Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on November 19, 2019
Book Review: “Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait” by Bathsheba Demuth, W.W. Norton & Co., 416 pages.
By Mark J. Palmer
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
Author Bathsheba Demuth’s new book “Floating Coast” focuses in on the peoples of the Bering Straits and the changes brought to the area by foreign influence: capitalists from America in Alaska and socialists from the Soviet Union on the Chukchi side.
Sadly, as Demuth shows, the exploitation and destruction of resources resulted from both ideologies, especially the wildlife that brought foreigners to this frozen land first.
The title refers to the floating ice that comes and goes with the seasons, but also the flow of energy through the different Arctic coastal and marine ecosystems, a flow that humans have tried to harness and divert, not often successfully.
Whales were the targets in the late 1800s, especially the bowhead, which provided oil for mostly Yankee whalers as the sperm and right whales had been depleted in the rest of the world oceans. Exploitation for fox fur and walruses built up as the bowhead whale population declined. On the Russian side, authorities attempted to create order among the Native tribes, but they also brought diseases as did the Yankee whalers. Guns, ammunition and alcohol were traded to Native peoples in return for carved walrus ivory, caribou meat and furs.
At the turn of the century, it was gold that drove a huge influx of miners to both shores, further depleting resources and increasing the dependence of local tribes to the interlopers.
The improved technology of faster ships, harpoons that exploded on impact with whales, and air pumps to keep whales afloat led to rampant slaughter of other whale species that had eluded the sailing ships of the Yankee whalers. Blue, fin and humpback whales were the new targets, with Soviet ships joining British, Norwegian and Japanese whalers in the North Pacific. The whales had a short respite during World War II, but the slaughter increased afterwards until virtually wiping out these last populations of whales.
Both the Soviet and the American governments attempted to “help” the Native people by turning them from their subsistence economy to herding reindeer, which worked fairly well for Russian Natives but never took off in Alaska. Fox fur farms proliferated in Soviet lands. Of course, with the reindeer and fur farms also came foreign religion, instruction in Russian and English languages, and schooling in ideologies little understood by Native people.
Demuth concludes the book by underscoring the continued promises of foreigners that were made to local Natives, most of which proved baseless. Today, global warming, which is far more acute at the poles, is wreaking further havoc on the Bering Straits and its inhabitants.
Demuth is an excellent writer, having spent time both in Russia and Alaska, embedding herself with local tribes and learning from them for her book. She has done extensive research, especially in Russian archives, on the history and exploitation of marine mammals throughout the region.
Throughout the book, Demuth emphasizes the transfer of energy through natural cycles involving births and deaths of the wildlife and the land, and how those energy cycles are repeatedly turned to human use, often without the understanding of the limits of growth and populations. Attempts at regulating the slaughter of animals so often falls far short of the discipline needed to maintain healthy populations.
There is much we can learn, Demuth believes, from the original human inhabitants of the region: the Inuit and Yupik of Alaska; the Yupik and Chuckchi in Russia.
“What do we dream now, in our global masses?” Demuth asks in conclusion. “Imaging another politics, one not so covetous of all energy and so bent on the fictions of enclosure, one not so blind to our place in the family of things, might be a start.”