Floating Coast

W. Norton & Company, 2019.
$27.95, 416 pages.


“WHAT IS THE NATURE of history when nature is a part of what makes history?” To answer this question, environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth explores the nineteenth- and twentieth-century interplay of ideology and ecology in Beringia, the Arctic region spanning modern-day Russia and America.

Demuth left the Midwest to work as an apprentice to a Gwich’in sled dog musher. Here, above the Arctic Circle on the Canadian–Alaskan border, daily life eviscerated Demuth’s idea of a static natural world separate from humankind. Now a participant in the energy conversions of a landscape constantly fluctuating between scarcity and surplus — of temperature, light, and resources — Demuth began to wonder: how is power exchanged between humans and the inhabited landscapes that support them, and what transformations occur in these exchanges?

Combining firsthand experience, oral histories, and government archives in the U.S. and Russia, Demuth deploys a wide-angle lens above- and  belowground, on and in water, both frozen and liquid. Despite the undeniable importance of wars and laws, the critical events described in Floating Coast are, more often than not, the life cycles of whales, climate flux, or the seasonally changing Arctic light. “Looking away from what so often counts as history embeds people in the chain of energy conversions foundational to all life,” writes Demuth. Focusing on phenomena such as reindeer migrations, gold deposits, and plankton, Demuth illuminates the interconnectedness of natural cycles and political power.

The Inupiat and Yupik in Alaska and the Yupik and Chukchi in Russia have long participated in these exchanges of power, beginning in the 1840s, when this northern landscape became the testing ground for modern capitalist and communist ideologies: “ . . . the reduction of an ecological space, in all its complexity, to a source of commodities spread across Beringia,” Demuth writes. Disagreeing perhaps only about who should benefit from energy harvesting (the individual proprietor, corporation, tsar, or collective), capitalist and communist systems shared one premise: the lives of other species are not worthy of our moral imagination.

The questioning of our moral imagination’s scope is a driving force of Floating Coast. Demuth charts both the chain of events causing the climate crisis and the paradigms that animated them. Paradigms built on assumptions, for example, that wealth is liberation, and that growth subverts mortality — two premises that drove America and Russia to believe they acted upon a static environment. Yet the energy taken — in animal bodies, in mineral deposits — had and has its place, too, in the foundational chain of conversions. Through energy transformations and their consequences, we see, as author Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Earth is, “beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.”

With eighteen stunning photographs and maps enriching Floating Coast, the book can be thought of as a map itself. The pages do more than just show us where we’ve been — they draw the contours of where we’re headed. Though Demuth maintains that historians can’t predict the future, an attentive read of Floating Coast nonetheless discerns the outline of the shore we’re bumping up against. Yet, “ . . . history has a soul to pass on….We can still wager on the world we wish to compose,” writes Demuth. By showing us who we have been, Floating Coast invites us to decide who we’d like to become. Now it’s up to us to determine the territory of one more map, that of modern morality.

Miranda Perrone is a writer, outdoor educator, activist, and cartographer whose work promotes socioecological change.