Pay Attention: A History, Future, and Politics of Living with the Earth

Transcribed from the 24 August 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole episode:

When you’re up here, there’s a way people talk about being from northwestern Alaska and understand it as being similar to being from far northeastern Russia, more than being from the rest of the United States or being from Moscow. The regional identity is really strong, because cultural identity remains key to people’s lives.

Chuck Mertz: The history of the region making up Beringia—the islands, peninsulas, shorelines and waterways that make up the Bering strait—is a history of life lived with nature and interrupted by commodification, capitalism, socialism, the global desire for energy resources, and climate change. Here to take us on a tour of this arctic region, live from the Yukon, environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth is author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait.

Bathsheba is an environmental historian at Brown University specializing in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic and the history of energy in past climates.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Bathsheba.

Bathsheba Demuth: Hi, thank you for having me.

CM: It’s great to have you on the show.

You write at your website, “My interest in northern environments and cultures began when I was eighteen and moved to the village of Old Crow in the Yukon. For over two years I mushed huskies, hunted caribou, fished for salmon, tracked bears, and otherwise learned to live in the taiga and tundra. In the years since, I have visited Arctic communities across Eurasia and North America.”

What originally drew you to the Arctic? What was your fascination with the Arctic?

BD: I was a farm kid from Iowa, and like lots of people in the Midwest I had a real desire to go see wilderness and get out there in the world. And I was also eighteen so I had really no idea what that meant at all. I convinced my parents I should take a gap year between high school and college, and ended up living in this little indigenous community in the Yukon territory—which is where I am right now. I’m back up here to visit my host family.

I came up here on a wild hare, honestly, with the plan of staying for a couple of months, and then ended up staying for a couple of years.

CM: Usually when you hear about people going up to Alaska at that age, they’re going up to work in the salmon hatcheries or in the canneries or something like that. Is that what you were considering, going up and making money? Or was your plan to go up and make a deeper connection with nature?

BD: I honestly didn’t know about the canneries, and in some ways I’m glad that I didn’t do that. I really wasn’t motivated by money—not because I don’t have those motivations, but because I was eighteen and was able to imagine not making money for a while. I came up here honestly because I was really interested in writing and in photography, and (maybe because of a lack of imagination) I didn’t think I had a lot of material in my little town in Iowa (although in retrospect I had plenty), and I wanted to go someplace and really experience something new.

It was really more about having the capacity to get out into big wilderness that was my original inspiration.

CM: You write, “Twenty thousand years ago, during the last ice age, the water passing beneath the people of Beringia was land. People hunted mammoths and caribou across a corridor of earth now cleaved by just fifty miles of ocean. A geological and ecological unity remains in the territory encircled by the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in North America, the Anadyr and Kolyma rivers in Russia, and the oceans north of Saint Lawrence Island and south of Wrangel Island. From river to river and sea to sea, geographers call this country Beringia.”

A geological and ecological unity—do the people of Beringia view themselves as more of Beringia, or as Russians or Americans? Because often when those in the west talk about unity, it’s about nations and nation-states, not unifying factors that are ecological or geological, and if so—I’m wondering, is that the way that they view themselves, connected by ecology and geology, not nationality?

BD: That’s a really good question, and it’s one that you can track changing over the course of the twentieth century, and in some ways changing again in the twenty-first. I take up the story in the nineteenth century: people very much had regional identities and were not thinking of themselves as nations, because nation-states did not have a presence here really at all at that point, in the middle of the nineteenth century.

During the twentieth century and particularly after the Second World War and during the Cold War, there was a push for people on the American side of the Bering strait to think of themselves as Americans and for people on the Russian side of the Bering strait to think of themselves as Soviet citizens. But in some ways, the ties that go back and forth across the strait—the language ties and the cultural ties—really survived that effort, even with the force of these big military states behind it, because people have family connections that span the Bering strait, and they have histories that span it.

When you’re up here, there’s a way people talk about being from northwestern Alaska and understand it as being similar to being from far northeastern Russia, more than being from the rest of the United States or being from Moscow. The regional identity is really strong, because cultural identity remains really key to people’s lives—and it just feels really different than Washington DC.

CM: You write, “My expectations were disciplined by an education that explained nature’s past—biology, geology, and ecology—separately from human history, from culture, economics, and politics. It was a divide that endowed human beings alone with the power to make change. Nature was the thing acted upon.”

What happens when we separate geology, biology, and ecology from human history, from culture, economics, and politics? What happens to our understanding of history when we separate those things into different little boxes?

Most of what I was learning was how to pay attention to the weather properly, how to read the signals that animal tracks are sending about where you should and shouldn’t go, how to think about your actions a couple steps ahead, just in case you’re being a little careless.

BD: This is obviously my bias as an environmental historian, but I think that it really narrows and impoverishes our view of what is causal and important in the past. And it emerges this idea of history as something that only humans make and that is independent from the environment more generally.

It’s really a very recent European idea, and it’s not one that has ground in lots of other intellectual traditions, and even European understandings of how change happens that go back a little bit further. It causes us to imagine that we don’t operate within ecological systems that actually both enable human activities and also put constraints on them—and that ends up having real impacts in how we imagine our social lives and our economic lives.

One of the things I hope to do as an environmental historian is tease out the ways in which even if we are trained to ignore the embeddedness of human history within the ecosystems that give us the basis of our daily lives, it’s just a question of going back and reading history for that kind of information and for those kinds of relationships.

CM: You write about how living in Beringia collapsed the divide that endowed human beings alone with the power to make change. “I was apprenticed to a Gwitchin musher, a task that in its specifics was about sled dogs, but generally required learning how not to die.”

How much time is spent not dying in the Arctic? And doesn’t spending time not dying—doesn’t that make life worse? What’s attractive about a life lived ‘not dying’?

BD: If you live in a temperate climate, the sheer force of the environment that you’re in is something that you can ignore a lot of the time. There’s a terrible blizzard, or there’s a tornado or something like that. But most of your daily life, you don’t have to really imagine that there could be an event from outside you that’s really going to have any impact. And that really isn’t the case up here, partly because there just aren’t that many people. If you have some sort of accident when you’re off alone in the bush, you’re really in trouble, because you’re not necessarily going to be able to get help. And it’s partly that you’re just functionally not at the top of the food chain, so you need to understand that there are other animals around that might not always have a positive encounter with you, depending on how you approach them.

I didn’t know any of this. I’m from Iowa, where you’re very much at the top of the food chain, and there’s only so much trouble you can get yourself in. When I first got here, I felt like most of what I was learning was how to pay attention to the weather properly, how to read the signals that animal tracks are sending about where you should and shouldn’t go, how to think about your actions a couple steps ahead, just in case you’re being a little careless or not paying a lot of attention, because that can really have serious consequences for you. If you forget your snowshoes and you’re off on a mushing trip that lasts a couple of hours, and then you want to stop and make a fire but the snow is up to your waist, you’re not going to be able to move around without your snowshoes. Really simple things like that.

Because I came up here when I was eighteen, it really made an impression on me that you need to pay attention to things that aren’t people—people are very important, but then there are also these other circumstances that are really going to impact your life. I found this very enriching, actually. It didn’t make life lesser, it made it in some ways more present, and more clear what the stakes were. And I really missed it, actually, when I finally went to college. I remember missing that sensation of really paying attention and looking around me and keeping track of things.

CM: You write, “For the past three million years, arctic and subarctic Beringia has been so cold that ice and snow linger late in summer, and in places never retreats. The white surface reflects nearly two-thirds of sunlight back into space; this pares down the land’s productive ability. It is from solar radiation that photosynthetic bacteria and algae and plants take sunlight and, with water and air and soil, turns it into tissue. The energy in that tissue can then pass through the metabolisms of other organisms, from sedgegrass to hare, into the body of a wolf or a human. The death of one living thing becomes life in another. An ecosystem is the aggregate of many species’ habits of transformation, their ways of moving energy from its origins in the sun across space and condensing it over time. To be alive is to take a place in that chain of conversions.”

Are you any more aware of that conversion when you are in the Arctic? I’m wondering if being cognizant of those kinds of conversions of energy could change the way in which we view the world, even if we live in densely populated areas. Are you more aware when you are in the Arctic of that conversion, and can we apply that awareness of transformation and conversion to our daily lives no matter where we live?

BD: I think so. But what’s taught me to pay attention to what I call the geography of energy was living in the Arctic. You spend a lot of your daily life paying attention to where it is that you can get fuel, and where it is that you can get food. Those are both energy sources. I don’t mean that in a reductive economic sense. It’s very basic. You need to be able to find animals that can provide you with food, and you need to be able to find some sort of fuel that you can burn to keep warm, because the other option is…not learning how not to die.

Being here in the Arctic when I was young really taught me to pay attention to that, and when I was doing the historical research for this book, that’s part of why I started thinking about energy as the thing that binds together both the ecological history and the human strands of this history.

Still, it is a thing that we can pay attention to in our lives no matter where we live. I think it’s starker in the Arctic because it’s a lot harder to rely on things like agriculture—which is of course its own kind of energy system, but one that most of us in temperate climates live at a remove from. Up here, you’re a little bit more confronted with it in the day-to-day, the fact that you’re reliant on other organisms for their energy in some form.

Looking at the ways both American-style capitalism and Soviet-style communism come to inhabit the Bering strait, I learned that much of those ideologies are about ignoring or covering over or allowing people to not deal with death.

But it’s made me a lot more cognizant of where it is that the energy I use—not just in a fossil fuel sense, but in a food sense and in a day-to-day way—comes from. It’s a way of imagining yourself as part of an ecosystem rather than something that floats above it. The food that we eat—and the other kinds of fuel that we use—is really what pulls us back down with the rest of life on the planet.

CM: You mention the beginning of commercial whaling in the 1840s, and you write, “What made the 1840s distinct in Beringia was thus not change, but new agents of transformation. The foreigners who arrived with their proliferation of ideas merely followed up other people who had used the same area for resources. From whalers killing for the market to bureaucrats trying to make borders between states to young Bolshevik evangelists promising utopia, foreigners came to Beringia with habits of minds born far away. They came as I had, familiar with temperate agricultural bounties and the industrial capacity to take the energy in things—trees, coal, and oil—and turn it into propulsion and power.”

Do the people of Beringia, then have a fear of outsiders? Is there always a fear of others coming to exploit the resources in their area and trying to change their culture as well as their relationship with nature?

BD: That’s a good question. I don’t think fear is quite the right word, but there’s certainly a sense of measured distrust of people coming in with a lot of promises—we’re going to come take your whales or your oil (or whatever is in vogue in the particular century at hand), and alongside that resource exploitation comes that idea that we’re going to make things better, we’re going to bring more technology or more bounty or something like that. It often doesn’t work out that way here, as is true in many parts of the world that are on the producing end of capitalism rather than on the consuming end of it.

People have a pretty healthy skepticism of the utopian promises that often come with boom-bust energy economics. Every time an oil company comes into town and says, “We’re going to make these many jobs and we’re going to build this infrastructure for you,” and then a couple years later it goes bust because the oil well wasn’t great—that kind of cycle is something that people in the Arctic and in Beringia are very familiar with.

CM: You write about what Beringia made of capitalism and socialism, and “how modernity operates without the caloric ease of agriculture and industry.” What do you mean by modernity operating without the caloric ease of agriculture and industry? And what impact does that have on any system, capitalism or socialism?

BD: One of the things that really fascinated me about this region is that it does not have the two basic things that most modern economies assume are going to be the basis of production: agriculture and the capacity to have lots of industrial development. It was particularly striking to me because I was trained as a Russia historian—you read lots of Marx as a Russia historian so that you can get into the Russian revolution and the ideas behind it. And of course, for Marx the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution are critical threshold points for human history—the trajectory of human history that separates itself from nature and therefore is going to be progress towards utopia.

So I was really curious, when I started graduate school: what do those ideas—and what does a state that is inspired so deeply by Marx—do in a place where you can’t have an agricultural revolution and it’s really difficult to make industry work on the scales and models that were so core to the Soviet system?

Of course the same is quite true on the American side. It’s still cold, so you can’t have agriculture, which is of course a key piece of American settler colonialism—it’s how you inspire white settlers to come expropriate land from indigenous peoples and turn it into something that’s recognizable to the state as a productive space. That doesn’t really work in Alaska, and it certainly doesn’t work in northwestern Alaska. And industry has the same challenges in the north everywhere.

So I was really curious what happens when these two ideologies, which really imagine themselves as liberating people from natural constraints, come to a place where the formative, critical pieces of that just don’t work as well.

CM: You write, “From their ubiquity, Chukchi, Iñupiat, and Yupik wove ravens into their narratives of origin. The birds are both tricksters and saviors, using their wits to fetch earth for drowning people, to cast away the spirits that torment reindeer, or to kill a great whale to make land. The people in Point Hope have a story about a raven that covets a skin ball hoarded underground by a night-loving peregrine falcon. The ball holds the whole life-giving sun. Raven’s plot is to free the light in order to make a new world, a better world for human beings. Liberating energy is the cause of human transformation in a story first told long before its tellers met a metal oil lamp, let alone an internal combustion engine.”

How would you compare that new and better world the raven brings to the new and better utopias that capitalism and socialism promised?

BD: That’s a really great moment to pull out of the book. What I found really interesting about the parable of the raven—and there are versions of it all across Beringia, so I’m kind of flattening it here into one telling—is that at the end, Raven does get the ball of light, but also realizes that the world doesn’t work well unless there’s also darkness. So he doesn’t completely take the sun. He realizes that there needs to be this back and forth with the light and the need for a dark season—you need winter; you need death. It’s an acknowledgment that death is a critical part of what life is.

One of the things that I realized as I was doing the research for this book and looking at the ways both American-style capitalism and Soviet-style communism come to inhabit the Bering strait is that much of those ideologies are about ignoring or covering over or allowing people to not deal with death. Many of the resources I talk about in this book come from animals—whales, walruses, reindeer—and in order to get those resources you have to kill an animal. In the raven parable, that fact is never forgotten. The reliance on the deaths of other beings in order to make your own self and your own society is never out of view.

There’s a way in which both capitalism and communism have a tendency to want to forget that. They want to imagine that we can escape death, that we don’t have to deal with that kind of cyclical natural process that of course remains inevitable.

There’s a liberation in saying we don’t need as many consumer choices, we don’t need to be constantly driven by consumption. There’s a capacity to create societies with different values.

In the capitalist case, the processes of commodification are where that is the clearest. It’s very possible to live in the United States now and not have any contact with any of the organisms that you rely on actually dying. You’re not watching the harvest of the plants, you’re not watching the animals you eat (if you eat meat) die. There is this illusion, this lived feeling that you’re not participating in the deaths of anything, and you certainly don’t have to watch the immiseration of peoples elsewhere in the world whose labor is often going into the products that you consume, because you’re at such a distance from it.

In the Arctic, even today, there’s a proximity to those basic life-and-death choices, and the reliance on the deaths of others remains really clear.

CM: You tell the story of watching a whale being gutted, and one of the men gutting the whale tells you that the whale had chosen to be killed, because he had come up alongside the harpooner in the boat.

You write, “A year before, people told me the same thing about a bowhead whale on Saint Lawrence Island. In less explicit terms, this was how I learned to hunt caribou on the Gwitchin tundra. You live here by never boasting about the number of animals that died, and by giving meat to people without any. You live here without offending the beings that make your life possible. You live here because others’ lives give themselves to you. To articulate the act of consumption, of taking energy, this way is not romantic. It’s a political assertion: the politics of the gift, like all politics, are a vision of time.”

What do you mean by all politics being a vision of time? I find that to be a fascinating concept.

BD: I mean a couple of things by that. One is that most politics, and the ways we form our struggles over things, are about visions of the future. They are about what kind of world it is that we want to make for ourselves in the near future, and for our children and grandchildren in a longer trajectory. But also, politics are usually drawing on something in the past in order to articulate that. Conservative politics draw on a particular strand of the past to imagine a particular kind of future; more liberal politics are often drawing on the idea of escaping aspects of the past that we imagine ourselves as able to overcome and be liberated from.

When I talked to people about the ways hunting works for many indigenous peoples in the Arctic—it’s still taking place within rules and traditions that come from outside either capitalist or communist politics—many people tended to say I was just romanticizing what people up here are doing. But thinking about hunting as a reciprocal relationship actually makes it its own kind of politics. When people say an animal “gave” itself (or versions of that), what they are articulating is: “I’m imagining a world in which today this animal gives itself and tomorrow I’m going to be asked to give something back in some form.” That is its own kind of political assertion. It is imagining a future in which you’re not always the person who is taking, or the being who is the taker.

Politics have a lot of different forms, and the ways people choose to communicate them and practice them can be really different.

CM: You write, “Imagining another politics, one not so covetous of all energy and so bent on the fictions of enclosure, one not so blind to our place in the family of things, might be a start. We can still wager on the world we wish to compose.”

That made me think about the Green New Deal, and how the Green New Deal is based a lot on new technologies that will have to be created or resources that will have to be used to update the infrastructure. More than anything, do we need a less covetous, less energy-consuming politics? And to what degree does the Green New Deal embrace a less energy-consuming politics, when it would seem that it would have to consume a lot of energy in order to reach many of its goals?

BD: That’s a good question. Of course, the Green New Deal at this point is a set of principles rather than specific plans, and it will take having a president who wants to carry it out to get to the planning stage. But one of the things that I hope to do as a historian is show that people all around the world (and in my case, around the Arctic, since that’s the part of the world I know best) have lived incredibly rich, meaningful lives, with very different energy-consumption profiles than the one that a middle class American takes for granted.

It’s not saying that we have to give up the things that make life enjoyable, that make it really truly rich, the things that you want to get up and do in the morning, in order to decrease our carbon consumption. People have done that for thousands of years. I don’t mean some romantic return to the past, because we have too many people on the planet to do that. It is going to take a lot of technology. But it also takes the cultural will to say we don’t actually need—or even derive a lot of meaning from—all of the consuming that we do. There’s a liberation in saying we don’t need as many consumer choices, we don’t need to be constantly driven by consumption. There’s a capacity to create societies with different values.

One of the things I find interesting about studying the US and the Soviet Union side by side is that both countries, at various points in their history, have made those kinds of choices, even within systems that are quite covetous of using energy and tend to imagine themselves in very technologically energy-consumptive terms. I don’t think it’s impossible. I do think it takes a lot of work, and it will take some less-cynical people in political power. But I don’t think it’s consigning us to a terrible life in the future to say that we need to use less. I think it’s just a different one.

CM: I cannot thank you enough for being on our show this week, Bathsheba.

BD: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

Featured image: Sunrise above Beringia National Park in Chukotka. Source: Maxim Antipin via the Siberian Times (Twitter)

S I M I L A R:

One response to “Pay Attention: A History, Future, and Politics of Living with the Earth”

  1. […] a wide variety of diverse views. And we were talking about timeliness and timelessness. Last August we spoke with Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. Bathsheba explained how […]

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