“Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they?” Melville asked in Moby-Dick. He knew the answer: “All these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”
Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait tells the story of how people learned to make money from the seas—specifically, from the waters of Beringia, the region that includes Alaska, the northeasternmost parts of Russia, and the seas in between. At first the money came from sea otters and whales, but when these grew scarce in the mid-nineteenth century, they were replaced with walruses sleeping in piles on the icy edges of the shore; then attention turned to caribou and Arctic foxes, and to the gold, tin, and oil in the earth. But as humans hunted and mined at an ever-accelerating pace, they did so with little understanding of the cyclical and finite aspects of life on earth, or of the ways their actions would disrupt the larger ecosystem, especially one as delicate as that of Beringia.
Cossack mercenaries and Russian traders made it to the far reaches of northern Asia in the first half of the seventeenth century. Following practices already established farther south, they took local hostages and then demanded a ransom of loyalty oaths and annual tribute. But on the Chukotka peninsula, in the extreme northeast, the Chukchi and Yupik peoples successfully fended off the newcomers’ attempts at subjugation. In the eighteenth century, Peter the Great hired a team of explorers, led by the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, to investigate the boundary between Asia and America, and the Dane mapped the strait that would bear his name. In 1741 Bering’s crew returned from Alaska—its name is derived from an Aleut word whose literal translation is “object to which the action of the sea is directed”—with sea otter pelts of a quality that soon drew traders from several other countries. Alaska became the northernmost area of “Russian America,” which also included parts of California and two Hawaiian ports.
A 1747 Russian military campaign in Chukotka failed, the commanding officer killed in battle, and Russian settlers abandoned the fort they had built on the Anadyr River. After years of war, the Russians agreed to a peace treaty with the Chukchi exempting them from fur tribute. Both Chukotka and Alaska were Russian possessions only on paper, and Americans, Britons, and Norwegians began to hunt and trade there in the early nineteenth century. The sea otters were soon almost extinct due to overhunting, and Russia lost interest in its portion of America. In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska for $7.2 million (about $125 million today). Seward’s Folly looked clever by the end of the century, when the Alaskan gold rush began. And then there was the discovery, in 1968, of petroleum off the Alaskan coast.
Though Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, it could also be described as a meditation on a biosphere. Demuth includes lavish descriptions of the landscape she has been admiring since she first visited as a teenager, but relatively little in the way of straightforward political or economic history. She is interested in animals—particularly whales—and Floating Coast is, to a great extent, history from the vantage point of the sea; political treaties and trade agreements, monarchs and presidents flash by on the periphery, as if seen from far away. Though centered on the Bering Strait, the book roams with the creatures whose history she documents, following whaling fleets as far as Japan and Hawaii.
One of Demuth’s central concerns is the transfer of energy between organisms: as she puts it, “to be alive is to take a place in a chain of conversions.” In the Arctic, solar radiation is turned into calories mainly in the sea, since expanses of light-reflecting ice and snow have dramatically limited opportunities for photosynthesis on land. Algae and plankton are the basis for ecosystems that include calorie-rich fish, whales, walruses, and seals, which are consumed in turn by land-bound creatures. For Beringians—the Chukchi, Iñupiat, and Yupik*—these creatures were not interchangeable sources of profit, but the sole means of survival. Myths of animals that became people and people that became animals expressed the biological truth of the conversion of animal flesh into human bodies.
According to Iñupiat tradition, whales lived in their own country, the nunat, from which they observed human society. Were the humans feeding the poor and the old? Were they making the proper offerings of meat and song? Only if the whales approved of human behavior would they venture out of their own world and offer up their flesh. After days or weeks of silent watching from a walrus-hide boat, dressed in light-colored clothing and armed with harpoons and spears bleached white, a hunting party might have a matter of minutes in which to strike a whale—often a bowhead, which is 40 percent fat by volume and can live for two hundred years. It could take a whole day to kill a whale after it had been hit, as the animal’s struggles, sometimes throwing the whaling boat into the air, drove the harpoon deeper into its body. Many whales survived for decades with old harpoons buried in their flesh. After a whale had been pulled to land, the entire village came to help drag it out of the water, leaving a trail of blood on the ice, and worked together to butcher the carcass. Almost all of the whale was eaten or otherwise used, the meat packed into permafrost pits so it would last through summer. Blubber was eaten and burned in lamps, and bowhead jaws served as rafters in houses.
In 1836 the American Navy secretary called whaling “not a mere exchange of commodities, but the creation of wealth, by labor, from the ocean.” Rather than acknowledging the extractive nature of the hunt, proponents viewed it as a generative process, a way of making something useless—undisturbed wildlife—into money. This misprision led to the near extinction of many species of whales, as of sea otters and walruses, and to the near-destruction of the Beringian societies that relied on these mammals for sustenance.
The first whalers from New England crossed the Bering Strait to hunt bowheads in 1848. Living in an age before kerosene, they coveted whale blubber as oil for lamps; it was also used to grease machines, to make soap and perfume, and as an insecticide and fertilizer. Until spring steel and plastic were developed, baleen, the keratin bristles that whales use to filter food as they trawl through the sea, was made into corsets, whips, umbrellas, tongue scrapers, divining rods, shoe-horns, and other consumer products. American whaling employed not only harpoons but also bomb lances that worked like huge rifles. Whalers used spades to separate the blubber, which could be a foot thick, from the muscle and skin, and they cut off the head, with its precious bone and baleen. The rest of the carcass was thrown back into the sea; there was no appetite for whale meat in the United States.
Whales were soon noticeably scarcer. Many had been killed, and others had learned to be warier of humans—to hide from the sight or sound of boats, to take refuge in deeper and more distant waters. Drawing on their observations of whale intelligence, whalers persuaded themselves that the creatures had become more cunning, and that humans only had to refine their methods. Some understood, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, that whales were at risk of extinction, and naturalists began to plead for clemency. But instead of setting limits on hunting, the global whaling industry adopted technological innovations. Whales had more trouble out-swimming steamships; the corresponding increase in catches was portrayed as a laudable improvement in efficiency rather than an accelerated path to extinction.
Meanwhile, new Arctic creatures became fair game. By 1859, American fleets had learned to render oil from walrus fat, which became a way to make whaleless days profitable for seamen who were only paid a portion of the value of the animals they killed. Like whales, walruses soon became more cautious, posting sentries and ramming boats. But by the 1870s, crews were killing hundreds of walruses in an afternoon, shooting them with rifles that sounded like the cracking of sea ice. Only their blubber, tusks, and perhaps some organs were taken. The whalers hunted mainly in summer, when female walruses were nursing, and pups were left to starve beside the carcasses of their mothers.
The plummeting walrus population, following the death of so many whales, led swiftly to the demise of many of the Beringians who depended on these animals. Two thirds of the 1,500 people on Sivuqaq, or St. Lawrence Island, died of hunger or disease. In 1879, entire villages were found dead. Contact with foreigners had also brought smallpox, syphilis, and alcoholism. Americans noted these consequences of their arrival with some regret, but wrote them off as the inevitable decline of “backward” people whose only hope for survival lay in the adoption of Christian and American standards, both social and economic. Convinced that the newly absent whales and walruses were punishing humans for their misbehavior, Beringians became increasingly hostile to foreign hunters who killed so many more animals than they could possibly need.
Though Americans didn’t know it, the decimation of whale populations had effects that resonated through the Arctic and even global ecosystem. Ocean water moves from the North Atlantic to the Bering Sea, carrying nutrients shed by rivers farther south. At the Bering Strait, turbulence mixes warm and cold water, bringing iron, nitrogen, and phosphorus up to the surface, where, along with summer sunlight and carbon in the atmosphere, they nourish billions of photosynthetic plankton. These feed hundreds of species of zooplankton. Whales then spend decades filtering krill and converting it into flesh. The movement of their huge bodies through the water pushes nutrients up from the bottom of the ocean, and their excrement feeds marine plants. When a dead whale sinks down into the ocean, sharks, hagfish, smaller sea creatures, and bacteria feed successively on its carcass. All of this activity serves to increase the marine ecosystem’s capacity to capture carbon and convert much of it into oxygen. Recent studies have found that whale populations can help sequester as much carbon as hundreds of acres of forest.
The Russian Empire, which had never developed its own whaling industry, watched America’s profitable predations in Beringia with mounting indignation. Who was to say that the whales and walruses were American rather than Russian? The dramatically reduced availability of sea mammals, combined with a new need for currency and desire for imported and manufactured goods, led Beringians to begin trading fox furs with the Americans; this was too much for the Russians, who had been getting rich on pelts for centuries. There ensued a competition to enclose the spaces of Beringia, and to bring law into a place that had become a frigid Wild West.
It is almost impossible to enclose the bodies of free-ranging animals in far-off lands. Gold deposits, on the other hand, stay put. At the end of 1896, the discovery of large gold deposits on the Klondike River started the Alaskan gold rush. In 1898, three Swedish men and two Iñupiaq boys sailed up creeks where they collected $2,000 worth of gold in a few months, with minimal equipment. (The boys likely guided the Swedes: the Iñupiat had long been aware of the gold in the area, but they had little use for it.) At the peak of the Gilded Age, ordinary Americans leapt at the chance to dig a fortune out of the rocks, and to achieve a class mobility that was otherwise nearly impossible. In 1900 20,000 people arrived in the new frontier town of Nome.
The General Mining Law of 1872 permitted any US citizen or person with a publicly stated desire to become a citizen to claim a plot on public land with a “valuable deposit” of minerals. This was an effective way of enclosing remote but valuable areas: as Demuth puts it, “The Mining Law made land American by giving it to Americans.” Another law recognized Iñupiaq claims to land “actually in their use,” but it was unclear whether their fishing trumped Americans’ mining, or vice versa. The advantage went to those inclined to marking their twenty-acre claims with wooden stakes and then filing the relevant paperwork, and to those who were white American citizens. Disputes proliferated. The Swedes restaked the claims of the Iñupiaq boys, on the basis of their youth and race, and Americans challenged the Swedes’ claims, arguing that the Swedes were insufficiently American.
The gold close to the surface was soon gone; the larger reserves underground could be mined only with the help of heavy machinery. Many of the unhappy prospectors fled, though not before infecting locals with diseases like measles, which killed hundreds of Iñupiat in 1900. They found little sympathy from the foreigners who remained. One missionary began persuading Iñupiat to leave Nome and move to a settlement called Quartz Creek, reasoning that “the struggling pioneers of northwestern Alaska should not be required to take up the heavy burden of the helpless Eskimo.”
The Russian Empire, which like the US was on the gold standard, was keen to have Russian subjects settle and mine Chukotka before foreigners beat them to it, but the Russian strategy of enclosure proved far less effective than the American approach. Russia only granted concessions and did not permit miners to stake a permanent claim to a plot of land, which was a serious obstacle in attracting the necessary foreign capital and labor. The main stockholder of the company formed to mine the Siberian concession was a Norwegian-American who lured workers with false promises of stakes; in response, the Russian government banned foreign investment in Chukotka. Over the coming years, Chukotka was mined erratically and inefficiently, sometimes by foreign miners who slipped in illegally, and with much theft.
Expensive, energy-intensive corporate machine mining arrived in Nome in 1903, a return to the old reality of capitalist control of the means of production—or rather, of extraction. Though mining work paid decently, living expenses in Nome were high and the work was dangerous and grueling. A socialist in the 1912 elections for Alaska’s first Territorial Legislature campaigned on an alternative vision of enclosure, in which minerals and the means of mining them would be owned collectively. But by the end of World War I, all of Alaska’s socialist politicians had been suppressed or driven out, part of the nationwide crackdown on antiwar socialists under the Sedition Act.
When Bolshevik activists appeared in Chukotka, they were in the odd position of preaching about a revolution of collective ownership in a place where, until recently, collective labor and ownership had been the only way of life. After the Red Army took control of the peninsula, the Soviets set about converting the Chukchi and Yupik to the Soviet faith, a missionary project not so different from that of the capitalist-Christian missionaries sent to the communities on the other side of the Bering Strait. The Communists pushed the natives to adopt their own standards of hygiene and morality, to become literate, and to cease their traditional religious practices. Children were forcibly sent away to Soviet boarding schools and began to forget their native languages.
In principle, the Bolsheviks were opposed to the fetishization of money, and thus to gold. In practice, they desperately needed currency with which to buy foreign food, medicine, energy, and heavy machinery. With the Civil War over, the Bolsheviks contemplated the problem of how to extract Chukotkan gold. There were less than 20,000 people living on the peninsula, mostly Yupik and Chukchi whose skill and labor were needed to harvest animals. Mining would require a large influx of laborers. Films, novels, and newspapers promoted the image of Soviet supermen taming the Arctic and achieving heroic feats of resource extraction, but the decisive moment in Soviet gold mining came with the establishment of the Gulag. In Kolyma, several hundred miles downriver from Chukotka, tens of thousands of prisoners extracted tons of gold, often dying in the process. In 1939 Gulag prisoners began mining in Chukotka, eventually extracting thousands of tons of tin and 170 tons of uranium.
By the 1930s, the USSR had succeeded in enclosing and colonizing Chukotka at last. Those Chukchi and Yupik who were not convicted as counterrevolutionaries were sent to work on collective farms that harvested whales, walruses, seals, fox, and reindeer. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, workers were expected to maximize production through fantastical five-year plans dictated by Moscow. Failure to meet quotas was seen as “wrecking,” and wreckers were sent to the Gulag. Accelerating production quotas soon imperiled animal populations, although the Bolsheviks had been criticizing capitalist rapaciousness just a few years earlier. Now that the revolution had succeeded, they had decided the problem had been capitalism, not overharvesting. By the 1950s, there was severe hunger in the villages of Chukotka.
Nome emptied out after World War II: there was less demand for gold, and cheap tin was imported from abroad. The Iñupiat and Yupik in Alaska had been pushed away from traditional communal subsistence activities and into individual wage work. The wages were usually low, and there was widespread poverty, unemployment, and illness among Beringians. In 1949 Alaska was permitted to turn more than a hundred million acres of federal land into state property. The federal government stipulated that this should not be land actively “used” by indigenous peoples, but Alaska ignored this requirement. In response, Native Alaskan organizers filed claims and lobbied to reclaim land that had been taken from them.
After oil was discovered in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the US government urgently wanted to gain full control of the area needed for a pipeline. President Nixon signed a law granting Alaskan Native nations 38 million acres and nearly $1 billion in exchange for giving up any claim to another 325 million acres. The money went to incorporated villages and regional organizations that had to invest it in local businesses and make profits in order not to forfeit the land they held. This was hardly a return to the old way of life. As Demuth writes, “Beringians had sovereignty, had enclosed spaces of self-determination, but not the power to exist without some participation in a world valued by dollars.” Well-meaning American and international quotas on hunting also posed difficulties: exemptions for indigenous peoples usually required that hunting be practiced as it was two centuries earlier, not taking into account the dramatic changes that had occurred in native lives.
For whales, too, conservation efforts yielded mixed results. By the end of World War II, technological and agricultural advances left the United States with no need for an industrial whaling fleet, and it proposed a global plan for the more sustainable use of whales. In late 1946 the US, the USSR, the UK, Norway, Japan, and other countries signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which imposed limits on the number of whales that could be killed. The Soviets were especially vigorous in their attempts to evade conservation efforts, considering the International Whaling Commission, established by the ICRW, a capitalist conspiracy to prevent Communists from getting their fair share of the money that could be made from the ocean.
When there were not enough legal whales to meet government quotas, the Soviets killed more anyway, falsifying the reports sent to the IWC. Rushed Soviet “production” continued to mean waste, with a third of the gray whales killed sinking to the bottom of the sea, not even yielding a profit. But even the Soviets couldn’t pretend forever that it was possible to produce something out of nothing, and the near-extinction of many species of whale finally forced the USSR to reduce its quotas. In 1972 the USSR allowed IWC observers to come on its ships and record their catch, and it began following whaling limits—perhaps because there was no way to continue meeting targets, and compliance carried greater benefits. In 1979 the USSR ceased whaling entirely. Walruses had fared better. The USSR banned industrial walrus hunting at sea in 1956, and walrus herds returned to a population level close to that of a century earlier.
In Beringia, Demuth has found an almost perfect case study through which to compare capitalist and Soviet approaches to the exploitation of natural resources. She finds that from the Arctic vantage point, the results were remarkably similar: ecological devastation and the immiseration of indigenous communities. Intent on maximizing “production,” neither system conceived of a moment at which economic growth was no longer possible or desirable. This left them equally ill equipped to situate human economies and societies within the limits of ecosystems that operate primarily on a cyclical rather than a linear model. The limits that Americans and Soviets discovered in Beringia—the slow reproductive cycles of whales and walruses, the delicate balance of wolves and caribou—are vivid examples of the natural boundaries that confine all human endeavors. The twentieth century imagined progress as liberation from material constraints, but to ignore these constraints is to court disaster. The harms caused by the heedless consumption of whales were a preview of the much larger dangers of the consumption of fossil fuels.
America and Russia no longer hunt for whales, but they continue to pursue fuel and profits with terrifying recklessness. In September, the Trump administration announced its plan to allow oil leasing on most of Alaska’s 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has already been severely harmed by climate change. Russia, meanwhile, is keenly aware of the boons that a thawing Arctic may offer its own oil industry, but it showed minimal concern for the fires that burned swaths of forest in the Arctic and in Siberia this summer. The questions of enclosure raised in Floating Coast have new urgency in the current climate crisis, when it has become clear that crucial ecosystems—the Arctic, rainforests, the oceans—are better understood as global public goods than as sources of profit.
Demuth organizes her book thematically—“Sea,” “Shore,” “Land,” “Underground,” “Ocean”—which leads to chronological jumps that can be confusing, especially given the leaps between the American and Russian/Soviet cases and among different industries. Her prose is often portentous, and her frequent use of wordplay and inversion quickly becomes irritating: for example, a single page includes the phrases “What took precedence: animals rights or human rites?” and “Dead whales had once been valuable as light; left alive, they had become a sign of enlightenment.” Her rhetoric comes at the expense of clarity, and I often longed for a plainer and more detailed discussion of historical developments.
But Demuth’s passion for her subject shines through on every page, and her account is enriched by her extensive personal experience in Beringia. Rather than treating the Arctic as a plein-air museum, she shows how death and destruction are essential aspects of life. She was not too squeamish to eat gray whale during one of the many summers she spent in the Arctic, staying with an indigenous family, and she takes the long geological view of climate change: “The planet without Beringia’s cold has existed before, and great and plentiful life existed along with it, but never in the experience of Homo sapiens.” Above all, Demuth writes, her time in Beringia has taught her to be acutely conscious of her good fortune in being and remaining alive. “If we pay attention,” she writes,
the world is not what we make of it; rather, it is part of what makes us: our flesh and bones, and also our inclinations and hopes. In the Arctic, such attention is not an option but is necessary, and it yields appreciation for the precarity, the contingency, of simply being.
Until recently, both the Iñupiat, who live in Alaska, and the Yupik, who live in Alaska and Chukotka, were often called “Eskimo.” The Iñupiat are part of the Inuit group, which also includes peoples in the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. ↩