the preceding decades and fun facts about the life and times of this most unusual of bear species, a dark nose emerges from the snow, followed by a white head – a big one and two little ones. The cubs will have a difficult and dangerous life, Mulvaney predicts, and we believe him, however desperately we want them to succeed.
He goes on to examine human-bear interactions, an increasingly common phenomenon as human populations continue to expand into once-virgin Arctic lands. He writes intimately of the community at Cape Churchill, a small town whose industry revolves around catering to eco-tourists and polar researchers, whose very livelihood depends upon the polar bears its patrons come to see. This transitions effortlessly into a discussion of the wider impacts of human society on polar bears, such as Arctic research, poaching and most notably, global warming, which hits polar bears harder than it does any other species in existence. Here is where his preceding accounts – the tenuousness of Arctic life, the absolutely adorable cubs – pay off. Mulvaney has, in the preceding 100-or-so pages, accumulated enough sympathy – genuine sympathy, rather than shallow appeals via tear-jerking or fear-mongering – that the reader does not feel deceived, or that there was any sort of agenda or ulterior motive to the book. He advocates for the polar bear without gracelessly pounding the message home, which is an achievement in itself.
There is enough diversity in “The Great White Bear” to appeal to a wide audience, from scientists to activists to politicians and even to just the average reader with a soft spot for cute animals or a passing interest in current events. The book is a wonderful blend of popular science and memoir; it is eminently topical, but will remain timeless in its presentation.