Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Histories Entwined: A tale of culture, economy and the more-than-human in the fragile High Arctic

In the mid-19th century, a parade of whaling ships set sail from New England. One by one, they swept down the United States’ Atlantic coast, circled South America’s Cape Horn, and finally cruised northward, toward the Arctic edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Their destination was a sea bounded by the Alaskan Seward Peninsula and the Russian Chukchi Peninsula, two slips of land divided by the narrow strait that defines the wide and frigid region known as Beringia. Russian vessels had been stationed there for decades, and their whaling fleet wasn’t far behind.

First by ambushing its wildlife and then by infiltrating its Indigenous communities, the capitalist U.S. and socialist Soviet Union spent the next century and a half radically transforming Beringia’s environment and societies. On either side of an invisible political boundary, the two world powers deployed their competing ideologies in a sort of natural experiment, seeking — and failing to find — predictable productivity.

So says Bathsheba Demuth, an award-winning historian and IBES fellow. Her inaugural book “Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait” explores this story by asking two questions: How do human ideas transform the environment around us? Moreover, how do environments inform how we think about our ideas?

Wild for resources

In Beringia, Americans and Russians-turned-Soviets — nonnative interlopers whom “Floating Coast” calls foreign — found a vast and unforgiving landscape of minimal sunlight, plentiful ice and steely seas. For centuries, its small variety of hardy creatures had been key to the survival of Indigenous Yupik, Iñupiat and Chukchi peoples, whose relational hunting and harvesting ethics limited the scale of their impact on herds of animals like whale and walrus. 

Foreigners’ indiscriminate slaughter upended this careful relationship. 

Indeed, rather than simply being a story of rival cultural and political ideologies, much of Demuth's research recounts the rise and fall of various Arctic fauna.

"One of the things I found really fascinating, and that I didn't expect, was how much of the story ended up being told around particular species,” she says. "The interactions that Indigenous peoples, Russian and Soviet people, and American missionaries and government agents all had with the Bering Strait were often intensely focused on certain animals."

For foreigners, the first target was the bowhead whale, a long-lived Arctic cetacean whose energy-dense blubber gave rise to the “whale oil” that helped fuel the early Industrial Revolution. The next craze was baleen, for corsets. Then, when whale populations and profits dwindled, foreign hunters turned to walrus for their valuable oil, weatherproof skins and carvable tusks. Next was fox, for their fur; then reindeer, for their meat. Each kill was destined to become a commodity, distilled by societal forces into whatever form would realize the most value. 

“It was a direct kind of energy extraction,” says Demuth, “even before people started thinking of the Arctic as a place that had petroleum.”

Beringian natives who depended on these animals for sustenance were left with little to eat. And when foreign governments finally decided to enact limits on hunting key species like walrus, it was the Indigenous economy that, once again, bore the brunt of foreign whims.

Communities in conversion 

American and Soviet desires were violently out of step with the long timescales and seasonal variability of Arctic ecosystems. Indeed, resource extraction amidst these fickle lands and waters was anathema to the volatile speed of capitalist markets, the optimistic demands of communist plans and the basic subsistence needs of the Yupik, Iñupiat and Chukchi communities — populations that, thanks to novel illnesses introduced by Americans and Russians, were simultaneously being slashed in half, or more.

“There was a catastrophic meeting of famine events with disease events, which played into each other and exacerbated each other,” says Demuth. “Some communities lost 50 to 70%of their population in the course of a couple of decades.”

Indigenous communities — many decimated, hungry and in need of support amidst the new dearth of resources — now found themselves at the center of foreign harvesting efforts. Whether by sailing aboard imperial whaling ships, assisting with the hunt for evasive walrus or staffing foreign-owned fox farms, enthusiastically or less-so, Indigenous labor was part of the engine that kept the American and Soviet dreams of productivity alive. 

So too were Indigenous hearts and minds. 

During the first half of the 20th century, Christian missionaries from the U.S. and eager Bolsheviks from the Soviet Union took it upon themselves to radically upend millennia-old Indigenous cultures, imposing their own ideals of education, economics and more on Beringian natives.

“This moment of intensive extraction was also one of really intense, traumatic material transformation in the way that societies were organized on both sides of the Bering Strait in the late 19th century,” says Demuth. "It turned from dealing with colonialism as an acute threat to Indigenous bodies to colonialism as an acute threat to Indigenous cultures through assimilation."

As Demuth explains, the story of Beringia in the 19th and 20th centuries is the story of colonialism. The American dynamic may have looked a bit different from the Soviet one, but its essence was the same.

"Societies with quite a bit of domineering power came in and tried to remake the people who had been living in Beringia in the image of what a good Soviet citizen was supposed to be, or what a good American citizen was supposed to be," she says. "It wasn’t one where either the American government or the Soviet government came in and asked people if they wanted to change the way that they lived. They just assumed it and proceeded as if they had consent from those communities from the beginning."

Environment and society

Indeed, despite being ideologically and politically opposed, American and Soviet actors found themselves living different shades of the same existence on either side of the Bering Strait.

"I went in expecting that this was going to be a story entirely of contrasts in which socialism, because it thinks of itself very much in opposition to capitalism, was going to produce radically different results," says Demuth. "But I found that, as often as not, the two systems actually ended up looking very much like each other on the ground — in part because both of them were interested in similar kinds of modernization projects and in extracting energy from these spaces, and in part because the nature of the Arctic itself did some disciplining of what was possible."

As she explains, colonialism, particularly in the Arctic, was both a social event and an ecological one. Social impacts led to ecological changes, and ecological changes led to social impacts.  Insatiable hunger for animal resources led to shrinking populations; tipping the faunal balance altered ecological productivity. Less productive waters led to less revenue; dwindling profits impeded the momentum of capitalism, stalled the promise of socialism and hollowed out Indigenous communities. 

Said another way, Demuth has found the answers she sought: Human ideas do indeed transform the environment around us; but environments, too, constrain and mold ideas.

Looking to the future

What occured in Beringia is a lesson for a warming world, not least of all because of its own outsized vulnerability. Its deep Indigenous history reveals that, when nature has been treated as an actor itself, sustainable societies have emerged and thrived.

“History points out the ways in which the world that we live in now is not the end of some inevitable trajectory,” says Demuth. “It's just a thing that emerges out of the social and ecological relationships that we've set up right now, and it is going to change what those social and ecological relationships look like going forward."

We often treat landscapes as the canvas upon which the strokes of human history are drawn. But according to Demuth, the canvas commits strokes of its own. The environment shapes human lives and livelihoods even as those lives transform the environment. And, contrary to industrial dogma, humans are not outside of nature; canvas and artist are one.

"Humans are of places; we sit deep in them and cannot help but change them," she writes in “Floating Coast.” "To be alive means taking up our place in a chain of conversions. It is not optional. We are embarked. But to where?"

To sustainable productivity and a holistic view of the natural world; or to human exceptionalism and unchecked consumption? 

There are many trajectories. We face a multitude of possible outcomes. 

We simultaneously have more control, and less control, than we think.