Let’s Stop Making Earth Day About Us: Whales Can Show Us How

April 21, 2016 Laura Bridgeman

Earth Day is an important day filled with good intentions. However, the time has come for this day, the environmental movement, and the way we perceive ourselves and “nature” to evolve. We cannot continue to save “our” planet for human well-being alone. We cannot continue to be concerned solely for our species’ future generations. It is this way of thinking that has brought us to the precipice of environmental collapse.

Recently, there have been many calls for a paradigm shift. But such proposals are lacking a vital element: a challenge to and rethinking of the western, eurocentric culture that holds notions of anthropocentrism at its core. This culture centers the interests and experiences of people (and in particular, white people) at the expense of both human and nonhuman “others”. This is what must change.

It was the whales who made some of the first major contributions to the climate change we are faced with today.

To help us accomplish this evolution, we ought to look to those who helped ignite the environmental movement in the first place – the whales. Their troubled past shows us how we have erred, and their continued friendly overtures towards our kind offers valuable insights into how we might shape the future differently.

It was the whales who made some of the first major contributions to the climate change we are faced with today. It was their bodies, targeted by the world’s original oil barons, that fueled the cities and industries of the day. It was their nations that fell prey to the largest and cruelest slaughter of “wild” animals in recorded history: during the last roughly 150 years alone, some 3 million were killed.

It was also during this time that they became a catalyzing force for the environmental movement and western culture’s dawning sense of wrongdoing. In 1970, the year Earth Day was founded, Songs of the Humpback Whale was released and went on to become the best-selling nature album in history. It first exposed westernized people to the notion that there was something more to whales than being giant swimming vessels of oil. Nearly fifteen years after the release of the album, the global whaling moratorium was enacted and holds to this day, the fight for which traces western culture’s initial grappling with the concept of protecting a species for the species’ benefit, as opposed to that of human or economic.

Yet today, thirty years after the moratorium was mandated, we find that little has changed. While commercial hunting has all but ended (save for a few countries), the moratorium still allows for whales to be considered as resources. It does not dismantle the whaling industry – in fact, it legitimizes it. Whales, like all other animals, remain legal property, and do not have the legal rights to their own lives.

This is because the environmental movement has failed to adequately address anthropocentrism: the notion that humans are the most important aspect of existence, and that all of “nature” is separate and not worthy of moral consideration. This is why we continue to think of whales, and “nature”, as being designed for human consumption.

Western culture is uniquely self-centered, and our systematic exclusion of other animals and “nature” from the realm of significance is a form of violence.

It might be tempting to imagine that anthropocentrism is simply a facet of the human condition, however this is not necessarily true. Anthropologist Philippe Descola notes that “the modern west’s way of representing nature is by no means widely shared… plants and animals, rivers and rocks, meteors and the seasons do not exist all together in an ontological niche defined by the absence of human beings”. Western culture is uniquely self-centered, and our systematic exclusion of other animals and “nature” from the realm of significance is a form of violence, meted out in myriad ways. We will not be able to resolve any of the current and impending disasters we have set into motion without first turning our gaze away from our collective navel.

Fortunately, there are ways that we can begin to do this. We can recognize and respect the fact that whales, and indeed, all other animals, are entitled to their lives just as we are entitled to ours. We can acknowledge that they have perspectives that matter, and that these deserve to be taken into account.

We can also begin relating differently to other animals. We can shed our conditioning that tells us we are inherently superior and begin meeting others from a more equal footing. There are certain free-ranging whales and dolphins, known as solitary sociable cetaceans, who can show us how to enter into relations with other animals that are not based on human domination or persuasion. Sociable cetaceans choose to approach humans and engage with us in surprising and compelling ways, sometimes forming relationships that span decades. These individuals present important opportunities to explore alternative ways of relating to “wild” animals, especially since these explorations are on the cetaceans own terms.

Now that we have identified a root cause of oppression and suffering worldwide – the anthropocentrism within western culture – we can begin to dismantle our cultural conditioning that has affected each of us throughout our lives. This can be a challenging and gradual process, but it can also be a journey of the most beautiful kind. When we learn how to relate differently to other animals, a new world unfolds before us – a world that western culture has hidden from our view for far too long. So on this Earth Day 2016, let’s begin pulling back the curtain.

Photo credit Scott Portelli.