Arctic Ecologies, Then and Now: A Conversation with Bathsheba Demuth

An island of sea ice with several walruses floating on it photographed from above

A natural land bridge between Eurasia and the Americas and home of Inupiat, Yupik, and Chukchi nations for centuries, the Bering Strait has been connecting two continents for millennia. The Bering Strait offers perhaps one of the best examples of the deep connection between humans and their environments. However, after the purchase of Alaska by the US from Russia, things drastically changed in this region with the devastation of sea, land, and belowground resources.

In August 2019, I spoke with Dr. Bathsheba Demuth about her new book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (W.W. Norton 2019), which narrates this change. In particular, we discussed how the Arctic Beringia region was divided by two political powers with two (very) different ideologies and economies, and how these differences shaped the people and environments on each side of the Beringian Arctic.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Christian Andresen: How did your experiences in the Arctic and taiga influence you when writing Floating Coast?

A headshot of environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth

Bathsheba Demuth. Photo by Peter Goldberg.

Bathsheba Demuth: In some ways, that’s where I start the book. This project came out of a period of time I spent in the very eastern edge of Beringia, the Bering Strait region, when I was a teenager. I moved there when I was 18 and my primary job was to train a sled dog team for a Gwichʼin family in a little village called Old Crow that’s about 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle and about 100 miles south of the Beaufort Sea, in the middle of the Yukon Territory. When I came there, I didn’t know anything about anything, in retrospect, and I certainly didn’t know anything about the Arctic. I was a farm kid from Iowa. I very quickly came to realize the degree to which the environment around me and the choices of people, but also nonhuman beings, were really critical to my daily life and sometimes to my survival. Because my primary job there was to train sled dogs, I spent a lot of time working really closely with animals out in the bush where our lives often intersected with those of other animal populations. That experience, although I didn’t realize it at the time, really colored my approach to writing history and the kinds of questions that drive me in the archives.

CA: One history you describe is when the whaling industry collapsed in the face of technical advances. There was no need for costly blubber or baleen because of petroleum products, and the commercial focus shifted to walrus skin and ivory as well as fur from terrestrial species like the arctic fox. Can you tell us about the implications of this shift in commercial focus?

BD: Historians don’t get many eureka moments in the course of research, because usually research is just churning through archives and recordings and other kinds of documentation. But one of the things I realized as I was doing the initial research for this book is that European and Americans coming to the Bering Strait started in the spaces that are the most biologically productive. So, they started at sea, harvesting bowhead whales which are incredibly fatty. Then when they had decimated the population of bowhead whales, they moved onto walruses and other forms of value that they could extract. But it was really a process of extracting energy long before petroleum was a reason that people were coming to the Arctic. That fascinated me, because it’s a prehistory of the extractive industries that we now associate with the far north.

A photograph of whalebone rafters on an abandoned underground house, with a shoreline visible in the background

Whalebone rafters on an abandoned underground house in Avan, Chukotka. Photo by Bathsheba Demuth, August 2018.

CA: One thing that struck me was that the depletion of the walrus population in Russia ignited a synergy for conservation between the US and Russia, between US biologists and Russian biologists. You wrote how about socialism was falling behind in production and in order to compete with capitalism, Russians needed to adopt sustainable practices that US capitalists had implemented decades earlier.

BD: This is one of the things I found really surprising and comforting, in some senses, because it’s one of the sections of the book that does not end on a completely bleak note. That’s something that environmental historians often get cranky with each other for doing, just writing these declensionist narratives of everything becoming worse.

The cover of Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth, a photograph of a whale's tail above ocean water In the case of the walrus, that’s actually not the case, at least in the 20th century if you stop paying attention in the 1980s or so. Part of what happens is that the Americans become aware of what market hunting is doing to the walrus populations in the early 20th century, and start trying to put in place a series of conservation measures. The US is aware that if they allow unrestrained hunting for ivory or walrus blubber, they’re going to see the possible extermination of the species.

When the Soviet Union comes to power, and particularly in the 1930s, the Soviets pick up a model of hunting that looks very much like 19th-century commercial hunting: trying to kill as many walruses as possible. Then, after the Second World War, partly because there’s more back and forth between Soviet biologists and biologists from other countries following Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union puts in place a set of policies that look very much like those in the US. These conservation measures end up being quite effective for the Pacific walrus. Then, eventually, in the 1970s they signed a co-management agreement for several Arctic species, one of which is walruses. So, both the US and the Soviet Union are able to decide that this particular animal can’t be subject to the usual demands of the economy as it exists in its ideal form for these two countries.

CA: One of the greatest challenges for Beringia now is climate change. The region is living in climate crisis, with permafrost thaw, coastal erosion, sea level rise, thinner sea ice, and a longer ice-free season which affects the subsistence lifestyle and hunting of these communities. How do you foresee these communities adapting and what differences might there be on either side of the Bering Strait?

BD: To me, the climate question in the Bering strait is both a continuation and an acceleration of the historical events I narrate in my book, an intensification of the 200 years that come before. I think about what the 1880s looked like, particularly in northwestern Alaska. It’s this moment when, because of commercial walrus and whale hunting, there is a calorie crisis among many coastal communities, Yupik and Iñupiaq communities along the coast. This is also a moment when the Bering Strait seems to have a particularly terrible year for basically every kind of thing that humans depend on. The caribou, walruses, and whales are absent because of commercial hunting. There aren’t enough arctic hare. There don’t seem to be as many birds migrating into the region. It’s a confluence of events that makes life extraordinarily difficult for communities all across the region.

What people do in response to this is what people have done in the Arctic for a very, very long time. When the going gets tough, you try to move to somewhere where it’s better. But part of what made the 1880s is awful is that it was bad everywhere. To me, there’s a similar feeling about climate change, and not just in Beringia but more generally. The issue isn’t just that the climate is changing, the issue is that it is changing all of these other things; maybe there aren’t as many Arctic hares, maybe there aren’t as many caribou, and maybe there aren’t as many walruses. All of that happens simultaneously, rather than being spread out or a set of crises that people can deal with by shifting their lifeways or shifting themselves in space in order to avoid.

A photograph of a coastline covered in cement bricks with water rising in the background

Protective seawalls made of cement are slowing eroding into the sand in Shismaref, Alaska. Photo by Lawrence Hislop, 2010.

What emerges out of the 1880s in northwestern Alaska is a crisis of refugees. People move from communities where there has been a complete collapse of the capacity to make a living into communities where they hope that hasn’t happened yet. In the next couple of decades, we’re going to see that happen on a much broader scale. And now there’s kind of a claustrophobia on the planet, when you think about there not being a place to move to where you can guarantee that these impacts are not happening.

You can see this already in Beringia, in communities like Shishmaref or Kivalina that are actively eroding into the Bering Sea, or the Chukchi Sea, because the protective sea ice that kept their coastlines from eroding quite so quickly is gone. There’s also the interior of Alaska, with an enormous spike in wildfires because it’s hotter, drier, and there are more lightning strikes because the climate is more volatile. There are fish runs that are becoming increasingly unpredictable because the water is too warm for salmon to migrate in. Some people in Beringia have seen dramatic change before, or their ancestors have, but that’s not necessarily comforting. It’s a sign of the ways in which we’re accelerating, intensifying, and globalizing a set of crises that people have managed to live through in the past. But they’re not good times.

Featured image: Walrus cows on sea ice south of Nunivak Island, Alaska. Photograph by USFWS/Brad Benter, 2006.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Bathsheba Demuth is an environmental historian at Brown University, where she specializes in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic. She has a B.A. and M.A. from Brown University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in publications from the American Historical Review to the New Yorker. Her first book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait is just out with W.W. Norton. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Christian G. Andresen is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Geography Department. He is an environmental scientist focusing on Arctic terrestrial systems. Dr. Andresen spends his summers conducting fieldwork across northern and western Alaska including the Beringian Arctic. He investigates Arctic hydrology, ecology and the associated land-atmosphere carbon dynamics under the effects of climate change using a combination of field observations, multi-scale remote sensing and earth system models. Website. Contact.