In the Belly of the Whale?

Can I tell you about my secret fantasy life? Sometimes I make sure no one’s around, draw the curtains, go to my room, and begin to pretend the problems we face are merely technical. The destruction caused by industrial civilization is merely an unfortunate and accidental by-product of our way of living: if we’re just smart enough we can figure out how to have televisions, jetskis, and tomatoes in January, without having deforestation, fishless oceans, and carcinogens in every stream in the industrialized parts of the world.

In these reveries it’s all so simple. Right now the governments of the world subsidize the world’s commercial fishing fleets by more than the actual value of fish caught, which means if you pay taxes, you’re paying to vacuum oceans. Lying alone in bed in my darkened room, the solution seems so easy: just divert the subsidies. The same holds true for deforestation, almost none of which makes sense even on a purely fiscal level: governments give our money to big timber corporations so they can cut down forests already harmed by logging. How’s this for an easy solution? Pay the same timber corporations to reforest: that way we don’t even have to fight their lobbyists. The greedy CEOs and shareholders will still make lots of (public) money, but at least the forests won’t be destroyed. In these reveries, it’s great fun to find similar solutions for other problems: to slow global warming, for example, we cut back on burning oil and work to reforest. And don’t even get me started on the military.

But these fantasies are just that. The problems aren’t technical, the destruction not accidental. Instead the destruction is primary. Nazi killing of Jews, Roma, Slavs, Russians, homosexuals, anarchists, was not an unfortunate by-product of Nazi policies, but instead the point of the policies. Similarly, the dispossession and murder of American Indians was not a sidebar of Manifest Destiny—“incidental take,” to use the jargon often used now to describe the killing of endangered species by the systematic destruction of their habitat—but the central point. Why is it so easy to at least sometimes see the historical atrocities for what they are, yet when it comes to similar activities today we so often take the claims of the perpetrators at face value?

Just two days ago whalers in Iceland resumed slaughtering whales. Their stated reason was to assess the effects of whales on cod fisheries: recovery of whale populations could, they say, threaten the profitability of Iceland’s fishing industry. As the country’s whaling commissioner Stefan Asmundsson puts it, “It’s obvious to anyone that whales are very big animals and they eat a lot—a lot of fish. Precisely the effect they are having on fish stocks around Iceland, we don’t know. We need better data.” They plan on cutting open whales’ stomachs to see how many fish they’ve eaten. Whale meat not used by scientists in the “research program” will be sold commercially in Iceland, mainly to high-end restaurants.

The arguments are stupid—How do these people think cod flourished forever in the face of whales without the help of friendly industrial whalers and fishermen?—but logic doesn’t matter. Logic wouldn’t have mattered to Hitler: “Excuse me, Adolph, can you explain to me again precisely how the Jews sap the vitality of the Aryan ‘race?’” It did not matter to those who stole land from the Indians, nor to those who continue to steal it from the indigenous. It does not matter to those who deforest. It does not matter to those who are otherwise killing the planet: Who’s the idiot who came up with the idea of poisoning our own food? How logical is it to toxify the totality of our environment? How smart is it to blithely alter the planet’s climate?

Here is what we know: Two hundred years of commercial whaling have reduced whale numbers by ninety-nine percent. Right now, after a seventeen-year respite from whaling, the population of humpback whales in the north Atlantic has rebounded from about 3000 to 10,000. That sounds great until you realize that prior to the arrival of industrial civilization, their local population was about 240,000. Other species have been similarly hammered. Minke whales—the whales the crews from Iceland are killing as you read this—have declined by at least fifty percent.

Here is what else we know: if the scientists in Iceland want to discover why fisheries are collapsing, they need only look in the mirror. The killing of the oceans has gotten extreme enough that even the corporate press is forced to acknowledge it (albeit on page A13 (and taking up about one-fourth of the page, with the rest devoted to an ad for the new PCS Vision™ Picture Phone with BUILT-IN Camera): “Industrial fishing practices have decimated every one of the world’s biggest and most economically important species of fish. . . . Fully 90 percent of each of the world’s large ocean species, including cod, halibut, tuna, swordfish, and marlin, have disappeared from the world’s oceans in recent decades. . . . [F]ishing has become so efficient that it typically takes just 15 years to remove 80 percent or more of any species unlucky enough to become the focus of a fleet’s attention.”

I read this to my friends, who responded as one: “I thought we knew this already.”

We know lots of things already. We know that we are members of a culture that is hell-bent on destroying the planet, and we know that we are members of probably the last generation who will share this planet with living forests, living rivers, living oceans. We know that the problems we face are not and have never arisen from a lack of accounting methodologies or industrial know-how (knowing how many fish the murdered Minkes ate will not save the cod); the problems are denial, recalcitrance, and apathy. The solutions aren’t technical, but political. The solutions aren’t even political but social. The solutions aren’t even social but psychological. The solutions aren’t even psychological but perceptual. The solutions aren’t even perceptual but spiritual. The problem is our entire way of living and relating to the world.

Nonetheless we can trot out our technical solutions. They are, to be sure, better than nothing. We can boycott products from Iceland, and boycott the country itself. And while we’re at it, we can boycott Norway and Japan, too, since they, too, slaughter whales, although I have to admit I don’t hear many calls for boycotts of Japan. Could that be because Japanese is a more important trade partner than Iceland? No, that couldn’t be it at all.

What do we want? Do we want a world with smaller clearcuts, reductions of whale and fish populations by seventy and not ninety percent? A world where only 90 percent of the ice caps disappear and not all of them? A world where only 90 percent of all streams are contaminated with carcinogens and not all of them?

I cannot speak for you, but that is not enough for me. I do not want to live in a world being killed. I want to live in the vibrant fecund world that is our birthright, and that was the shared human (and nonhuman) experience prior to the arrival of our deathly culture.

If we are going to bear witness to the destruction of this beautiful planet that is our home, the least we can do is be honest with ourselves. We can for a start transform our fantasies from technical solutions that are not only inevitably insufficient but also flawed in their premise—the destruction is not and has never been rational, and is therefore not amenable to rational solutions—and start dreaming about stopping the destruction altogether. We can start dreaming about removing all of these barriers—perceptual, political, infrastructural—to living sustainably. We can start dreaming about doing the necessary work of physically stopping the perpetrators of the atrocities that characterize industrial civilization, and we can start dreaming about dismantling civilization itself. We can start dreaming about a day when we have begun a return to the land-based—and sane—way of life that has been our birthright from the beginning. Once we’ve begun to see and articulate a vision of what we do and don’t want in our lives, we can get the fuck out of our self-imposed exile in our tiny boxes with our drawn curtains that keep us from seeing the very real world around us, we can stop masturbating, and we can start the real work of actualizing these dreams of living in a world not being killed before our eyes.

Originally published in the October 2003 issue of The Ecologist

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