When Paul Watson attended the Oceans Forum at COP 21 last November, he shared his reflections in a Facebook post. He heard a fishing industry panelist speak of a “movement of product” in the oceans, presumably referring to the legions of fishes, crustaceans and others who are undertaking mass migrations due to climate change.
The callousness of this term is at once striking and salient, since the language we use is a potent force in shaping our relationship to the world. While some might dismiss it as being industry jargon, the same capitalistic ideology inherent in that term also informs western science – with many articles referring to whales as “biomass” rather than individuals – and our legal system, which still considers cetaceans as property.
Unfortunately, this ideology has also infiltrated Oceans Day. According to it’s website, we should “celebrate” how the oceans “feed us, regulate our climate” and “offer a pharmacopeia of medicines”. Oceans Day wants to “change perspectives” and encourages people to think about “what [the ocean] has to offer all of us” as human beings.
This blatantly anthropocentric messaging shouldn’t be surprising, given that SeaWorld and other corporate users of the oceans are sponsors of Oceans Day. But it is concerning because these companies are actively co-opting the narrative of ocean conservation and shaping the movement into one which values the oceans only for what they can provide to our economies. These businesses require this narrative to continue transforming and selling life in the oceans as “products” to be eaten, or “assets” to be displayed in concrete tanks. By celebrating “all the oceans have to offer” as Oceans Day suggests, we celebrate the wholesale destruction and the ongoing tragedy of the commons that capitalism perpetuates.
Philosopher Walter Benjamin called capitalism a “religion of destruction”. As new evidence emerges – like depression in fishes, and that they can recognize human faces – we can see more clearly that capitalism is not based on, nor much concerned with, these pillars of science and rationality that it claims as its foundation. We begin to see that it is only a belief system – and an outdated one at that. Fortunately, with this understanding comes power, because what we once believed in, we can also believe out of. This is what Oceans Day needs to be about.
Make no mistake – companies like SeaWorld will never invest or sponsor anything that challenges their business model. This is why SeaWorld tends not to fund research into intelligence or emotional capacities of cetaceans, which would further call into question their consideration and treatment as property. If, on the other hand, a humane accolade or certification will put consumer’s concerns at ease, they will pay for that label – and they have. If they can throw money at a global day of awareness that shapes people’s perception of the oceans and reinforces our dominion over them, they will. All of this is in service, always and forever, to their bottom lines.
As the Oceans Day website says, a change of perspective is needed: but one that allows us to re-imagine our relationship to other animals, that removes our anthropocentric bias and that calls into question our unequivocal placement of human desires above those of other animals and “nature”. This can be accomplished in many ways, including a reconfiguration of the language we use when referring to the oceans and life therein. We should reject the fishing industry’s transformation of fishes into product, and SeaWorld’s ownership of “their” whales. The only way we can reverse the damage we are doing is if Oceans Day can be about respecting the oceans for what, and who, they truly are.
Photo credit Chris Grundy.