Archive for August 21st, 2019

Bathsheba Demuth’s ‘Floating Coast’

August 21, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

In 2018, I heard Bathsheba Demuth deliver what is possibly the best talk I have ever listened to. It was on whales and the indigenous peoples of Beringia (the region around the Bering Sea).

            Demuth has now written a book: Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. Having read an advance copy I can confirm that it fully lives up to the promise of that talk.

            Although the subtitle describes Floating Coast  as an ‘environmental history’, the book’s scope is much wider: it is a narrative about the ways in which beings of all sorts – animals, human, plants, spirits – interact with each other over time.

            Beringia is a region where historically neither animals nor people have paid much attention to natural boundaries. But it is also the region where US-style capitalism and Soviet socialism stood face to face for the better part of a century – and strangely, in their stance towards indigenous peoples, animals and the environment, they were not very different from each other. Christian missionaries on the US side, and socialist workers on the other, both came to the conclusion that the indigenous peoples of the region were ‘backward’ and needed to be weaned away from their beliefs and practices, forcibly if necessary.

            ‘The instinct of capitalism and communism,’ writes Demuth, ‘is to ignore loss, to assume that change will bring improvement, to cover over death with expanded consumption. Such modernist visions are telescopic: from the present, each leaps into a distant world, a future place of freedom and plenty. The present must accelerate to reach that far country. Speed is quantified in what can be converted to material value for sale or the state.’ [134]

            In respect to whales and walruses there was a chronological difference between the two sides. The slaughter wrought by American whalers peaked in the 19th century whereas Soviet industrial whaling only got started in the 1930s. But by then whaleships were more mechanized and efficient so the slaughter they wrought was on par with, or exceeded, that of American whalers. Driven by socialist (Stakhanovite) work incentives Soviet whalers massacred whales with a blood-lust that defies belief.

            Some parts of Demuth’s narrative are so gruesome as to be difficult to read. She writes of Soviet whalers that ‘they learned to use young whales as lures and to tie carcasses to their ships as “fenders” to insulate contact between vessels. For objects do not suffer, even when nursing calves paddled up the slipways after their mothers’ corpses, still lactating and covering the decks in mil.’ [292]

            The slaughter ceased only forty-one years ago, in 1979, when the USSR phased out its industrial whaling fleets. But in a sense it has not ceased at all, but only mutated, for many of the industrial needs that led to the mass slaughter of whales are now being met by palm-oil, which is proving to be just as destructive.

            Anyone who believes that capitalism is the sole defining feature of the Anthropocene needs to read this book. It establishes beyond a doubt that Soviet-style socialism was no less violently extractive that capitalism. They are in fact two related avatars of the same phenomenon: industrial modernity. ‘In Beringia,’ Demuth observes, ‘the Soviet experiment showed to whales and other beings that socialism and capitalism could look similar, and transform the world on remarkably similar terms…’. [305]

            Elsewhere Demuth writes: ‘There is not a history yet that puts in human terms the cetacean experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this great annihilation of generations of whale minds: minds that listened as their seas grew quiet, watched as their clans shrank, fled as their families were consumed year after year in the adrenal chase, the strike, the final gouting blood.’ [295].

But Demuth has now herself written the history she calls for. Floating Coast is a historian’s Moby Dick, a great white whale of a book that spans centuries and links landscapes, living beings, and the flux of time, into a marvelously readable narrative.

Amitav Ghosh

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