Arctic Reckonings

By ERIKA MONAHAN

Review of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, by Bathsheba Demuth.

NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019


 

On July 24, 2020, the Trump administration reversed another Obama-era determination when the Army Corps of Engineers issued an environmental impact statement endorsing the creation of the largest open-pit gold mine in the world near Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Pebble mine, as it is known, would be located among headwaters of the largest intact, natural sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Bristol Bay supplies almost half of the annual global sockeye salmon harvest.

Earlier this summer, on May 29, oil began leaking from a storage tank in Norilsk, Russia near the Arctic Sea. The cause of the Norilsk spill: melting permafrost. Permafrost is a feature of arctic climates, and when it melts everything changes. Days later, President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency but the leak continued. By June 9, an estimated 600,000 gallons (21,000 tons) of diesel oil had polluted 135 square km. On June 16 NPR reported that with clean-up efforts faltering, an estimated 6.3 million gallons would leak. Compared to the BP-Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez accidents, which spilled 10.8  and 205.8 million gallons, respectively, into the oceans, this spill is small, but its consequences may be far more dangerous. It happened in the Arctic, where clean-up is notoriously more difficult. 

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait is a timely book about the arctic and the havoc we have wrought there. The Pebble Mine project and the Norilsk oil spill make clear that, in our anthropogenically warming, increasingly connected, and geopolitically competitive world, the state of the distant arctic is no longer optional. Bathsheba Demuth has communicated both the beauty of the arctic and the stakes surrounding its exploitation and destruction to a broad audience.  

 

1.

Floating Coast evokes Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, published in 1941. In this book (which began as an assignment to write a government brochure on marine life), Carson wrote lyrically about coastal ecology, guiding her reader through an Atlantic maritime world from the perspective of three creatures: a sea gull, a mackerel, and an eel. In Floating Coast, Demuth takes her reader through the ecosystems of Beringia from the perspective of grander subjects—whale, walrus, and caribou. Fox, wolves, ptarmigan play supporting roles. 

When she writes that “in order to live, something, some being, is always dying,” Demuth echoes Carson (315). In Under the Sea-Wind Rachel Carson asked her reader to temporarily abandon the “human yardstick” of time. “[T]ime measured by the clock or the calendar means nothing if you are a shore bird or a fish,” Carson explained. Time is an abiding preoccupation in Demuth’s history. Karl Marx and Andrew Carnegie, notwithstanding how greatly their views on how to order society diverged, agreed on a notion of progress, of Time. Their vision of Time, Demuth instructs us, is incompatible with Beringian Time (7).“Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with Time alone,” Heinrich Heine famously wrote. Floating Coast shows that technology in human hands may be able to destroy ecosystems and render extinction but it has not conquered Time. It takes years and years to concentrate the energy of sun and plankton into the fatty bodies of whales and walrus. 

No profit incentive or propaganda slogan can isolate ecosystems both vast and finite, or speed that clock, although socialism and capitalism have both tried. “Beringia existed in a time apart” (139). Repeating the words of Carson’s biographer Linda Lear, Demuth has “the voice of both the scientist and the poet, a writer in love with the wonder in nature that she has discovered and can share.” Floating Coast marks the debut of a talented writer. 

 

2. 

Floating Coast begins with the birth of a bowhead whale in the eighteenth century and the beginnings of Yankee whaling in the Bering Strait in 1848. Much the way Michael Pollen tried to shift the story away from a human perspective in Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World (2002), Demuth wants to assign more agency to nature. It is an understandable but odd move. It is understandable because she wants to emphasize that the planet is not all about us; it is odd because doing so can deny our own responsibility. We broke it, we bought it.  

Be that as it may, being open to Nature’s agency pays off here. Demuth offers a compelling case of animal agency in her account of bowhead whales’ response to Yankee hunters. Bowheads were easy prey quickly depleted when American whalers first arrived in the 1840s. Within a few years, however, bowhead whales learned to swim into the leads (cracks in the ice shelf) where ships could not safely navigate. 

But Demuth also shows the relentlessness of the changes wrought by the hunt for bowheads. In response to bowheads’ savvy, the whalers attacked walruses, “the second sort of energy foreigners harvested in Beringia” (74). It took two hundred fifty walruses to get as much blubber as one bowhead whale yielded, but with guns—the “crack of gunshot did not even startle the walrus sentinels” because it sounded like fracturing sea ice—walrus herds on the sea ice became easy prey (79). Walrus blubber supplanted whale; their ivory tusks made buttons and the tips of billiard cues. 

By the 1880s, Yankee fleets had killed more than 140,000 walruses in a population of 200,000. Deprived of their calories, Beringian villages began to starve. Beringians looked to supplement diminishing maritime calories with the calories that fox pelts could buy. The fox hunt pushed coastal people inland, but fox populations fluctuated in stochastic cycles, not dependable for annual reckoning, whether of the caloric or quarterly sort. 

Meanwhile, facing crisis, communities on both sides of the Bering Strait developed local regulations that enabled walrus populations to recover. A village in Chukotka insisted on hunting only with spears, not guns. In the Alaskan territory, contrary to myths of a frontier free from government’s reach, the U.S. government “concluded that neither the market nor ‘the native’ could be trusted to value walruses rationally” (95). But the initial game laws with their prohibitions on market selling ignored that “subsistence in early twentieth-century Alaska required commodities” (96). Thus, animal populations began to recover, but the notion of walruses as an optimistic case study is much dashed alongside fact that, in the course of arriving at these conservation practices, the coastal population was halved (80, 341n.32). 

Early in the book, Demuth stresses chain reactions: how the pressures some humans exerted on animal populations caused changes among other humans and other animal populations. In her treatment of Rangifer tarandus—known as reindeer in Eurasia and caribou in Alaska—she turns to a species increasingly integrated with human populations. On both sides of the Bering Sea, the state, for understandable reasons, tried to change the rules of the relationship. Things did not turn out well. 

In Alaska, between 1850 and 1900, approximately seven herds of caribou collapsed into two. Demuth is not clear why. Americans, convinced that resources must not be left to ravages of the market, embraced the idea that this land and its people needed to be managed. The Siberian practice of domesticating reindeer reached the Chukchi coast “a few hundred years before any Imperial Russian,” but only jumped the strait at the behest of white foreigner—all who are not native Beringians are foreigners in Demuth’s telling—Sheldon Jackson, who became commissioner of Education for the territory of Alaska in 1885. Jackson convinced the Chukchi to break with their tradition of not selling live reindeer and shipped 71 to the Seward Peninsula in the 1890s. The initial herd grew to 10,000 by 1905 and about 400,000 by the 1920s. 

But the outcomes on the human side of this social engineering experiment were less rosy. Jackson might as well have branded the reindeer with crosses and dollar signs. He wanted reindeer to induce the Inupiat to embrace Christianity and Capitalism; a dozen years later only a minority of Inupiat had achieved ownership. Once present, domesticated reindeer migrated through a variety of management regimes and environmental policies. Privatization and small-scale ownership yielded to corporation. The government instituted to open-range policies, but they were complicated by exploding wolf populations, the intensive labor demands of husbandry, and limits of local lichens. Jackson’s vision of making “Jeffersonian herders from Inupiat hunters” dropped by the wayside (156). Demuth tells us that “five to ten percent of [Chukchi] herders owned between half and two-thirds of the peninsula’s domestic herds” (140). Realization of Stalin’s socialist vision through collectivization required that the herds be redistributed. Chukchi who resisted were dubbed class enemies. 

Floating Coast then goes underground and turns to mining of gold and tin. In these chapters, with no animal protagonist to anchor the story, the environment recedes. Yes, there is cyanide, mercury, sulfuric acid, plummeting fish populations, and ecosystems collapsing under mining effluent. But what emerges more prominently is a critique of cruel economic systems. On the Russian side, in the hungry present en route to a socialist utopia, money was needed and Lenin conceded that “we must learn to howl with the wolves” (225). Prison labor became the mining workforce. 

The Soviet gulag—which the Soviets rhetorically fashioned as redemption through labor for wreckers—was crueler than anything on the other side of Bering Strait, but the North American experience yielded much disenfranchisement and disappointment, too. In nineteenth-century America, gold promised a way to escape wage labor, which many saw as “a sign of dependence and therefore of unfreedom.” The Alaskan gold rush favored the well-capitalized, who made fortunes; most who struck out for gold ended up wage laborers, victims of the “bondage of commerce” (206).

Demuth does not ignore the way technological change intersects with environmental change, but she offers little comfort to those who see technology as a way to redemption. Even when petroleum-based kerosene became cheaper than whale oil in 1871—by which point “half of Beringia’s bowheads were…piles of bones on the sea floor,” the harvest did not cease. Baleen—the strong flexible cartilage that filters krill and plankton through whale mouths—lined the corsets of fashionable waists; this commercial “need” was only replaced by the invention of spring steel in 1907 (69). This was only a reprieve. 

In 1925 chemists learned how to separate the molecules that imparted the strong whale taste from the caloric blubber. Whale blubber could now make margarine, and this ushered in the industrialized factory whaling of the twentieth century. The United States by that point had little stake in commercial whaling—cetaceans buttered little bread in America, Demuth quips—and signed the League of Nations’ Convention on Whaling in 1931 (263). Driven first by World War II caloric shortage and later by defiance of the International Whaling Commission, which it regarded as a corrupt front organization for a capitalist world, the Soviet Union hunted whales aggressively. 

Here we encounter a familiar narrative thread of an evil Soviet Union juxtaposed against a more enlightened West. We see how a nascent environmental movement dovetailed with Cold War logic as Greenpeace emerged as an iconic and effective defender of whales. Greenpeace actually originated in opposition to nuclear weapons, but “inspired by Farley Mowat’s descriptions of human and cetacean annihilation linked by the sperm oil that lubricated nuclear warheads, they turned to saving whales” (300). To her credit, Demuth nuances Soviet demonization, for while Greenpeace’s strategy of honing the Soviet whaling as bogeymen deflected attention from other world hunters, other Europeans consumed whales, too. “By the 1930s, forty percent of the margarine Britons and northern Europeans spread on their toast came from whales” (262). Of nearly three million killed whales in the twentieth century, Soviet industrial fleets, killed one-fifth or sixth of that total (298). The Soviet Union ceased factory whaling in the North Pacific in 1979, six years before the International Whaling Commission declared an international industrial whaling moratorium. 

 

3.

Floating Coast is a critique of modernity—in its imperialist, socialist, and capitalist forms. Imperial St. Petersburg and republican Washington, D.C. alike worried that whalers brought booze and disease to Beringia. “The problem of whaling, for the United States and Imperial Russia, was not so much that it killed too many whales, but that it brought commerce while failing at civilization.” Contradictions about what and how to value things is a thread running through the book, but well before the ideological stand-off of the Capitalist and Socialist worlds, both states sought “borders that would bring an unruly market to sovereign heel” (67). 

For both socialism and capitalism, the exploitation of natural resources was supposed to bring “civilization” of a quite particular sort as well as wealth. Comparing life on both sides of the Bering Strait in the 1930s, Demuth writes, “Lived communism was consistent, if often insufficient; lived capitalism often bounteous but capricious” (120).  That is, if the market was saturated, the pelts one brought with one’s labor might yield but a pittance.  At the same time, without return on investment, capitalist profit-seeking could move on to the next lucrative prospect, offering a reprieve, as it did with whales. Soviet plans, determined by ideology not markets, were relentless. Whether driven by backwardness, an inferiority complex about backwardness, or geopolitics, market-rejecting socialist production pitted itself against Time—and thus, against nature. 

Yet, the more abiding impression in this comparison of the rival systems bifurcating Beringia was that the differences between capitalist and socialist relations to nature in large part collapse. When I read this book with students, they were frequently unclear as to which side of the Bering strait they were on. Capitalism ravaged nature, but socialism hardly seemed the answer. (It reminds me of the old Soviet joke: “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man! Socialism is the exact opposite!”) From the vantage point of Beringia, Soviet enlightenment and Christian capitalist conversion were two sides of the same coin.  Both, confident in the superiority of their approach, agreed that indigenous people needed to change, albeit in service to different gods. Whether driven by profit motives or production quotas, similar outcomes—environmental degradation and cultural imperilment—obtained on both sides of the Bering Strait. 

 

4.

Demuth’s achievement is impressive. She deftly integrates details about landscapes, soundscapes, the lifeways of animals, and the Inupiat, Yupik, and Chukchi who depended upon them. Demuth takes the reader to a world and practices many have never visited and in which far fewer will ever participate. She writes of flencing, sluices, dredges, pelage, and offal with emotive eloquence and poetic seriousness. From the gently percussive sound of a caribou herd in motion and the birdsong as sun glistens on the autumn tundra, to the invisible water columns created by a diving whale that nourish the ocean deep to the putrid slick of a whaling ship’s deck, this history is filled with evocative and beautiful passages. The images are vivid, causality more impressionistic; description and reflection can sometimes overwhelm the history, but Demuth usually weaves the many threads into a riveting narrative. She presents a scholar’s erudition with a novelist’s touch. Floating Coast signals an important new historian’s voice, well poised to reach a broader public.

Given the history of Beringia, a foreigner writing about the Inupiat, Chukchi, and Yupik peoples who adapted over centuries is fraught. Demuth acknowledges this, and to my mind, meets the challenges of writing about these cultures admirably. She conveys how the precariousness of arctic life imbued northern cultures with norms of sharing and reciprocity, ways of being difficult to square with the market systems, property enclosures, profit motives, production plans and “civilizing missions” that foreigners imposed. Beringians operated under a pragmatically derived moral imperative to use as much of the whale as possible, while whalers took whole lives for a small part of the bodies. 

She sometimes looks away. In describing pre-contact wars, she writes, “Beringia was alive with political contest,” which is too sanguine a way of talking about too sanguinary an event for my taste.  More often she sees clearly as when she deals with the dilemma of traversing modernity and tradition simultaneously: “Beringians are often critiqued for not changing enough, or too slowly. [Or]...foreigners see Yupik, Inupiat, and Chukchi as fallen from a perfect, unchanging past, one free of wars and defined by natural harmony. They are then judged for deviating from a state that never existed” (313). Her sensitivity is not limited to human cultures. 

Meandering through the currents of Demuth’s history is a bowhead whale (15). Born when Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations—first published in 1776—was only a “few decades old”, this whale lived to see twentieth-century humans “courting nuclear apocalypse” (17-18). No less resounding—for this reader—than the weighty human events this whale’s long life transversed is a less historical theme: Floating Coast makes a strong argument for whale culture. The implications are unsettling, not least because twentieth-century scientific findings may have validated notions of whale emotions and culture. What is more haunting is that Demuth poignantly shows that such understandings preceded science and coexisted with immense slaughter. Soviet whalers saw how “nursing calves paddled up the slipways after their mothers’ corpses, still lactating and covering the decks in milk” (292). A Soviet whaler remarked, “If whales could scream out in pain like people, we would all have gone mad” (291). “We polar whales are a quiet and inoffensive race, desirous of life and peace . . . Must we all be murdered in cold blood?” read one newspaper editorial in 1850 (46). Such sympathetic sentiments go much farther back in time: Beringian culture saw whales as sentient, moral beings, who chose to give themselves to hunters who lived right (which meant using what they killed and sharing with the community.) 

On the book’s jacket, historian Kate Brown suggests Demuth is inventing a new form of historical narrative. Indeed, in Floating Coast the boundaries between Nature, Ethics and History have become blurred. When it comes to whales that give themselves over to die, shape-changing, or Chukchi understandings of herd die-offs, the historian defers to the anthropologist. Demuth often passes on interrogating matters of causality and chooses rather to put indigenous understandings before the reader. By that I was untroubled, but this book did leave me with a sense of unease, which I suspect comes less from the “gate-keeper of Historical method” in me and more from a place of basic humanity that recognizes our dependence on the natural world. Except for specified subsistence harvests, it is now illegal to hunt or harass whales. But warming oceans imperil their habitats and multiple whale species have been experiencing unusual mortality events. Yet, in this moment of past historical honorees being brought low considered against the standards of our day—be it for their cruelty, racism, chauvinism, anti-semitism, homophobia—this book leaves me troubled about how History will judge us. Floating Coast is part analytical elegy, part elegiac analysis.

 

5.

Demuth confronts us with an arctic world that, if not fragile, is vulnerable, but also dangerous and indifferent. We readily anthropomorphize animals, but minerals, natural systems, glaciers—they do not fit so well. There’s a paradox of a land forbidding and simultaneously vulnerable. Is it coming for us or does it need our help? 

The paddler fears the unseen immovable limb below the river’s surface; the climber knows to be wary of placing gear behind a flake—massive but precariously attached; unlucky loggers have learned the hard way the myriad variations on how a tree can fall in the forest. Experience alerts to dangers the novice misses: A patch of clay, an unseen eddy in a dark stream.  So too with the arctic, where the grandeur leaves wordsmiths mute and the innocuous can be deadly.

I once crossed the Cook inlet mud flats with my 18-month old in a backpack (attentive to the tide schedule, with plenty of time and company). At one moment the glacial silt in a waxing rivulet sucked my foot deeper than expected. As I extricated myself, Joseph extended his hand to take my child in the backpack from me. I freed myself and put my son back on my back. The episode was resolved in a few minutes and we continued on (I, inwardly quite shaken). A year later, that same Joseph—experienced, strong—drowned walking those same mudflats, swept out to sea in frigid waters. It was a day when the weather was seemingly innocuous except that especially strong winds miles away in Turnagain Arm made those rivulets fill the channels with unusual speed. While turbulent, frigid seas in a small boat have a way of putting risk on display with adrenaline-spiking immediacy, no lesser hazards reside in the far more quotidian concoctions of cold water, broken ice, clinging mud. And it’s always changing. At dawn after the night’s cold a snow field on a steep mountainside can be deadly icy; after the sun has warmed it some hours, it becomes a soft substance into which steps can be comfortably kicked. Learning not to die is a non-trivial curriculum (103, 115, 315).

Demuth is out to do more than make us feel for the whale carcasses that sank to the bottom of the ocean floor or lionize arctic survival. She is asking us to see Time and Place and the invisible systems we in the consumerist industrialized world take for granted differently. Words by the poet Joan Naviuk Kane precede the book: “in the city one finds it simple to conceive nothing but a system, and nothing but a world of men.” Ultimately, Demuth uses this history to make a plea for us humans of the industrialized world to situate ourselves with more humility in the natural systems and time from which we ultimately cannot entirely extricate ourselves:

To be alive means taking up our place in a chain of conversions…Scale matters…Some ways of imagining the future require more energy than others, and the industrial enlightenment was particularly covetous. Fossil fuels freed the use of energy from human toil, allowing human history to seem separate from the rest of time. It wrote concern for cyclical life out of most calculations of value…This made possible a new idea of liberty, released from the constraints of the matter that made us, and from the precariousness of being. The irony of the attempt is that it has made being human—and being walrus, seal, reindeer, tiny mollusk—more precarious (316).

Demuth ends on a positive note: “We can still wager on the world we wish to compose” (318). But elsewhere, she, less sunnily, writes, “The instinct of capitalism and communism is to ignore loss, to assume that change will bring improvement, to cover over death with expanded consumption” (134; emphasis added). 

That line hangs especially heavy in 2020 when it is increasingly clear that a callous, incompetent federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and government insistence on “reopening the economy” has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. In fact, the White House speaks of the pandemic in the past tense as death toll creeps past numbers initially deemed alarmist. In the political—not biological—contest between virus time and capitalist time, capitalist time seems to win. If the political will to combat an immediate health crisis cannot be mustered, what is the hope of mustering the political will to substantively mitigate global warming—a problem of greater complexity, whose catastrophic consequences are farther away in time?

“Organizing energy and enclosure is at the core of politics,” Demuth writes. “it requires decisions about change, value, and the allocation of the useful world” (101). The Arctic, home to deposits of the fossil fuels which drive global warming (to say nothing of the methane released by melting permafrost) contains coastal communities that will be among the soonest and worst affected. This is a place where the urgency of global warming is immediately felt.

Yet, leaving questions of democratic process in Russia entirely aside, to suggest in Alaskan politics that the fossil fuels in the ground should be left there is to be dismissed as not understanding Alaska, where major oil deposits of Proudhoe Bay were discovered only in 1967. (“Drill, Baby Drill!” is the rally-level articulation; “energy resource development”, the bureaucratese). In the meanwhile, we will see more oil spill into the melting permafrost and arctic waters around Norilsk. If Pebble Mine is built we will see tailings poison the most pristine, abundant salmon fishery in the world. A world with no more floating coast looms.

 

*My thanks to Richard White for reading and making helpful comments on this essay. 

Posted on 2 September 2020


ERIKA MONAHAN is the author of The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia and associate professor of History at the University of New Mexico. She splits her time between New Mexico and Alaska.