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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. 4 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 5 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.

  6. 5 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.

  7. 5 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    JJ Shankar

    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.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    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.

  10. 4 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.

  11. 4 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.

  12. 5 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.

  13. 4 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ivana

    Beautifully written book.

  17. 4 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    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...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kirsty

    While I think this book has a lot of great information in it, it read like a college textbook. The book is 60% book and 40% notes, sources, and index. It struggled to keep my attention and lacked any emotional pull. This is understandable as it's an environmental history book, but in order for me to really CARE about the people and events discussed in the book, it lacked that emotional draw. If you love reading about history and take a particular interest in Soviet/Socialist history, you might lo While I think this book has a lot of great information in it, it read like a college textbook. The book is 60% book and 40% notes, sources, and index. It struggled to keep my attention and lacked any emotional pull. This is understandable as it's an environmental history book, but in order for me to really CARE about the people and events discussed in the book, it lacked that emotional draw. If you love reading about history and take a particular interest in Soviet/Socialist history, you might love this book. It just wasn't for me.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Teri

    Very interesting about a little known place...actually a non place in the sense we traditionally consider land as a place...but this place has imaginary lines, as most do, including over water. In 1910 my grandfather Roy J Snell spent a year in Cape Prince of Wales...the European name for this place...as a "missionary, teacher and reindeer superintendent". I really wanted to read this book to give more context to his time and life there. He left not as a missionary but continued his life as a te Very interesting about a little known place...actually a non place in the sense we traditionally consider land as a place...but this place has imaginary lines, as most do, including over water. In 1910 my grandfather Roy J Snell spent a year in Cape Prince of Wales...the European name for this place...as a "missionary, teacher and reindeer superintendent". I really wanted to read this book to give more context to his time and life there. He left not as a missionary but continued his life as a teacher, author and adventurer...He wrote over 84 books. Many about his one year in Beringia.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Erika

    A philosophical and at times even mystical plunge into the history of the Bering Strait as mediated by its natural resources - whale, walrus, gold and fox. A deeply meditative attempt to get us to rethink history from the standpoint of non-humans and a borderlands history that demonstrates the similarities between supposedly opposed definitions of futurity, communism and capitalism. At its most simple, this is a history of energy, and of life, and of how "modern" notions of economic growth are i A philosophical and at times even mystical plunge into the history of the Bering Strait as mediated by its natural resources - whale, walrus, gold and fox. A deeply meditative attempt to get us to rethink history from the standpoint of non-humans and a borderlands history that demonstrates the similarities between supposedly opposed definitions of futurity, communism and capitalism. At its most simple, this is a history of energy, and of life, and of how "modern" notions of economic growth are inimical to both.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lizz

    Rating purely based on my enjoyment - I picked this up for a pleasure read and found it more academic than I was wanting. Some passages were very nicely written, though. I found the epilogue the most interesting and engaging of the whole book. I did find some of the descriptions of industrial whaling quite upsetting; perhaps that was the intended effect, but again, not what I was looking for in a pleasure read. (Then again, Arctic environments are not very removed from my day job, so maybe I sho Rating purely based on my enjoyment - I picked this up for a pleasure read and found it more academic than I was wanting. Some passages were very nicely written, though. I found the epilogue the most interesting and engaging of the whole book. I did find some of the descriptions of industrial whaling quite upsetting; perhaps that was the intended effect, but again, not what I was looking for in a pleasure read. (Then again, Arctic environments are not very removed from my day job, so maybe I should just chalk this one up in the "work" column and give it a 4/5.)

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mark Smiley

    I was doing research on the Bering Sea area and our library had this is its new books selection. I was amazed at what the area has been throug, what man has done without regards to consequences. It would be nice to revisit the area in a hundred years and see whether we have treated the area with any more kindness and intelligence.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gayle Myers-Harbison

    Interesting account of the history of Beringia - the area of the Bering Strait including both Alaskan and Russian territories and the seas around them. Very well-written, which is notable for a work of non-fiction. The discussion of Russian factory-ship whale hunting was disturbing and memorable, so be careful of that chapter if you are affected by that sort of thing.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Elin

    Re society, economy, empire

  27. 4 out of 5

    Curt

    A better subtitle for this might have been, "An Ideological, Economic and Environmental History of the Bering Strait" with a greater emphasis on the first. A better subtitle for this might have been, "An Ideological, Economic and Environmental History of the Bering Strait" with a greater emphasis on the first.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    NF 318 pages The history of the sea, the land, the people, policies, etc..

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    We've done horrible things to whales. We've done horrible things to whales.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bob Uva

    Weaving of ecological processes and time scales with societal processes was most interesting to me.

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