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A ravaged Arctic ecosystem serves as a warning of the perils of human advancement

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

Bathsheba Demuth
Norton
2019
416 pp.
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The area known as Beringia sits atop the world, straddling Asia and North America. A mere 50 miles of water separate the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia and the Seward Peninsula in the United States. Terrestrial plant life is relatively impoverished here, but the Bering Strait compensates for the land’s parsimony and more.

In Floating Coast, Bathsheba Demuth tells the story of this singular place beginning in the mid-1800s. Empire-making was under way then, both by the United States and by Russia, and the lifeways of native Iñupiat, Yupik, and Chuckchi peoples were about to be severely curtailed. So too were the natural histories of the species that contributed to making the region.

America was earnestly building its sovereign might, and thus its economy, during this period. Having exhausted species off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, whalers looking for new quarry came to Beringia to hunt bowheads. Whales were integral to just about every machine and product made at the time. Whale blubber was used for lubricating sewing machines and cotton gins. Whalebone (baleen) lent structure to umbrellas, fishing rods, and mattresses. Whale tallow was refined into soap and became a base for perfume. Most of all, whale oil was used to fuel indoor lighting.

The ever-ratcheting appetite for whales drove them to near extinction in a few short decades. The indigenous peoples whose lives depended on whales lost both their source of sustenance and the culture around which their identities had been constructed for millennia.

With whale populations depleted, industrial appetites turned to walruses, although it took 250 of the blubbery beasts to measure up to a single bowhead. “Far from Beringia,” Demuth writes, “walruses were a miniscule part of imagining a prosperous, mechanized future: as fan belts on power looms or grease in factory cogs….” Wholesale depletion of walruses continued well into the early 1900s, as their blubber was transformed into nitroglycerin in service of World War I.

While Americans denuded Arctic waters, Russians bristled at what they considered theft of their natural resources. The denizens of the waters between the two sovereign nations did not adhere to any putative human boundary.

“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,” writes Demuth. The United States bemoaned profits that were being spent on guns and alcohol, contributing not to lawfulness but its opposite. The Russians saw those profits as going to the wrong people (Americans). The solution that was negotiated was to establish boundaries, to “enclose” the cyclical peregrinations of whales, and subsequently those of walruses, reindeer, and fox, in an attempt to systematize harvests and make their yields more reliable. Bringing little ecological knowledge to bear on this effort led to both market and population crashes: “…while dollar value might make fur seem the same as blubber or ivory, the rhythms that governed their creation were not equivalent; the market’s habit of supplanting one desire for another did not apprehend how a fox would never live on the same time as a walrus.”

As the Russian Revolution transformed into bolshevism, and from thence to communism, the question of how exactly to govern territory according to a Marxist ideal brought new pressures to Beringian land, sea, and native peoples. The cycles of nature notwithstanding, Stalinism in particular sought to mechanize production according to its own time frame, not only at the expense of the animals involved but by way of cruelty to the Russian people it employed.

Once nonliving resources in the form of gold and eventually tin and oil became the focus of colonial harvest, the question of how to enclose Beringia became expressly about sovereignty. “In Alaska and Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, the politics of mining had to do with who should rightfully benefit from gold: the individual proprietor, the corporation, the tsar, or the collective.”

In Demuth’s masterful narrative, the very long time frame of energy production crashes disastrously into the ever more expedient ways humanity purposes that energy. Global warming, the result of quickly burning organic material that took eons to accumulate, is the apotheosis of colonial strategy. Floating Coast is eloquent testimony to how this strategy is not working.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction (The Experiment, 2016).