Empire of Extinction

Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea

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Ryan Tucker Jones, c, 1741–1867. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 296 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Hutcheson

Ryan Tucker Jones’s excellent book, Empire of Extinction, brings to light the under-realized importance of the “strange beasts of the sea”—Steller’s Sea Cow, sea otters, fur seals, and sea lions—to Western conceptions of nature by tracing the Russian imperial experience in the North Pacific. By comparing the tensions between the conceptions and realities of imperial expansion on ecosystems, Jones accomplishes three objectives: (1) he shows that ecological degradation at the hands of humans occurred prior to the industrial revolution, (2) he expands the geographic reach of Richard Grove’s thesis that changes in European understandings of nature were based on colonial experience, and (3) he shows that naturalists had a complex and dynamic relationship with empire, acting as both accessories and critics of economically driven imperial practices. Furthermore, Jones shows how some Russian imperial practices were simultaneously unique and universal. Western empires produced trauma via barbarity—Russia, for example, hunted the sea cow population to extinction—but also instituted the first colonial conservation policies. In this fascinating combination of imperial and environmental history, Jones illustrates the relevance of both North Pacific marine mammals and the Russian empire to the birth of conservation practices.

Drawing on archival records of imperial efforts, Empire of Extinction utilizes a variety of primary sources. From expedition notes, tax records of fur sales, and naturalist’s notebooks and published writings, the source material is a treasure trove of detail. The text’s six chapters center on various expeditions ordered chronologically, and their resulting lessons of how, or how not, to manage a maritime colony. The chronological ordering is important to illustrate how the extinction of the sea cow, hunted as a food source, and near extinction of fur-bearing mammals inspired self-critical reactions from agents of the Russian empire. Jones’s thorough revival of historic sea otter populations, supported by fur traders’ records of capture, is admirable and exhaustive. For both the reader and the fur trader, the huge population of sea otters is difficult to conceptualize, though their near-demise becomes apparent through Jones’s story. The comparison of local extinctions of sea otters on some islands within the archipelago with the total extinction of the sea cow is an interesting point with which to consider how ideas of global and permanent extinctions occurred.

Jones’s North Pacific focus expands the geographic range of Grove’s thesis on the colonial birth of environmental thought to include Alaska and the North Pacific. The unique and definitively non-tropical landscape plays a starring role in Jones’ argument that the location and fauna of the North Pacific were important to the Russian experience and the lessons of ecological degradation as a result of human activity. Fittingly, the North Pacific region was a cradle of evolutionary forces and “most of the world’s pinnipeds evolved in the area.”(9) Jones’s focus on recreating the landscapes and population numbers for marine mammals helps him to prove the significant role of the region in imperial experience for the empire—the northern landscapes were rich in marine animals but harsh and unforgiving for humans. Due to the austere environment, so full of marine mammals, the naturalists employed by Russia realized the destruction that human actions wreaked on the environment and were quick to criticize imperial policy, resulting in a conception of extinction that preceded Lamarck’s writings on the topic.

Competitive in its land expansion, Russia sought to emulate other European empires through geographical expansion, resource extraction, and knowledge production, yet simultaneously had to rely on non-nationals for scientific duties. Jones illustrates how this unique feature allowed a different type of colonial experience, a critical experience, to emerge from the Russian enterprise. By comparing Chapter Two on North Pacific island ecosystems and Chapter Six on imperial reactions to changing natures, readers can follow how a conservationist ethos emerged from unsustainable ecological management practices through critiques by Russian-employed German naturalists and their experiences in the North Pacific. Due to the unique features of the Russian empire, extinction became a colonial concern much earlier than in other imperial nations.

The historical trajectory of the extinction of the only North Pacific Sirenian, Steller’s sea cow, and near extirpation of sea otters at the hands of Russian fur traders illustrate the interactions between imperial expansion, natural history, and knowledge production. These interactions underlie how imperial practices imagined the global. As a result, Jones’ text would be excellent to use in a globally-focused course on the development of environmental thought or management, evolutionary history, or a comparative course on empire and nature. Specifically, it provides an example of the global connections between natural history and empire (or commerce) not only in the Russian empire but the French and British empires as well. It also emphasizes the role of naturalists and their observations of nature in the creation of universal ideas about the environment and the living things within it. By examining the nature of exchange between Russians and Aleuts, naturalists and empires, Russia and other empires, and naturalists and indigenous peoples, Jones emphasizes the formidable process of exchange. Jones also skillfully considers the naturalists’ conceptions of nature as separate from the ruling empire’s conceptions. This allows the transnational aspect of knowledge production, and the complicated realities of empire, to come through clearly with the text.

In using this book to teach a course with a global focus, one could focus on the different aspects of exchange between parties to explore the characteristics of Russian practices compared to other imperial enterprises. Far from the imperial center, the actors in this Russian empire brought residual ideologies that affected their conceptions of nature and culture and, therefore, informed their actions regarding these things. Jones’s monograph of Russian experience in the North pacific, by looking at this exchange of objects and knowledge, can give insight into imperial assumptions of the global. Does the exchange of knowledge fit into the metropole-periphery conception of the world-system? Or is the global idea produced through worldwide travel? This question of how one imagines or creates the global is an excellent question to pose to a class on global environmental change. Species loss is listed as one of the harbingers of the Anthropocene, and, therefore, a global issue, but just when did it become global? If extinctions can be traced to a specific empire, can they be considered global? Jones’s narrative, with its charismatic cast of mammalian characters, provides an excellent case study with which to interrogate the global through the lens of animals and empire.

In sum, Jones’s text provides a thought-provoking look at the history of imperialism and knowledge production in the name of natural history. By thinking critically about the ways in which the Russian imperial experience sought to exploit or protect the natural resources of the North Pacific Ocean, the reader can examine the effects of combining the goals of natural history and empire and its global ramifications. While Jones’s book does not contain an ecological happy ending, the story of Russia’s interaction with the North Pacific Ocean and its indigenous people brings to the field of environmental history an enlightening historical analysis of the confluence of the Russian empire and the human and non-human animals of the North Pacific.

Syllabus Based on this Book

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