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Janet Thomas: To Buy? Or To Be? Therein Lies the Question.

  • Written by Janet Thomas

No island is an island. Especially when there is a ferry service that gets us here. And in the summer, it gets everyone else here, too. Even on its winter schedule. These pandemic times turn everything inside-out and upside down, as well as inconvenient and frustrating. They also open our eyes and hearts to the heartbreaking fragility of it all. And yet I have friends who see nothing but the rage-provoking conspiracy of it all. So, if the isolation is not getting to me, the paranoia is. So, what is an islander to do?

Get outside to the edges of it all. Whether it is the edges of the gravel pit, of American Camp, of San Juan Valley, and of any public shoreline on any of the islands, it is an edge of sanity in insane times. Never has my edgy existence needed its outdoor edges so desperately. Never have I wanted so much to take my conspiracy-ridden friends with me on my island strolls, hikes, and walkabouts. Yes, there is conspiracy going on and always has been. But it is when it defines a human existence that it wins. Paying attention to the natural world--its gifts and it struggles is much more useful than bowing down to the burden of mere humans and their conspiratorial agendas. The deep truth is, “Nature bats last.” And it always will.

As I struggle through the nihilism of these times, I am right with my marine mammal friends, the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. What is true for their exploitation is true for ours: It is all about the money--and has been for far too long. As long as there is something or someone or some place to exploit for money--it shall be done--and done --and done. Until death comes to the doers. And it does, eventually. And it will. And it comes to the rest of us too. The real tragedy is that it comes to the Southern Residents as they are struggling with their own imminent extinction. But then again, so are we.

This became crystal clear to me in November 1999, when the World Trade Organization came to Seattle--and so did thousands of workers from around the world. They came to protest the environmental, economic, and human exploitation that was destroying life on the planet as well as the lives of workers. In researching and writing my book, “The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations,” I interviewed educators, students, environmentalists, union members, theologians, local, regional, and international activists, public officials, private citizens, physicians, feminists, psychologists, and many others. The issues were loud and clear: corporate exploitation was destroying life-on-earth. More than 20 years later, it is more destructive than ever. And it is not just the big corporations that are responsible, it is also private businesses of all shapes and sizes. But nothing is so painful as local “environmental” businesses that are destroying the environment for profit. Herein lies the saddest truth of all.

For the past couple of years, the State of Washington has been attempting to create regulations that will save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. Unfortunately, the simplest solution of all--leave them alone--has been thoroughly disregarded because of economic interests.

I attended the WA State SRKW Task Force meetings throughout 2019. At the table were more than 50 state residents, many representing the interests of the SRKWs, and others their own financial interests. The final near-unanimous decision was to put into action a temporary moratorium on whale-watching of the SRKWs until their extinction was not imminent. For many of us, it was a deep and grateful sigh of relief--that got blown to bits within the next couple of days. Lobbyists from the whale-watching industry attacked the decision and it was removed from the table.

Governor Inslee then asked the Washington Department of Fish &Wildlife to come up with a whale-watch licensing plan that would serve the SRKWs. A citizens advisory committee was established, and the issues were discussed for months. The committee, which included representatives of the whale-watching industry, could not come to unanimous agreement. The result was two recommendations submitted to the committee of scientists. Neither of them called for a moratorium. Instead they competed for the appropriate number of whale-watching boats allowed to watch the SRKWs. So much for saving the SRKWs from extinction.

Fortunately, the preliminary response from the science committee called out the ways in which the citizens’ report did not fully respect the science of it all. Hopefully, their final report to WDFW will represent the survival of the SRKWs over committee members’ financial interests.

Via Zoom, I spent hours watching each of the citizens’ committee meetings. There were too many misleading and exploitative comments to count. One specifically, still rings loudly and ugly in my ears. One of the representatives of the whale-watching industry said that they knew more about the SRKWs than the scientists because they were out on the water and the scientists were not. Unfortunately, public comment was limited to but a few minutes at the end of the day so there was no opportunity to intervene with the truth. The SRKWs live under the water. They have the most complex language of any of the orcas that travel throughout the Salish Sea. Their ability to use their echo-location expertise to communicate, to find available salmon, and to navigate is effectively destroyed by the noise and cavitation impact of surrounding boats. For a whale-watch captain to claim expertise from above-it-all was ludicrous and laughable--if only it was not listened to.

These times of COVID 19, of racism, of the disappearance of Arctic ice, of the sixth extinction, of continuing money-first mentality, of utter lack of respect and reverence for the natural world, carries an agony of grief.

The current New Yorker has an article by Amia Srinivasan, the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. Its title is: “What Have we Done To The Whale?” The underlying headline is: “The creatures once symbolized our efforts to save the planet; now they demonstrate all the ways we have devastated it.”

Even though the Southern Resident orcas are not the specific focus of this current New Yorker article, the underlying realization is spot-on.

“The most prolific whale killers are no longer the whale hunters. They are, instead, the rest of us: creatures of late capitalism whose patterns of consumption make us complicit, however unwittingly or unwillingly, in an unfolding mass biocide.

Future historians will have the task of explaining how our performative love for animals relates to our relentless extermination of them.”

To end with, here are a few other salient paragraphs from the comprehensive article: ‘‘Would we know it, the moment when it became too late; when the oceans ceased to be infinite?” Rebecca Giggs asks in her masterly “Fathoms: The World in the Whale” (Simon & Schuster). She means the moment when the oceans become so disfigured by human activity that, seeing them, we will see only ourselves.”

“Some scientists believe that certain whale languages equal our own in their expressive complexity; the brains of sperm whales are six times larger than ours, and are endowed with more spindle neurons, cells associated with both empathy and speech. Yet no one knows what whales are saying to one another, or what they might be trying to say to us. Noc, a beluga that lived for twenty-two years in captivity as part of a U.S. Navy program, learned to mimic human language so well that one diver mistook Noc’s voice for a colleague’s, and obeyed the whale’s command to get out of the water. A recording of Noc’s voice can be heard online today https://soundcloud.com/smithsonianmag/noc-the-beluga-whale nasal and submerged, but also distinctively like English. (Oooow aaare you-ou-ou-ooooo?) At the very least, it’s a better impression of a human’s voice than a human could do of a whale’s.”

“The whale’s aura lies in its unique synthesis of ineffability and mammality. Whales are enormous and strange. But—in their tight familial bonds, their cultural forms, their incessant chatter—they are also like us. Contained in their mystery is the possibility that they are even more like us than we know: that their inner lives are as sophisticated as our own, perhaps even more so. Indeed, contained in whales is the possibility that the creatures are like humans, only much better: brilliant, gentle, depthful gods of the sea.”


Published in the print edition of the August 24, 2020, New Yorker, with the headline “Belly of the Beast.”

Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 28 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onThursday, 20 August 2020 13:03

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