The Moment of Truth — September 8, 2007

Watch That Whale

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SAPPORO — Eco-tourists on a whale-watching vessel, looking forward to observing the mighty creatures in their natural habitat, were instead greeted by the sight of a harpooned whale being dragged in by a Japanese whaling vessel on Friday.

This is a graphic example of industries in conflict: the ecotourism industry, which derives its profits by bringing people into contact with the natural world, in the hope that by associating “natural world” and “profit” it might become desirable from a profit standpoint to continue to have a natural world; and the whaling industry, which seeks to take advantage of the population of whales that was replenished by the ban on whaling—and profit from it by destroying the population of whales. The whaling industry lobbied hard to overturn the ban because it had worked so well, and the abundant spouting of those delicious whales was just too tempting for Japanese capitalists who felt they could easily convince the public it was starved for whale meat.

When you live in a country where people say, “The whales have made a comeback. We must eat them now,” you might want to think twice before taking people whale-watching. Now, it’s probably good, from a certain standpoint, that the ecotourists saw the brutal act, because they got a more realistic sense of the whale’s lifestyle, and maybe it’ll anger some of them to do something about it.

But you can’t in good conscience take people out whale-watching if you know they might see a whale get slaughtered by a harpoon shot from a cannon. I’m not saying the ecotourism company should have known better from the get-go, I’m saying from now on, despite the fact that being hunted is a sickening but real part of the life of a whale, this ecotourism company, if it can stay in business at all, is probably going to try to avoid such a collision of esthetics in the future.

Because once you start signing up people to go out and watch whales get killed, you’re Greenpeace. A person who likes whales enough to want to watch them despite the possibility they may witness the hunting and killing of a whale will eventually want to stop the hunting and killing of whales. I mean, you can’t just sit there and watch the whales get killed, right?

Greenpeace and other environmental activist organizations are the reason there are enough whales now for the Japanese capitalists to want to hunt them again anyway. So it’s a vicious circle: Whales are hunted to near extinction, Greenpeace saves the whales, which creates a demand to watch whales and a supply of whales to watch. Watching whales makes some Japanese people hungry, which creates a demand to restart the whaling industry, which creates a bloody spectacle, which in turn provokes the re-emergence of Greenpeace.

All of which goes to show that humans protecting animals from extinction is just as natural a part of the cycle of life as humans killing animals until they’re extinct. Yes, animals kill and eat each other in the natural world—that’s always the ethical justification for hunting anything and everything we can get a hook, bullet or pointy stick in or a net, noose, cage or spring-loaded clamp around. But the revulsion felt by those ecotourists on seeing the slaughter of a whale they’d come out to appreciate for its awe-inspiring beauty was not an artificial reaction, and had it not been for that kind of revulsion there wouldn’t even be a Japanese whaling industry today to revolt people.

It would be nice if it were merely a question of priorities. Which do I want more? To be inspired by the beauty of whales? Or to turn them into a revolting bloody mess to be smashed into little cans?

But it’s not just a question of priorities. We’re collectively indoctrinated into a system of fear—fear of poverty. So our priority first and foremost is survival. Why a species that can put a robot on Mars can’t alleviate the fear of privation from among its members is a mystery. Even the whales are mystified by it. We’ve told ourselves this story for so long: ideals and beauty being nice, but they don’t put food on the table. Are we really still so primitive that we can’t jibe our esthetic ideals with the maintenance of our wealth?

Because surely not everyone working on Japanese whaler hates whales, right? Many of them are suppressing their revulsion in order to put food on the table. That must be it. It’s not a boatload of vicious whale-haters. It’s a boatload of men and women afraid of unemployment in a Japan that has betrayed the devotion of its workforce, a Japan in which death from overwork is a huge problem, and widespread introversion, youth crime and suicide are the results of a loss of faith in the promised affluence that was only ever available to a few, in any case; only for the few who could survive the school class rankings, the tests, the grueling hours, hyper-intense competition, and still have enough energy to muster ass-kissing loyalty to something as faithless as a capitalist enterprise.

Here’s a culture that gave the world Zen Buddhism, calligraphic art, sushi, and the bonsai tree—all endeavors intended to enrich the soul. Yet the same culture has demanded its people turn away from that enrichment, march in lockstep whether to war or to work, and trample their souls underfoot.

The USA only differs in the arrangement of its parts and props; the drama of conflicting esthetics is the same. A nation of rebels—Ketel One drinkers swimming against the tide, or whatever the ads say—nevertheless demands obedience and conformity the moment fear enters the equation.

Even Western Europe, with its ideal of a well-distributed leisure, and a society whose progress is at least in theory intended to be enjoyed by all, sputters into chauvinism and fear-based austerity, beginning with demands that its poorest and most hard-working surrender their living standards first, for the sake of corporate competitiveness. Luckily, European workers tend to mistrust the motives of capitalists. Unfortunately, they’re not as good at resisting calls to persecute the Outsider.

And in places of deep ethnic violence, like Darfur, scarcity is amplified to the point where people can be coaxed to butcher each other without even the promise of anything remotely like affluence.

If whales were into human-watching, would they watch even while we butchered each other? When whales watch whale-watchers, are they inspired? Does it make up for having to beware the harpoons of the Japanese? Do whales have hope for the human species?

Do we have hope for ourselves, when the closest thing to collective social progress we’ve made as a species is that obesity has become a bigger worldwide problem than malnutrition? Does that bode good? Bad? Bad/good? Good/bad? Can we say we’re maybe breaking even?

Are we simply born to suffer, while the sparks ascend, as Judeo-Christian mythology tells us? Is Earth always to be a zone of battle between idealism and panicked butchery? Are the great mass of people cosmically destined to struggle to keep their heads above water because we misbehaved in Eden?

Is Eden the only place anyone will ever be able to go whale-watching without worrying about an esthetic collision with capitalist necessity?

Maybe we who harp on beauty can harp on the beauty of the world, over and over, enough to make it a priority that transcends religious, government and corporate fear-mongering. As long as people watch whales, no matter what, there’s always a chance. Even though bloodshed is part of the world, don’t look away.

Perhaps we can take solace in the thought that, even if the Japanese do manage to eat every single whale, we as a species will probably be obese enough by then to all jump in the ocean and fill the ecological niche left by these glorious mammals.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!