The Walrus and the Bureaucrat: Energy, Ecology, and Making the State in the Russian and American Arctic, 1870–1950

  • Demuth B
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Abstract

This article traces how ecological context shaped the actions and ambitions of the United States and the Soviet Union, through a comparison of their use of the Pacific walrus. Based in the shared environmental context of the Bering Strait, it examines how the two countries implemented opposing ideological projects in the Arctic, expecting to increase production and by doing so make Indigenous peoples into capitalist or socialist citizens. In an environment impossible for agriculture and difficult for industry, walrus-harvesting became one of the few productive options for these ambitions. Between the 1870s and the 1950s, both the U.S. and the USSR experimented with massive harvests of blubber and ivory to feed ideas of economic growth, before adopting mirrored conservation policies. This article argues that the reason stems from the inherently metabolic nature of modern states, which function by ensuring flows of energy through their economies and citizens. In the Bering Strait, that energy came in part from walrus, making environmental management and the economic practices it supported dependent on the species' biological capacities. Not only do modern, growth-oriented states change nature; they function ecologically, emerging from and thus governed by the distributed agency of ecosystems.

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Demuth, B. (2019). The Walrus and the Bureaucrat: Energy, Ecology, and Making the State in the Russian and American Arctic, 1870–1950. The American Historical Review, 124(2), 483–510. https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhz239

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