Bathsheba Demuth: Environmental Historian


This episode of is on Conservation I spoke with author and environmental historian Bethsheba. Demuth Demuth is an assistant professor at Brown University who specializes in the intersection between humans. Ecosystems ideas in history the work that I do as an environmental historian is broadly focused on the North American and Russian Arctic and particularly the relationships between people and animals and people in Ecosystems. More broadly over the past two hundred years or so. We talked over. Skype demuth was in fairbanks as the professor was performing research for her new book. Her first book is titled Floating Coast and Environmental History of the Bering Straits. Npr called it. A quote deeply studied deeply felt book that lays out a devastating complex history of change notes. What faces us now and dares us to imagine better in quote as we proceed and get into this interview. I will note that I spoke with Professor Demuth while she was at the university library so it can be a little loud in the background at times. It's a busy place. I can promise you however that this will be one of the most compelling and interesting accounts of the history of whaling that you had ever you look so cold yes. It's a little chilly up here. What's the what's the weather like right? Now it's actually a pretty Balmy day today. It's about twenty degrees. It was about fifty degrees colder here last week. You've you've draw the line pretty much anything around ten. Just can't do it for me of all the things that makes this whole conversation. That much more interesting demuth was actually drawn to the Arctic in her young adult life and even lived in the Yukon for two years. And yes doing all the things that you're imagining right now tracking bears hunting. Caribou FISHING SALMON. And yes even. Husky Mushin Dog sledding and no. I'm not making that up. She's that for real your your first journeys out there. If I understand right was your running dog sled yes so when I was eighteen I decided to take a gap year as we. Now call them although they weren't really called then And went to a little community north of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon territory to be a dog handler which is basically an apprentice to somebody who has a dog team and I knew nothing about sled dogs. When I moved up there I was eighteen so I thought I knew something about things but I really didn't. And that was my first introduction to the Arctic. Okay and how long you said you do that for two years. Yes do you. Do you still remember how to do it? I mean I. It's kind of like riding a bicycle except in this particular case. You're working with dogs so you can remember how to do the physical pieces of it but you also need to have a relationship with animals. You're working with so. I'm sure that if I had a team and I spent a lot of time with them would would all come back because I would be making that relationship with dogs but I'd like a bicycle. You can't just grab one and go right right. Yeah that makes sense You don't have to get to know your bike. I right I probably ended up working appear because my dad read me too much Jack London when I was a kid. So there's definitely a literary connection in there now. I could do a really poor job of basically giving it a synopsis of the Book. Or I'm sure it would be much more articulate coming from you Tell us a little bit more about the Soviet whaling And more specifically what you found so fascinating a about that topic. Yes the book that I published. Just this past fall called floating coast looks at basically the the past two hundred years or so along the Bering Strait both the Russian Arctic and in the US Arctic. It's a it's a two country history but because it's an environmental history in some ways it's a history of no country because it's looking at processes an an animals that don't really matched onto nation state borders and the the the project is kind book ended no Pun intended by could have two episodes of large scale whaling the first one being in the nineteenth century for market whalers capitalist wailers most of them coming from New England in fact some of them from where I now live in Providence. Who were coming up to kill bowhead. Whales for oil for lamp oil mostly and then the book closes with a couple of chapters about Soviet whaling in the twentieth century. Which in many ways is just the socialist analog to the to the capitalist wailing in that it is Quite excessive it kills whales far outside their capacity to to reproduce. And keep keep up with the demand and those kind of frames of the book in some ways. Show the things that I found really interesting about this part of the world as a historian. Who's interested in the ways that people's ideas influence the environments? They live in and vice versa. Which is that. It's a it's a place that has a very similar ecology on both sides of the Bering Strait. If you drop down on the peninsula or the seward Peninsula Chukchi Peninsulas in Russia and the seward Peninsula's in Alaska. He can't really tell one from the other right. And let's you know the place extremely well. Because the the flora and the fauna in geology are really comparable but of course in the twentieth century. It gets split by these two big economic ideologies that imagine each other in opposition. Which is you know. Capitalism and socialism. So it's kind of a natural experiment to see how these two ways of managing environments in some sense that the Soviet Union the United States brought with them interact with Arctic species and in the case of Wales they do it very similarly which is more or less trying to kill everywhere they possibly can ya. It's like it's kind of shocking especially when you talk about like as a concern of how many whales are being impacted or what that's doing to the ecosystem comes up that the answer kind of always came back to will. Don't worry. Technology will save us from. That will deliver a positive outcome. Okay can you elaborate on that? Yes this was one of the really interesting commonalities I found between two groups of whalers who were operating hundred years apart from each other or more and in two extremely different cultural and economic contexts is at the end of nineteenth century moby. Dick STYLE TALL SHIP. Whalers call me. Ishmael an ordinary seaman before the mast on the good ship check. What found out a man on Christmas Day of the year? Eighteen forty four on a thousand days. Voight very aware that when they entered a new population of Wales and a piece of the ocean that they hadn't been hunting in before that they would they called. Wailing it out or fishing it out that they would kill off an enormous number of the animals that were that were available locally and that they were doing this and getting further and further from home. So they're aware and using the word extinction by the end of the nineteenth century but at the same time as they're talking about extinction they're basically saying well if we put in place some technological Improvements if our ships get faster. If we're more able to navigate around the sea ice will be able to still catch these whales and there was this kind of belief that because Wales were really intelligent. And all of the whalers nudists and talk about this in detail that there were more whales. They were just shy or had gotten smart and were hiding in new places. So there's actually a couple of lines in Moby Dick Melville talks about you know the whales are just hiding behind the Arctic Sea ice and then after the Second World War the Soviet Union sort of follows the same pattern in that they have very sophisticated marine biology by that point in many ways the the research that so the marine biologist or doing is ahead of what's happening in the United States particularly when it comes to studying ways that whales are social animals and able to communicate vocally with each other They're they're way ahead of what's happening in English. Speaking Countries but at the same time as an aware that that the populations of wheels are dropping but at the same time. They're convinced that as long as they just kind of keep putting more technology online. They're going to be able to keep killing

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