Books: On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear

Richard Ellis traces the natural and cultural history of polar bears.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Polar bears are the cuddly mascots of our rapidly warming world. But as Richard Ellis writes in this exhaustive work of natural and cultural history, we haven’t always been so eager to save them. As early as the 1600s, Arctic explorers’ first instinct was to shoot the “greate leane white beare,” mostly for sport, but sometimes for food (though sailors who ate its vitamin A-rich liver found that their “skinnes peeled off”). After a winter trapped in the ice, a 19th century Norwegian explorer reported that “Roasted cub-stake and tasty bear’s tongue made a welcome addition to our menu.”

It was when P.T. Barnum and others conscripted bears into circus duty in the 1800s that the public began to see them as entertainment. Fast-forward to 2007, when “Cute Knut,” a cub born at the Berlin Zoo, shared the cover of Vanity Fair‘s “green issue” with Leonardo DiCaprio and kicked off a war between German zoos vying to acquire the most adorable white furballs.

Even as we fetishize polar bears, we’re still killing them off, now with carbon emissions and habitat encroachment. The bears’ hunting grounds are melting and shrinking, killing some and driving others to dumpster diving. Great white bears in the backyard, writes Ellis, might be the kind of wake-up call we need to start taking their survival seriously.

Dear Reader,

This feels like the most important fundraising drive since I've been CEO of Mother Jones, with staggeringly high stakes and so much uncertainty. In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," I try to unpack the reality we all face and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support Mother Jones’ nonprofit journalism: We need to raise $400,000 to help cover the vital reporting projects we have planned, and right now is no time to pull back.

Monika Bauerlein, CEO, Mother Jones

Dear Reader,

This feels like the most important fundraising drive since I've been CEO of Mother Jones, with staggeringly high stakes and so much uncertainty. In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," I try to unpack the reality we all face and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support Mother Jones’ nonprofit journalism: We need to raise $400,000 to help cover the vital reporting projects we have planned, and right now is no time to pull back.

Monika Bauerlein, CEO, Mother Jones

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate