Stephen Haycox. Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2002. Index. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87071-536-5.
Reviewed by Michael Butt (Dalhousie University)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2004)
This study is the fifth title in general editor William Lang's promising Culture and the Environment in the Pacific West series. Stephen Haycox, author of an earlier study, Alaska: An American Colony, is a professor of history at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and a resident of the city for more than thirty years. So perhaps who better to write a general history about Alaskans and their relationship to the environment?
Frigid Embrace offers a commentary on the relationship between human culture and the natural environment. Haycox's main argument runs roughly as follows. Since the 1880s, the vast majority of non-native Alaskans who arrived in the region did so with one objective: to make money and eventually to leave for more hospitable climates. While working in Alaska, most were willing to embrace the idea of a wilderness, but they resisted becoming wilderness residents. Their transient outlook shaped the dominant culture that emerged in Alaska, which quickly became at one with American culture elsewhere in its approach toward nature. The vast majority of Alaskans (like their contiguous state counterparts) never saw any "intrinsic value" in nature, but instead equated progress with their success in converting nature into commodities through the wholesale despoliation of the landscape and its resources (pp. 30-31). Thus Alaska's staple-based economy, aided and abetted by the dominant exploitative ethos of the majority of non-native Alaskans, has done little to protect Alaskan nature. Instead the in-comers have created a colonial mindset and placed all residents at the mercy of outside political and economic forces. If Alaskans want to gain more control over their own lives they need to understand and rethink their cultural attitudes towards nature, something which tells us much about Alaskans' relations toward the environment, resources and indigenous peoples.
Haycox's seven-chapter Alaskan enterprise begins not with the story of the Alaskan Purchase but rather with the arrival of "wholly extractive" industries such as mining and salmon processing during the winter of 1880-1881. These created the contours of the first "modern economy" in the territory. Mining came after the discovery of gold on Douglas Island, and by 1890 there were six mining communities, including Juneau, Thane, Auk, Treadwell, Douglass, and a native village on the Island. Because the book's main argument is established in the opening pages, by the second chapter Haycox is able to demonstrate its utility through a series of vignettes dealing briefly with the Yukon Gold Rush, then the establishment of the Guggenheim/Morgan Alaska Syndicate's plans to develop coal deposits in the Bering River field (and the government's response with its own rail line), the rise of the Cordova company town, the Harriman expedition of 1899, the early resource feuds between the federal government and the territory, and finally the environmental contributions of Tlingit leader William Paul. In chapter 3 he extends the story into the Depression and World War II, which pulls the region out of a recession into a boom and into the campaign for statehood. Here, Haycox concludes, is further evidence of the dominant culture at work. Alaskans were naive in believing that greater control over their territory would free them from the controls of absentee investors or the interests of the federal government as markets and profits ultimately drove decisions (p. 50).
In Chapter Four, Haycox explains how the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in the late-1950s strengthened the bargaining position of Alaskan natives and he explains how a new national and state environmental movement came into being through organizations such as the Alaska Conservation Society. These groups united in their opposition to potentially disastrous research such as the Atomic Energy Commission's Projects Ploughshare and Chariot. Issues such as the Cold War, conservation and the overriding desire to exploit Alaskan resources ultimately helped pave the way to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which Haycox asserts was "monumental, landmark legislation, perhaps the most generous settlement ever between the federal government and American Natives" (pp. 97-98).
In Chapter Five, Haycox considers the impact of "Big Oil," ANCSA and the push to Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the "golden decade" between 1975 and 1985, the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), and the sometimes good, sometimes bad relationship between Alaska Natives and the corporations operating in the state. In Chapter Six he draws upon his earlier work to explore the events prior to, as well as the consequences of, the Tongass Forest Reform Act of 1990 and the Exxon Valdez spill of March 1989; while in Chapter Seven he argues that the rural/urban gap in Alaska is growing, that natives have been further marginalized despite some efforts to address this issue, and that state budget crunches and oil industry consolidation have come to dominate the social, political and environmental landscape through much of the decade. Of course, throughout this study he also manages to discuss the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
What I liked most about this book was Haycox's ability to compare and contrast the extractive industries which he asserts bear the brunt of responsibility for the environmental damage. With each industry as a case study, Haycox considers the relationship between the federal government, the industry spokespersons and Alaskans (the latter group usually portrayed as state rights advocates and further divided into indigenous and non-indigenous groups). Although there is a conjunction of interests at work, more often the dominant culture assures that resource exploitation wins out over other concerns. For corporations, Haycox asserts, profit was the central story upon which all else hinged. When the Treadwell mines flooded in 1917, the corporation permanently closed its operation, having decided that pumping out and rebuilding would involve substantial losses. The Alaska Syndicate reached the same decision in 1938, when it closed the Kennecott mines, took up the railroad and left town, due to depressed copper prices.
Yet there were also differences among the industries to which Haycox is attuned. The contribution the salmon industry made to the local economy was nowhere near the same level made by the mining companies. The salmon industry had thirty-seven canneries in the territory by the late 1880s and its workers packed some 714,000 cases annually. However, by the 1890s growth of the salmon industry saw overproduction, then consolidation which centered in the Alaska Packers Association who controlled eighty percent of the packing for most of the decade (over a million cases per year by 1900). The salmon industry through the APA was steadfast in its opposition to the early lobby for territorial jurisdiction by Alaskans, believing it would only bring more taxes and greater regulation, and thus was easily demonized by Alaskans. Most Alaskans supported restrictions on the salmon industry but not to the point of favoring driving companies out of business.
In addition to his careful attention to the industries, I enjoyed Haycox's positioning of the federal state. For much of this study the federal government is not portrayed, as many Alaskans would have us believe, as an evil enterprise bent on chipping away at Alaskans' right to manage their own affairs. Nor is it viewed as anti-development. It is simply recognized for what it was, an agency with a different sense of what were the national interests in the territory and state. Until the 1970s, the federal government was a force willing to assist in the "development" of state resources, adopting for the most part a "wise use" philosophy. The examples Haycox offers to make this point are many: for example, the 1896 passage of a law protecting stream mouths above tidewater, the Alaskan Railway, and the White Act of 1924 which established a policy of 50 percent escapement from the fishery. Where the government fell short of its responsibility was that it seldom, if ever, appropriated sufficient funds to enforce its laws in the fishing, mining and, eventually, the oil industry. Furthermore, often lacking the expertise to manage resource development, the government relied upon the information provided by organizations such as the Alaska Packers' Association and Washington lobbyists, the very groups whose activities it was supposed to monitor.
There is also much to challenge in this book. Natives in this study wear many hats but they are probably one of the weaker threads in this storyline, so that by the end of the study I can only name a few. I recognize that this shortfall might have something to do with the availability of sources for the early period and also with the author's obvious desire to maintain an overall balance. Haycox claims that they are ultimately "commodified" by the territories' non-natives as were the whales, walrus, gold and copper, and salmon that the invaders sought. If they were useful then natives were used; if not, they were treated as expendable--threatened, cajoled and intimidated as the dominant U.S. culture towards native Americans elsewhere was replicated in Alaska. This is probably a fair enough statement, but I am not wholly convinced whether Haycox has sustained that argument. This problem is revisited elsewhere in this study as, in general, we learn a great deal more about Alaskans and their relationship with nature at a very macro level, and yet we learn so little about them at the local or intra-state level. The paperback cover has a photograph of a crane piling garbage at a dump site juxtaposed against a mountain peak. This conjures up the feeling of the majesty of nature being disturbed by human waste accompanied by Leo Marx's machine in the garden. What happened to that garbage (as just one example) is never really addressed in this study. Possible differences between labor and capital at nearly all levels and any offerings on gender are also excluded.
To be fair to Haycox, we should revisit the main argument. If there are, at best, small differences between the dominant culture shaping the Alaskan environmental experience and that found in the contiguous states, then surely it might be worthwhile to have explored this claim in greater depth than we find here. One might have even considered briefly the experience of the other non-contiguous state--Hawaii--even if only to suggest that it has more in common with other tropical island cultures and tourist destinations. Other studies have recently explored that state's cultural relationship with nature, as readers of Environmental History may be aware, and have found small differences there as well vis-a-vis the contiguous United States, which only raises a skeptic's brow at some level. Do we at some juncture need a more rigorous modeling standard to compensate for the ambiguities in our present use of the culture/nature paradigm? Are we better served by adopting a model that tends to slide very close into making capitalism and culture synonymous and indistinguishable?
These are minor criticisms, questions raised by this book that I believe provide a basis for future work. In less than 175 pages (sadly without footnotes and a list of acronyms) this book accomplishes the seemingly impossible: a remarkably solid sweep of 125 years of Alaskan environmental history. It is a book that deserves a reading especially for its synthetic quality and others will find it useful for comparative purposes. The Bush administration's present drive to roll back environmental protection in the interests of national security and to open up the ANWR indeed makes it time to reflect more about the Alaskan environment and what Haycox has produced here is likely the best entry point.
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Michael Butt. Review of Haycox, Stephen, Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.