The Oil and the Glory

Book Review: Fen Montaigne’s “Fraser’s Penguins”

Fen Montaigne presents a simple thesis in Fraser’s Penguins: Adélie penguins around the Palmer station in Antarctica are disappearing as global warming changes their environment. Documenting and understanding the change has been the life work of the book’s namesake Bill Fraser, who has devoted his decades-long career to intimately understanding the habitat surrounding this Antarctic ...

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Fen Montaigne presents a simple thesis in Fraser’s Penguins: Adélie penguins around the Palmer station in Antarctica are disappearing as global warming changes their environment. Documenting and understanding the change has been the life work of the book’s namesake Bill Fraser, who has devoted his decades-long career to intimately understanding the habitat surrounding this Antarctic base. By the end, we are won over by Fraser’s beloved penguins, and the unique experience of Antarctic research.

Along the way, we get old-fashioned hero-worship of Fraser, too, as Montaigne jerks us from the world of impersonal observation that informs hypotheses and into the scientist’s mind. There are fascinating descriptions of field work, from shifting through piles of guano (or "shit traps," as he occasionally relaxes and calls them) to the emotion of inadvertently killing a penguin while attempting to pump its stomach and discern its diet. Montaigne hews strictly to the tone of biography and journalism, with direct quotes and quips and no tables, regressions, or charts. 

Montaigne’s narrative follows an entire research season in the isolation, cold, and surreal beauty of Antarctica. Alongside Fraser, he lays out the day-to-day detail of ship schedule and field tricks that do not come through in scientific findings, but are the core of the experience of such research: Fraser skillfully grabbing a Brown Skua from the sky for tagging, sorting through piles of excrement for fish ear bones, and penning in penguins for weighing. And, when nowhere is there a name for the range of Antarctic mountains that forms the backbone of northwest Antarctica near Palmer station, he decides to get to the bottom of this mystery by going to the top — specifically to a "top official at the United States Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names." (Alas, he is informed, nobody has yet proposed a name). His devotion to and skill with personifying the objects of his story shines through and unites the narrative.

As important as that skill is as an asset for the story, however, I found it equally detracting. At its core, Fraser’s Penguins is more about the people making science than about the science. Perhaps that is intentional, but if it is, it is jarring — the subject matter calls out for dollops of the pure science: Montaigne is explicitly tackling one of the hottest and least self-evident sets of scientific claims that arises in the media. Rather than confronting the skeptics head-on, Montaigne quotes observations (even when they seem to be evident), and meanwhile tells idle stories like a travelogue. I mean that quite literally — the science is presented in quotation marks. It’s an interesting aspect to quibble with, and something that overtook me slowly as I progressed through the book. But by the end, when Montaigne has advanced quickly through the scientific hypotheses that explain the decline of Adélie populations, his strangely personal tone was overwhelming. One appreciates the light touch, but hungers for the meat of the science.

The book similarly struggles during Montaigne’s survey of the region’s natural history and previous explorations. The book presents enough of the story of the intrepid Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton to whet the appetite of those unfamiliar with him, and does a good job of showing the intermixture of commerce and exploration with the story of fur seals’ massacre to near extinction in the early 18th century. But Montaigne delivers these nuggets without setting up a broad structure, so that they feel simply like so many stories.

Finally, the book tackles the role of climate-change evangelist. Montaigne lays out specific causal mechanisms that Fraser thinks are most likely responsible for the declining Adélie populations: Higher temperature means more snow (counter-intuitively), which decreases reproductive success, changes the timing of ice formation and access to food supplies, and so triggers a fatal chain reaction.

But Montaigne’s microscope approach of highlighting a single region means he cannot zoom out and tackle how the ripple of change will play out into a new ecological equilibrium. To be sure, it’s unlikely anyone could. But Montaigne’s attempt to bring the changes in Palmer to the broader analysis of climate change only raises more questions. The declining Adélie populations are making room for another penguin species, the gentoo, which are better adapted to the changed Palmer climate, and the Adélie populations are actually increasing in other parts of the Antarctic as climate changes ripple throughout the continent. How right then is the tone of despair carefully cultivated by personifying the subject of his narrative? Montaigne handles the question when he discusses the need to overcome our instinct to pick sides and cheer for the underdog penguins when they are being devoured by hungry Brown Skuas.  "It’s amoral, just part of the web of life," he seems to say. After that insight, it seems oddly inconsistent to reassert that the human role in climate change is so different. The reader is tempted to ask whether we should apply the same logic to our own populations: We too are part of the web of life, flourishing in the geologically short-term stability of a 10,000-year-long climatic era. Perhaps climate change is just the Earth’s way of rebalancing the species?

While the context and implications for Montaigne’s climate change argument left me wanting more, perhaps that is also part of his message: That the value lies in people and the process behind the science, rather than the cold conclusion.

James Campbell is a student in the graduate Security Studies Program at Georgetown  University’s School of Foreign Service

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