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Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

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Whales and walruses, caribou and fox, gold and oil: through the stories of these animals and resources, Bathsheba Demuth reveals how people have turned ecological wealth in a remote region into economic growth and state power for more than 150 years. The first-ever comprehensive history of Beringia, the Arctic land and waters stretching from Russia to Canada, Floating Coast Whales and walruses, caribou and fox, gold and oil: through the stories of these animals and resources, Bathsheba Demuth reveals how people have turned ecological wealth in a remote region into economic growth and state power for more than 150 years. The first-ever comprehensive history of Beringia, the Arctic land and waters stretching from Russia to Canada, Floating Coast breaks away from familiar narratives to provide a fresh and fascinating perspective on an overlooked landscape. The unforgiving territory along the Bering Strait had long been home to humans—the Inupiat and Yupik in Alaska, and the Yupik and Chukchi in Russia—before Americans and Europeans arrived with revolutionary ideas for progress. Rapidly, these frigid lands and waters became the site of an ongoing experiment: How, under conditions of extreme scarcity, would the great modern ideologies of capitalism and communism control and manage the resources they craved? Drawing on her own experience living with and interviewing indigenous people in the region, as well as from archival sources, Demuth shows how the social, the political, and the environmental clashed in this liminal space. Through the lens of the natural world, she views human life and economics as fundamentally about cycles of energy, bringing a fresh and visionary spin to the writing of human history. Floating Coast is a profoundly resonant tale of the dynamic changes and unforeseen consequences that immense human needs and ambitions have brought, and will continue to bring, to a finite planet.


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Whales and walruses, caribou and fox, gold and oil: through the stories of these animals and resources, Bathsheba Demuth reveals how people have turned ecological wealth in a remote region into economic growth and state power for more than 150 years. The first-ever comprehensive history of Beringia, the Arctic land and waters stretching from Russia to Canada, Floating Coast Whales and walruses, caribou and fox, gold and oil: through the stories of these animals and resources, Bathsheba Demuth reveals how people have turned ecological wealth in a remote region into economic growth and state power for more than 150 years. The first-ever comprehensive history of Beringia, the Arctic land and waters stretching from Russia to Canada, Floating Coast breaks away from familiar narratives to provide a fresh and fascinating perspective on an overlooked landscape. The unforgiving territory along the Bering Strait had long been home to humans—the Inupiat and Yupik in Alaska, and the Yupik and Chukchi in Russia—before Americans and Europeans arrived with revolutionary ideas for progress. Rapidly, these frigid lands and waters became the site of an ongoing experiment: How, under conditions of extreme scarcity, would the great modern ideologies of capitalism and communism control and manage the resources they craved? Drawing on her own experience living with and interviewing indigenous people in the region, as well as from archival sources, Demuth shows how the social, the political, and the environmental clashed in this liminal space. Through the lens of the natural world, she views human life and economics as fundamentally about cycles of energy, bringing a fresh and visionary spin to the writing of human history. Floating Coast is a profoundly resonant tale of the dynamic changes and unforeseen consequences that immense human needs and ambitions have brought, and will continue to bring, to a finite planet.

30 review for Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, but it is also much, much more. In exploring how humans interact with our environment, Demuth takes a deep dive into the industrial dynamics of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. If you had told me that this book contained descriptions of gold mining in Alaska, or 20th century industrialized whaling, I may have given it a pass. It would have been my loss. Bathsheba Demuth has divided this book into chapters exploring different aspe Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, but it is also much, much more. In exploring how humans interact with our environment, Demuth takes a deep dive into the industrial dynamics of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. If you had told me that this book contained descriptions of gold mining in Alaska, or 20th century industrialized whaling, I may have given it a pass. It would have been my loss. Bathsheba Demuth has divided this book into chapters exploring different aspects of the sea, coast, and land; from whales to walruses to reindeer to rocks and back again, covering the time period from 1848 to 1990. She is clearly an incredible historian and refracts her research through a broader discussion of how energy cycles through life forms, and how our politics (capitalism, communism) intersect with nature. We also live the experiences of massive upheaval of Yupik, Chukchi, and Iñupiat communities on both sides of the Bering Strait. The 19th century decimation of whales and walruses spelled starvation for many. The repercussions are ongoing. Oh, to have lived in a world where the sea was teeming with whales. We know not what we do, but only because we refuse to examine our history.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Greyson

    A prior reviewer called this book "beautiful" and that's exactly what it is, though I wouldn't have been able to put my finger on that adjective myself. It is beautiful for the prose and for the care Demuth takes in guiding us through the incessant human, animal, and environmental changes in northern Alaska and eastern Russia. Maybe I am not reading the right books, but it feels like only in the last 2-3 years have 'serious' academic writers taken it upon themselves to make their books not only A prior reviewer called this book "beautiful" and that's exactly what it is, though I wouldn't have been able to put my finger on that adjective myself. It is beautiful for the prose and for the care Demuth takes in guiding us through the incessant human, animal, and environmental changes in northern Alaska and eastern Russia. Maybe I am not reading the right books, but it feels like only in the last 2-3 years have 'serious' academic writers taken it upon themselves to make their books not only carefully researched and informative, but also lyrical and available to small personal interjections by the author (Stony the Road is another case of this). It is a welcome change from the on-high authority (and/or simply dry writing) of so many older histories. I suppose the subject nature of this one makes it niche by default, but I'll be recommending it heartily for anyone remotely interested in the recent human history of the sub-Arctic and the "sensory immediacy" of the Tundra.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Tom Stanger

    As a short review, everyone should read this book. As a friend of mine once said it's "an absolute blinder!" I'll be writing a full review in Issue 3 of The Pilgrim magazine, out in September 2019. As a short review, everyone should read this book. As a friend of mine once said it's "an absolute blinder!" I'll be writing a full review in Issue 3 of The Pilgrim magazine, out in September 2019.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ben Goldfarb

    Began 2020 by finishing the fabulous "Floating Coast," an environmental history that wears its erudition lightly. It's bracing—industrial whaling sounds like hell on both cetaceans and humans—but indispensable for anyone who cares about the Arctic. Began 2020 by finishing the fabulous "Floating Coast," an environmental history that wears its erudition lightly. It's bracing—industrial whaling sounds like hell on both cetaceans and humans—but indispensable for anyone who cares about the Arctic.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Leah

    This is a book that is not “about” indigenous sovereignty because it is a solid collection of evidence about the importance of indigenous sovereignty.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    This was one of the books Jeff Sharlet recommended from his extensive reading as a judge for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Bathsheba Demuth’s prose is precise, detailed, and often beautiful as she describes this region and the complex relationships between the land, the waters, the wildlife, the indigenous population, and the eventual colonial invaders of the Bering Strait.

  7. 5 out of 5

    RJ

    A beautiful and challenging book that seeks to illuminate and break through the narratives of productivity, time, economics, and governance that have shaped the Arctic for the past two centuries. After Cronon's "Changes in the Land," probably one of the most important environmental histories to deal with the way that ideology shapes and distorts ecology in colonialist settings. Demuth deftly touches on certain themes and trends in academic literature by and about Indigenous peoples, and does a n A beautiful and challenging book that seeks to illuminate and break through the narratives of productivity, time, economics, and governance that have shaped the Arctic for the past two centuries. After Cronon's "Changes in the Land," probably one of the most important environmental histories to deal with the way that ideology shapes and distorts ecology in colonialist settings. Demuth deftly touches on certain themes and trends in academic literature by and about Indigenous peoples, and does a notably skillful job of allowing the concept of non-human persons to permeate the work without ever getting into the (often tedious) academic theory around this topic. She does an equally skillful job of treating all of the nations that share and/or occupy Beringia - Americans, Russian, Yupik, Inupiat, and Chukchi - with equal gravity, and allows them equal weight and agency in the telling of history. This is a book that treats its subject holistically in a way that is far too rare in the current era, and that treats writing with a joy and lyricism that is far too rare in current academia. Recommended for anyone interested in Cold War history, Indigenous issues, the Arctic, whales, human-animal relationships.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Absolutely brilliant and completely gut-wrenching. Fusing scientific precision and poetic lyricism, Bathsheba Demuth has written a natural history that transcends its genre and its subject. Objectively a book about the Bering Strait, ‘Floating Coast’ is a call for us to wake up to a way of living that is both out of touch with the natural world and ultimately unsustainable. “Fossil fuels freed the use of energy from human toil, allowing human history to seem separate from the rest of time. It wr Absolutely brilliant and completely gut-wrenching. Fusing scientific precision and poetic lyricism, Bathsheba Demuth has written a natural history that transcends its genre and its subject. Objectively a book about the Bering Strait, ‘Floating Coast’ is a call for us to wake up to a way of living that is both out of touch with the natural world and ultimately unsustainable. “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; cycles, after all, have a peak and a decline, a season for birthing and for dying. They invoke mortality. Ideas of ever-increasingly growth emphasize the life phase, as if we as a social body are permanent adolescents, hungry and rising, immortal. This made a new idea of liberty, release from the constraints of then matter that made us, and from precariousness of being.” 6 stars.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kulbhushan Suryawanshi

    This is one of the best book on environmental history. The research is extensive and in-depth. By focusing on a place like Beringia the author is able to explore the effects of both, Soviet Socialism and American Capitalism on the marine and terrestrial life in this region. The book shows how both created problems not only for the environment of this region but also the local people. This is a must read book for anyone interested in Environment, Arctic or the commodification of nature.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    One of the more impressive natural histories I have ever read and a great compare/contrast on the divergent fates of each side of the straits under capitalism and communism and how both eventually failed in their various projects. Stylistically impressive as well as erudite.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ivana

    Beautifully written book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Leanne

    In what is easily the best book I’ve read this year; Demuth’s Floating Coast is a deep dive into the ways that differing economic and social systems have shaped the land in Beringia. And in Demuth’s telling, there is a stark divide between systems that view the land from far distant centers of power as a resource to be utilized and optimized versus locally based systems where the hunters are stakeholders in the land. In the first category is Russia and the US. These are specifically, imperial Ru In what is easily the best book I’ve read this year; Demuth’s Floating Coast is a deep dive into the ways that differing economic and social systems have shaped the land in Beringia. And in Demuth’s telling, there is a stark divide between systems that view the land from far distant centers of power as a resource to be utilized and optimized versus locally based systems where the hunters are stakeholders in the land. In the first category is Russia and the US. These are specifically, imperial Russia and communist collectivist USSR on one side of the Bering Sea and US-style capitalism on the other. Under these systems, the land and the creatures who dwell within it are seen as resources to be managed and turned into profit—whether for the collective or for financial shareholders. Either way, the name of the game is short-term optimization of the land—not long-term sustainability. This is in direct contrast to the native communities, who have hunted the land for thousands of years and are stakeholders and stewards of the place. As is well-known, arctic peoples survive mainly on meat. You can’t grow vegetables in the far north and so the peoples there have developed a culture that revolves around hunting animals. This practice revolves around elaborate customs and beliefs that result in hunting that is sustainable and fair. That means, that people don’t take more than they can use (and they use the entire animal). Even now, on federally managed lands, native communities are permitted to hunt walruses. Hunting in Alaska is highly regulated, but as I was told by our guide (an Alaskan big game hunter himself) man remains the walruses’ main predator. “The government can’t exactly dictate to the native people how and what they can eat when they’ve been hunting here for thousands of years. That would be colonialist.” I was particularly interested in her focus on energy. As she puts it, “to be alive is to take a place in a chain of conversions.” For Beringians—the Chukchi, Iñupiat, and Yupik —creatures/minerals/ice the world were not transferable sources of profit-- but part of an interconnected world to which they were a part. To which they depended on for survival. Mutual inter-dependence and co-survival. I was really interested in the traditional myths she described in which humans become walruses or whale come forth to be killed when they felt the humans were worthy and deserving of their offering. The writing is very beautiful. Nature listed it as one of their top science reads the year it came out and I think it has also won writing awards. It is an extraordinary book. From the New York Times review: “To be alive means taking up our place in a chain of conversions,” Demuth reminds us. “In order to live, something, some being, is always dying.” After centuries of humans’ industrial energy consumption, what will be next to go? This summer, Alaska had its hottest days ever recorded. Seas are rising, habitats are disappearing, and extreme weather events are on the rise. As people act, the climate reacts. Only by understanding that link might we survive.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Fewless

    Excellent academic book. The first I've had the time to read by choice in a while. I added this to my graduate school library. Excellent academic book. The first I've had the time to read by choice in a while. I added this to my graduate school library.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Kennedy

    What a wonderful and enchanting book. The lyrical prose really captures the dynamic and wild place that is Beringia. I really enjoyed how each section of the book was based on a different resource. Also the juxtaposition of the Soviet Union and America was Really well done. I want to visit beringia, but maybe I shouldn’t inflict anymore pain on the area.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Awdur

    I did not read this book — ahem — closely. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I had — she writes in a lyrical style rather different than a typical academic book, though she still has a clear argument and coherent direction. She balances the different aspects well and is a good storyteller. That said, I raised my eyebrows a few times when she writes about whales as though they are people (not metaphorically, I might add — I think she really means it). Example: "Their [the whales'] culture. I did not read this book — ahem — closely. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I had — she writes in a lyrical style rather different than a typical academic book, though she still has a clear argument and coherent direction. She balances the different aspects well and is a good storyteller. That said, I raised my eyebrows a few times when she writes about whales as though they are people (not metaphorically, I might add — I think she really means it). Example: "Their [the whales'] culture... became one of choosing not to die for the market. It was perhaps inadvertently, a political assertion." (43) Um, yes, insofar as whales make political assertions, I imagine they are inadvertent.

  16. 4 out of 5

    JJ

    Demuth is such a wonderful writer! This book unfolds as a series of small stories, each centered around a particular aspect of Beringian environment -- bowheads, walruses, reindeer, tin, etc. -- and how these were respectively viewed by indigenous Beringians, American politicians/businessmen, and later, Soviet officials. Demuth suggests that the linear, progress-driven ideologies employed by Americans and Soviets alike were out of step with the non-linear, cyclical time of the natural Beringian Demuth is such a wonderful writer! This book unfolds as a series of small stories, each centered around a particular aspect of Beringian environment -- bowheads, walruses, reindeer, tin, etc. -- and how these were respectively viewed by indigenous Beringians, American politicians/businessmen, and later, Soviet officials. Demuth suggests that the linear, progress-driven ideologies employed by Americans and Soviets alike were out of step with the non-linear, cyclical time of the natural Beringian world. Native Beringians, who hunted for shelter and subsistence, and held deep respect for the non-human creatures of their environment, understood how to live in such a dynamic landscape, whereas the capitalist and communist systems did not, to destructive effect. With these descriptions, and a folkloric style of language that anthopomorphizes whales, walruses, and reindeer, Demuth seems to be arguing that the global masses would be wise to learn from indigenous lifestyles, particularly in tackling the environmental challenges that the world faces today.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Boyd Cothran

    A fascinating environmental history of the Bering Strait that presents a completely new way of looking at the region's past, present, and future. Although I would have liked a clearer, more consistent story, it is an impressive and beautiful book. A fascinating environmental history of the Bering Strait that presents a completely new way of looking at the region's past, present, and future. Although I would have liked a clearer, more consistent story, it is an impressive and beautiful book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    JC

    Some fragmented thoughts about this book... Beautifully written environmental history of Beringia spanning from 1848 (the arrival of commercial whaling) to the present. While Russia was one of the few places in Europe that did not experience the outbreak of revolution in 1848, the October Revolution of 1917 would come to not only shape Russia, but global politics writ large throughout the Cold War and beyond. Beringia is not the first place that comes to mind when I think of Soviet history, which Some fragmented thoughts about this book... Beautifully written environmental history of Beringia spanning from 1848 (the arrival of commercial whaling) to the present. While Russia was one of the few places in Europe that did not experience the outbreak of revolution in 1848, the October Revolution of 1917 would come to not only shape Russia, but global politics writ large throughout the Cold War and beyond. Beringia is not the first place that comes to mind when I think of Soviet history, which is precisely what makes this book so fascinating. Demuth has mentioned that Beringia is closer to Washington, DC than Moscow, and this borderland region serves as a really fascinating place that not only sat at the edges of the Russian, British and American empires, but also between the two Cold War powers, and within the territory of the Chukchi, Yupik, and Inupiaq nations. There were a lot of things happening in this book: lyrical prose about the agency of ice and animals, fascinating depictions of energy flows and transformations coursing through the ecosystems of Beringia, capitalist processes of commodifying living beings and minerals deep beneath the cold earth of the north. All things I have been deeply fascinated by since visiting a friend in Whitehorse a couple years ago while reading Robert Service, Jack London, and Ivan Coyote—those northern landscapes made a deep and lasting impression on me. But what I was most fascinated by in this book was the Soviet history of this region and the eschatological narratives that Demuth explores. I suppose it was once deemed a liberal affront to dismissively cast Marxist revolutionaries as sort of religious missionaries, but I happen to think it’s a very useful way of understanding political movements and social transformation, particularly revolutionary ones. Maybe I can lay the blame for the license I feel in this respect at the feet of Donna Haraway. It’s Haraway’s fault for calling socialist-feminism one of the evangelical traditions of United States politics, and speaking about blasphemy (a centrepiece of her ‘ironic faith’) as a form of combatting the ‘moral majority’ within. Ever since reading Haraway’s manifesto, I’ve had a bad habit of doing likewise. So, I love it when Demuth describes her subjects as “young Bolshevik evangelists promising utopia” and I think Demuth extends this into her 2022 Melville-Nelles-Hoffmann Lecture, which I had the chance to attend and really enjoyed. She even pointed to Zoroaster as an origin point of the millenarian impulse that would find its way to Marx (the temporal tensions in this book stem from some Nietzschean bias towards cyclical as opposed to linear time; Walter Benjamin’s angel of history is a more useful image for me here). But this is one of the beautiful examples from Demuth’s book that captures the religious nature of modern political economy in a very fascinating way: “New worlds and missionaries and conversion: the stuff of the American coast for thirty years. Except the Soviet kingdom was one where heavenly utopia was completely of the Earth, and everyone would belong to it equally. Marxism, especially the variant interpreted by Lenin, promised complete liberty, an escape from both natural caprice—there is no freedom in hunger—and from political contention. After all, if all wants were supplied equally, what strife could remain? The state was a necessary initial guide to this change, but would wither away along with the haggling over want that is politics… For the Bolsheviks, history made this future visible… Conversion—which the Soviets called enlightenment—would begin, as Lenin said, with the “victorious revolutionary proletariat” engaging “in systematic propaganda in [the natives’] midst.” This was enlightenment through knowledge. Then, the government had to “assist them through all possible means”—that is, forge enlightenment through industrial development.” It was fascinating to hear how early Bolshevik missions to the region went, as they encroached on a ‘frontier’ of American capitalism: “A village also built by a “capitalist system,” Mikhail Mandrikov argued, a system that would “never save workers from capitalist slavery.” Mandrikov and his colleague Avgust Berzin, like young Bolsheviks everywhere, saw capitalism as irredeemably exploitive, divided at its functional core between the owning rich and the laboring poor. The solution was not tsarist enclosure and reform, but collective ownership. In Chukotka, they preached liberation, a future where “every person . . . has an equal share of all the value in the world created by work.”7 Their revolution was already two years old in Petrograd when Mandrikov and Berzin took control of the Chukotkan administration, seized fur storehouses, and proclaimed the First Soviet Revolutionary Committee, or Revkom. Six weeks later, most members of the Revkom were dead. Bolshevik speeches against American traders like Charlie Madsen and their lines of credit—debt that doomed the poor “to a cold and hungry death”—left the Revkom with many enemies.8 But Anadyr’s merchant class was only temporarily better armed. Bolsheviks sailed and walked and took dogsleds north from Kamchatka. Small, nasty battles erupted with remnants of the empire. It was 1923 before the Red Army declared Chukotka liberated from “White [Army] bandits…” I was particularly fascinated by a Yupik man named Mallu (or Matlu), who joined the Bolsheviks and became part of the local Soviet administration: “Mallu learned as a child how not to die among the ridges and snaking leads on the ice near Ungaziq. He learned that wronged animals would seek retribution.58 He also learned Russian from the Chukchi coast’s lone Orthodox missionary. When the Bolsheviks came with their promises of “mastering the full use of resources” through “the socialist reconstruction of the northern economy,” Mallu’s comprehension was not limited by their terrible Yupik.59 What he heard was an escape from winters “when we had hunger, because the sea animals did not come,” leaving “children without fathers.” So, he wrote later, “I decided to organize a kolkhoz” named Toward the New Life. By 1928, Mallu and half a dozen other young Yupik men were elected members of the local Soviet administration. The Bolsheviks had converts. Mallu joined the revolution just as the revolution lost patience. Lenin was dead, taking the New Economic Policy with him…” “The five-year plan hurtled toward a future only vaguely described by Marx or Lenin. The Stalinist method of substantiation was quantification: how many new kolkhozy, how many new people joining the kolkhozy. This was much of Mallu’s work: recruiting Yupik and coastal Chukchi by explaining that “a good life can only be built through a collective farm.” He also offered flour, ammunition, metal boats, and outboard motors. The capitalist sharks had finally been exiled from Chukotka, and the Soviets controlled supply, if imperfectly; even Mallu complained that there were no “cooking pots or needles.” But what the Soviets had, they gave to people in collectives. It was, Mallu admitted, an excellent reason to join a kolkhoz. And the kolkhozy, rhetoric aside, did not look all that transformative. Members hunted walruses and seals in order to refine “fat which can be used for industrial purposes.” Yupik already hunted walruses and seals. The collective required hunting together and distributing the catch after the kolkhoz manager tallied it against the plan. Yupik already hunted in groups and distributed their catch. A collective wanted fox pelts in exchange for sugar and tea, an old rite of transmutation by 1930. No one in a collective could be substantially richer or poorer than anyone else. Among the Yupik and coastal Chukchi, no one was.” Demuth published a piece in the New Yorker that mentions Mallu, in case you are interested in reading more about him. This alignment of ideology was an exception to what generally played out though. There was a fascinating dynamic that emerged where individualist Chukchi practices of reindeer herding on the Soviet side were particularly resistant to Soviet collectivization efforts, and the collective Yupik and Inupiaq hunting practices on the Alaska side were particularly resistant to capitalist notions of private property. I also enjoyed Demuth’s interpretations of Marxism even if I didn’t always agree with them entirely: “The Bolsheviks had an answer—Marx’s answer—to the empire’s question: excise capitalism, take its industrial tools, and turn them to material liberation and moral transformation. For Marxist revolutionaries, the material and moral were linked by labor: under capitalism, poverty forced most people to sacrifice their ability to direct their own actions—to even conceive of directing them—because they had to earn the wages paid by the wealthy. Because life without conscious purpose deadened the soul, a worker became a thing, an object whose labor enriched someone else. But if all people worked according to their desires and ability and gained according to their needs, there would be no starvation and no reason to drink. It was a utopia of the exploited last becoming the enlightened first. The vision of salvation the Bolsheviks brought to Chukotka required the elimination of private property and market exchange, as private property concentrated wealth unequally and markets aided such accumulation.” During Demuth’s lecture that I attended, Boyd Cothran mentioned that a lot of the framing of Demuth’s work seemed very similar to James Scott’s work in Seeing Like a State, how the two competing modernities of the 20th century, socialism and capitalism, shared similar totalizing tendencies. I haven’t finished reading Scott’s book, but I think his book engaged with Lenin more than any other academic text I’ve encountered, and I think he does make some compelling points about the shortcomings of modernity, though I think I do subscribe to a certain form of modernity myself. I’m generally opposed to for example anarcho-primitivism or anti-civ anarchism, which I see as the logical conclusion of completely rejecting modernity. For example, Demuth in her lecture mentions the really horrible process of decarbonization that happened after the fall of the Soviet Union, where buildings no longer could be kept warm, hospitals abandoned, and so on. She mentioned this type of shock therapy was not the model way to decarbonize and was in fact very traumatizing for people who lived there. But I do recognize the very bad record modernity has with respect to its interactions with Indigenous communities, including in its socialist iterations. Though Demuth did mention a particularly interesting comment that Indigenous peoples on the Russian side did tend to have a more positive view of Bolshevik missionaries than those on the Alaska side had of Christian missionaries. Anyway, Demuth makes a very good point about how in a similar way to how capitalists fetishized the commodity, the Soviet economy fetishized the five-year plan, in a harmfully inflexible way. But one of the big issues was how the Soviets felt like they needed to compete with capitalism and demonstrate the ability of socialism to out-produce capitalism: “Soviet socialists arrived in Beringia feeling both that they were behind capitalism and the need to eclipse it, to leap beyond into a world of greater liberty and bounty. Their means of acceleration was directed collective production, where plans broke down the next year or five into the number of tractors to be manufactured or walruses killed, each year with more than the last. Making more in the same period indicated speed, and suggested utopia was imminent.” The environmental consequences of trying to out-produce capitalism should be somewhat obvious as we see the consequences of capitalism all around us today. This is something I did not discuss as much in this review, but it is central to the book. Overall, a very interesting read with a lot to think about and with. I'm glad this was selected for my environmental history class, and all the students in my class who attended the lecture got a free copy of the book. Mine is still in the mail, but I'm looking forward to having this on my shelf. postscript: There's a great interview Demuth did on the Jacobin podcast, The Dig in case it's of any interest also.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chris Chester

    What an interesting concept this is -- telling the story of the Bering Strait through the lens of native experience; the exploitation of native species like whales, walrus, fox and reindeer; the extraction of resources like gold, tin and oil; and the aspirations and failures of both market-driven American enterprise and Russian/Soviet socialist planning. There's a lot going on there with plenty of opportunities to go off the rails, which makes Demuth's ultimate achievement that much more impressi What an interesting concept this is -- telling the story of the Bering Strait through the lens of native experience; the exploitation of native species like whales, walrus, fox and reindeer; the extraction of resources like gold, tin and oil; and the aspirations and failures of both market-driven American enterprise and Russian/Soviet socialist planning. There's a lot going on there with plenty of opportunities to go off the rails, which makes Demuth's ultimate achievement that much more impressive. She does a good job of showing the faults of both modern, "foreign" systems without villifying one or extolling the other. She also centers the native experience without romanticizing its hardships and frailties. The virtue of the native Beringian experience is its respect for time and scale. Foxes, for example, make for worthwhile commodities to trade with western "foreigners," but their boom and bust cycles do not conform to market expectations or socialist plans. Whales take time filter smaller sea life into their massive bodies. And humans are notoriously bad about respecting the scale of whale life. Being in tune with nature doesn't mean banging on drums and listening to whale song. From how Demuth describes it, the meaning is closer to lowered expectations. "Historians are reticent to predict the future, but two things speak out from Beringia's past. One is the inconsistency between human desire and material outcome. People are only part of what shapes action." I think this vision of the fallibility of the human imagination is what made this work so compelling, especially as someone without a great knowledge of or interest in the Beringian experience. Lovely work.

  20. 4 out of 5

    John Lovie

    This meticulously researched and beautifully written book is about time and energy in an arctic corner of the planet we think of as remote. Bathsheba Demuth lays out how, within the life cycle of one bowhead whale, our different economic systems have tried here to straighten nature's cyclical time into the continuous upward trajectory of progress, whether measured by the profit margin or the five-year plan. In exploiting Beringia's resources in the oceans, on the land, and underground, our attemp This meticulously researched and beautifully written book is about time and energy in an arctic corner of the planet we think of as remote. Bathsheba Demuth lays out how, within the life cycle of one bowhead whale, our different economic systems have tried here to straighten nature's cyclical time into the continuous upward trajectory of progress, whether measured by the profit margin or the five-year plan. In exploiting Beringia's resources in the oceans, on the land, and underground, our attempts to commodify nature by flattening its cycles of life and death have merely amplified them into successive larger cycles of boom and bust. In extracting more energy from this region's living environment than it can replace, and releasing more energy from fossil fuels than it can absorb, we have succeeded only in speeding up climate time. I'll be thinking about this book for a long time. As goes Beringia, so goes the planet.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Gregory

    Floating Coast is winner of the American Society for Environmental History's George Perkins Marsh for best book in 2020. It is a fantastic study of how external forces attempted to transform the people and environment of the Bering Strait. Demuth includes an account of the commodification of whale (1840s to 1905 and again 1920 to 1970s), walrus, caribou, fox pelts, as well as gold and tin. What is most interesting to me is how Demuth juxtaposes capitalism and communism, comparing the external gr Floating Coast is winner of the American Society for Environmental History's George Perkins Marsh for best book in 2020. It is a fantastic study of how external forces attempted to transform the people and environment of the Bering Strait. Demuth includes an account of the commodification of whale (1840s to 1905 and again 1920 to 1970s), walrus, caribou, fox pelts, as well as gold and tin. What is most interesting to me is how Demuth juxtaposes capitalism and communism, comparing the external growth-driven market with the external production-driven five year plans of state socialism. Ultimately, they are no different. Both sought to transform and manage the unpredictable environment and people of the Bering Strait. To the people living in them, there was little to distinguish the two systems.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ezra

    I loved this book. Demuth's writing is lovely and fluid, occasionally bordering on lyrical, and her love for Beringia is evident in her language. It's also a fascinating topic, and she crafts a compelling narrative through her examination of the interaction and conflict between ideologies, animals, lands, seas, and humans. The book manages to be extremely local and personal while also feeling global, relevant, even urgent. I loved this book. Demuth's writing is lovely and fluid, occasionally bordering on lyrical, and her love for Beringia is evident in her language. It's also a fascinating topic, and she crafts a compelling narrative through her examination of the interaction and conflict between ideologies, animals, lands, seas, and humans. The book manages to be extremely local and personal while also feeling global, relevant, even urgent.

  23. 5 out of 5

    January Gray

    An incredible book and an amazing author! This is a MUST READ, especially given how so many species of animals are dying off, and our planet is in trouble. I highly recommend. It is informative without being heavy or preachy.

  24. 4 out of 5

    kat

    provided unparalleled reflection on the anthropocene, socialism, and the human conversion of energy. packed with history and knowledge and primary sources. “we all live in more than one time, even if we are taught to refuse the idea. the evidence is all around us, in a layered world.”

  25. 5 out of 5

    Josh Reid

    Masterful environmental history of Beringia — especially appreciated the serious efforts to capture the animal-side of this history. Beautifully written!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Floris

    Glad to have finished this incredibly-well researched and wonderfully written book, that has rightfully been showered with praise since its publication in 2019. It provides an exciting glimpse into the future of history-writing, specifically environmental histories, which are more and more looking to tell non-human in addition to human stories. Demuth’s Floating Coast sets the bar for such narratives. Instead of following the flows of armies, you’ll find yourself following flows of calories. Ins Glad to have finished this incredibly-well researched and wonderfully written book, that has rightfully been showered with praise since its publication in 2019. It provides an exciting glimpse into the future of history-writing, specifically environmental histories, which are more and more looking to tell non-human in addition to human stories. Demuth’s Floating Coast sets the bar for such narratives. Instead of following the flows of armies, you’ll find yourself following flows of calories. Instead of listening to the words of political leaders, you’ll find yourself listening to the songs of whales. If this sounds fluffy to you, I can assure you it’s not. Demuth has a way of connecting the lives of Beringian wildlife, peoples, and environments in such a way that through reading from the perspective of any two you gain a fundamentally deeper understanding of the third. You’ll wonder how you could ever have known about the lives of Iñupiat, Yupik, or Chukchi peoples without also knowing the lives of arctic whales, caribou, and foxes. Her writing is very stylish – perhaps at times too stylish. There were sections where by letting myself get carried away by the lyrical prose I was missing a bunch of details and analysis she was providing. Especially in the third quarter of the book I found the narrative thickness a bit too sludgy for my liking. But I’m sure that if you were going to have a problem with your book, you’d prefer it to be this one, because the writing is still super impressive. Don’t be fooled by the title either – this book is not just about Beringia. In fact, you could argue this book is as much about the clash between communism and capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it is about flows of calories through the Bering Strait. So many stories are indeed framed in these terms: bowhead whales not willing to die for the market, indigenous communities defined by their capitalist (bountiful but capricious) or communist (consistent but insufficient) lifestyles. Indeed, Demuth in a sense uses the history of Beringia as a canvas for charting the impacts these two ideologies – which literally met in this part of the world – on the environment and the beings that live in and survive off it. And so this book also provides some great critiques of these ideologies (of the profound type, but also of the one-liner type useful for boring parties). Her conclusion builds on these critiques, emphasising how neither ideology has appreciated or sought to adapt to the realities of Beringian life and livelihoods. Extraction and enclosure – of commodities, of people, and of course of energy/calories – are destructive processes. Her concluding remarks, however, have a sense of hope to them: ‘the energy that sustains us is made by other beings, but energy is also what we put into the world, with our labor and thought; it demarcates what matters as we transform matter’. More energy should be expended in deciding what we value, for our values dictate how we ‘conceive live and consume death’ (318).

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ren

    This book is a complex book to rate and review. First let me state without a doubt this book is a masterpiece and I applaud the author for the depth of the research and how the information was presented. I am impressed and amazed at the writing and topic. That being said, wow I had no idea what I was in for. I read this book for my science book club and I think we were all a bit shocked about what we thought this book was about, versus what it actually was about. I had no idea how much human act This book is a complex book to rate and review. First let me state without a doubt this book is a masterpiece and I applaud the author for the depth of the research and how the information was presented. I am impressed and amazed at the writing and topic. That being said, wow I had no idea what I was in for. I read this book for my science book club and I think we were all a bit shocked about what we thought this book was about, versus what it actually was about. I had no idea how much human activity would be a part of this book. I falsely assumed based on my own preconceived notions that this book would be about geology, meteorology, ecology, etc of the region. And it certainly is about that, but that's a small part of it. And my definition of ecology was basically without human impact, but this book has convinced me that humans are part of nature and ecology in a way that my ecology degree never did. So often we are taught "nature is ecology, here are the ways humans fuck that up". So this book was revolutionary in portraying how much humans are a part of the system, not an external force. Honestly kudos to the author for giving me a fundamental brain shift. Now about the book - some parts of it were pretty heavy and like I said, I had no idea I was in for an in-depth education on whaling, communism and capitalism, and indigenous people. But I am glad the book was about that. I learned a lot, and I think anyone interested in ecology, communism and capitalism, indigenous people, and numerous other topics relating to the Bering Strait would benefit from reading this. Just maybe not before bed because occasionally these parts are a bit dull and repetitive. And also not for a book club where you only have a month to read it. None of us finished the book by the time of the discussion, presumably because it's quite hefty. That being said, I finished it soon after the discussion because I was genuinely interested in learning more.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Eric Proctor

    This was an intriguing book. I don't think it is for everyone, but I do think it is an important book. The author writes beautifully, interweaving compelling prose into a heavily researched narrative. I really liked the look at how the native people on both sides of the Bering Strait had to adapt to the far away governments, one with a focus on socialism and one on capitalism. The book can be a little heavy at times, however. This is particularly true with the consistent use of native terms and This was an intriguing book. I don't think it is for everyone, but I do think it is an important book. The author writes beautifully, interweaving compelling prose into a heavily researched narrative. I really liked the look at how the native people on both sides of the Bering Strait had to adapt to the far away governments, one with a focus on socialism and one on capitalism. The book can be a little heavy at times, however. This is particularly true with the consistent use of native terms and names. I think this is important. It just can be a little hard to follow. One of my favorite passages from the book, which stopped me in my tracks and really made me rethink more fully the concept of "buying local" was: "The capitalist world, the United States in particular, was learning to send its worst pollution and industrial toxins--from the manufacture of plastics, the dyeing of cloth, the mass harvests of trees--beyond its borders. The palm oil that replaced whales, after all, was grown far from Britain. The full account of commerce was paid thousands of miles away, while at home, acts cleaned the air and water and sheltered endangered species without lessening American appetites or their satiation. The market did not use less of the world, in trying to cheat death by increasing consumption. But it did move the objects of our consumptive desire far away, decoupled from the deadliness of production." I definitely recommend this book for those who are interested in the Arctic, history and the environment.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jessica DeWitt

    Demuth artfully weaves a story of Beringia that interweaves the non-human and human stories of the region. Every paragraph drips with empathic care as Demuth makes accessible some intensely complicated ideas and processes. If learning how to write about this region and its human and non-human inhabitants and visitors was a gift to Demuth from the people of Beringia, then this book is the gift to us all. The chain of life and care continues. This is a narrative of connection, connection that cros Demuth artfully weaves a story of Beringia that interweaves the non-human and human stories of the region. Every paragraph drips with empathic care as Demuth makes accessible some intensely complicated ideas and processes. If learning how to write about this region and its human and non-human inhabitants and visitors was a gift to Demuth from the people of Beringia, then this book is the gift to us all. The chain of life and care continues. This is a narrative of connection, connection that crosses specie lines and temporal space, and connection is the foundation of good history. I'm inspired to start writing again. Thank you. You can find a thread of my favourite quotes here: https://twitter.com/JessicaMDeWitt/st...

  30. 5 out of 5

    Merricat Blackwood

    Demuth writes beautifully and evocatively about the complex Beringian ecosystem. She makes you appreciate the importance of flux and rebalancing in the ecosystem and, therefore, how costly it is to attempt to domesticate that system. She doesn't idealize the lifestyles of indigenous Beringian groups, but she makes you appreciate how much was lost when those lifestyles were subordinated either to a market economy or to a series of five-year plans. (I also think this book is a good corrective to t Demuth writes beautifully and evocatively about the complex Beringian ecosystem. She makes you appreciate the importance of flux and rebalancing in the ecosystem and, therefore, how costly it is to attempt to domesticate that system. She doesn't idealize the lifestyles of indigenous Beringian groups, but she makes you appreciate how much was lost when those lifestyles were subordinated either to a market economy or to a series of five-year plans. (I also think this book is a good corrective to the very lazy take that I often see on social media that all ecological rapacity comes down to "capitalism" and would be solved by the end of same. It's certainly true that it's hard to fight the oil companies, but communism does not have a great environmental track record!)

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