Thursday, June 15, 2006

The summer of the whales

Summer is rapidly approaching, and I'm making preparations to be spending large chunks of time watching killer whales in the Puget Sound, as I have in the past. For longtime readers, this is not anything particularly new, since I've filed a number of reports from these ventures (see here, here, and here,), not to mention some of my recent reporting work.

But this summer's work will be somewhat different in that it will be more detailed and focused. More to the point, it will be part of a larger shift of this blog into much more frequent discussion of environmental issues -- and particularly whales.

If my previous jaunts have been a little jarring for an audience somewhat accustomed to a focus on right-wing extremism and its various expressions in the mainstream, well, I expect this shift to be more in the way of a tectonic shift. I'll see if I can explain why it's occurring.

It might help to point out that, when I began writing about militias and far-right groups in the 1990s, it was only partly because I had a background in reporting on these groups and their activities in my background as a newspaperman. The larger part -- my chief angle as a freelance journalist -- was that I was an environmental reporter looking at militias specifically as a backlash phenomenon.

It all took on kind of a life of its own, however, especially after Oklahoma City, and that took me more or less to where I am today. It's important to understand why this happened: As I spent more time with the militias, it became clear to me that environmental and land-use policy was only one of many fronts through which they recruited. They also found openings on education, taxes, religious issues like abortion and homosexuality, immigration, and the whole right-wing "culture war" generally.

Much of the reason I've remained focused on the extremist right for these past several years is because they remain such a potent destructive force on so many fronts. This is why, I think, my work is valuable to people dealing with the toxic right in different areas, from the broadly political to scientific, religious, sociological, and civil-rights concerns. It's why I've kept at it.

Much of what has transpired in the past couple of decades to undermine the opposition from the left to this toxicity has been an unfortunate kind of balkanization among progressive factions: environmentalists do their thing, economists theirs, and political activists theirs, and only coincidentally do their interests intersect. I think what's needed is more of a pan-progressivism that unites, through networking and a recognition of mutual interests, the various factions into a potent whole.

A simple way of illustrating the problem is to observe that environmentalists are unusually obtuse about the threat to their interests created by the extremist religious right, and pay it, unfortunately, scant attention, except when they cross immediate paths. But generally, they leave that up to the civil-rights folks to deal with.

Likewise, it's been my observation that serious environmental concerns have mostly been the recipient of lip service from the political activist component of the progressive faction, with scant real action -- until, perhaps, recently, that is.

The growing realization of the real significance of global warming -- thanks in no small part to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth -- is bridging the gap. The political activists are realizing that environmental issues possess a transcendent quality that positively mandates action; and environmentalists, whose Beltway political pull has been on the ropes since 2000, are recognizing the political role they must play as well.

What they all have to confront, I think, is a political environment in which right-wing extremism's influence is mounting, sometimes subtly, but particularly in the knee-jerk rejection of the data on global warming from the mainstream right. Not only are mainstream media propagating nonsensical talking points, and talk-show hosts comparing Al Gore to Hitler, but of course Rush Limbaugh is piling on. Meanwhile, Republican students were hosting a fundraising party celebrating the onset of global warming. Bring it on, dudes!

Global warming is something of a pan-environmental issue itself: it affects air and water-pollution policy, it affects forest-preservation issues, it affects fisheries and marine-life issues -- including, most notably, whaling.

Whales are an especially powerful symbol of the environmental health of the planet, in part because they are simultaneously immense and enormously sentient, not to mention evolutionarily ancient compared to we humans. Global warming depresses and shifts their food sources, and so it affects them quite directly.

But in the case of whales, there are other, more immediate threats to their well-being. Specifically, there is the looming likelihood that the longtime moratorium on whaling by the International Whaling Commission is about to be overturned:
Japan and Norway, two nations that have refused to give up large-scale whaling despite widespread condemnation, are on the cusp of gaining control of the international commission that since 1986 has strictly limited whale hunting in an effort to rebuild the population of the world's largest creatures.

The impending shift, which will be on display when the International Whaling Commission convenes on the island of St. Kitts for its annual meeting June 16, has alarmed environmentalists and officials from countries that oppose commercial whaling, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand. They note that in recent years, Japan has recruited at least 19 countries -- many from West Africa and the Caribbean -- to support more whaling.

"Most Americans think the whales have been saved," said Gregory Wetstone, director of U.S. operations for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group. "These populations cannot sustain the kind of pressure that industrial-scale whaling can bring."

With 66 or so members -- the number shifts depending on which countries show up and pay their dues -- the commission has regulated whaling for more than 50 years. But for the first time, it may be narrowly dominated by countries that support greater whale hunts. Although it would take a three-quarters vote to end the 20-year-old international moratorium, a simple majority could push for actions that could strengthen the hand of whaling nations.

The real leaders in this are the Japanese. As greenboy at Needlenose explains:
The arrogant pricks are already acting as if the ban is already gone as it is, doubling (from last year) their so-called 'scientific' kill of whales while at the same time mocking the rest of the world by serving up the 'tissue samples' at Public Relations gourmet feasts.

One noteworthy aspect of Japanese whaling -- which has been increasing steadily in recent years -- is that its use of the "scientific kill" ruse mirrors, in an ugly fashion, the Republican right's tendency to distort science to support their preferred policies. And of course, one can expect little in the way of substantive American opposition to the Japanese effort to overturn the whaling ban under the Bush administration.

I expect we can look forward to a revival of the Greenpeace-style intervention tactics, which make for great drama but also have a polarizing effect that solidifies the internal political positions of the respective pro-whaling factions.

It's time, I think, to look at other ways of effecting political change beyond media stunts and dramas at sea. One of these is the power of political networking in creating cultural shifts.

It's important to understand that Japan's cultural resistance to the ban whaling, while still strong, has been eroding rapidly in recent years. As Jim Nollman notes in his excellent The Charged Border, whale watching is rapidly growing component of the Japanese tourism industry, and attitudes about whaling are starting to perceptibly change.

When I visited Paul Spong last summer at his OrcaLab on Hanson Island, I noted that three of his volunteers were Japanese. We befriended one of them, who was on her way home after a month on the island, and we gave her a ride south for a ways and chatter her up. I asked her about this, and she said that she believed that attitudes, especially among younger Japanese, about whaling were changing very rapidly.

Maybe, instead of ramming Japanese whale boats, someone should convince Hayao Miyazaki to make a film about whales. It would probably be vastly more effective.

But even more effectively (not to mention realistically) we can begin building networks based on a recognition of our mutual interests. This is true not just with regard to the whaling issue, but environmental issue generally. Those concerned about right-wing politics need to recognize that environmental issues are a central battleground, and environmentalists need to become wise about what they're up against. Where cultural gaps exist, building bridges may prove more effective than smashing hulls.

What we do know is that, if the IWC overturns the moratorium as expected, we can expect to see a return to mass slaughters of whales for sale on the Japanese and Norwegian markets, including any number of endangered species.

Recall, too, that there really is no humane way of killing them, either. Recall the description written by Dr. Harry Lillie, "a ship's physician on an Antarctic whaling trip in the 1940s":
Dr Lillie wrote: "If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck in its stomach and being made to pull a butcher's truck through the streets of London while it pours blood into the gutter, we shall have an idea of the method of killing.

"The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it."

It is the looming threat of the lifting of the moratorium -- and it appears, frankly, to be a fait accompli at this point -- that has spurred me to shift, somewhat, the focus of Orcinus.

The idea isn't so much to stop reporting on the far right as it is to broaden the mission of the blog, in line, really, with my intent for it all along. There will probably be some reportage on right-wing extremism that will get pushed out in the process. Just in the past week, for instance, there have been a number of far-right-related news events that I haven't had time to comment upon: the anti-abortion extremist in the D.C. area arrested in a bomb-building plot; the leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance being arrested on civil-rights charges in Utah; the continuing spread of racial hatemongering associated with the immigration debate.

A large part of the problem is that, even as the evidence of right-wing extremism manifesting itself in the mainstream discourse mounts daily, it's starting to feel as though I'm just repeating myself. How many more ways can I point out, really, that the expansion of the extremist right's influence in the mainstream has had the predictable effect of empowering and emboldening them? (Fortunately, it helps that there are plenty of others out there bomb.html>who are picking up on the themes frequently explored here.)

It's also starting to feel as though the continued focus has become stale; the discussion is a lot less energetic these days, and the links are fewer and farther between. And frankly, it also feels like the focus is being mistaken for an obsession. I know it comes with the territory, but I'm a little tired of being thought of, even if ever so generously, as a bit of a crank.

Obviously, as the far right insinuates itself more and more in the mainstream, I'll continue to report on it, though I'll probably be more selective in how often I point it out. It's too important a trend not to stay on top of.

Still, you should expect to see a lot more reporting here on environmental issues, with a particular emphasis on whales and their plight, and a specific focus on killer whales. A large part of the purpose will be to encourage and implement communications and networking between and among environmental advocates and political activists.

With that in mind, I'd like to introduce you to Cetacean Action-Alert, a new Web site designed to facilitate networking among the various factions of whale activists and researchers, and the larger environmental movement as a whole. I'm hoping to cultivate the interest of the broader progressive community as well, because the issues being discussed, and the networking that's taking place there, have real importance in the broader perspective of combating the right on a broader scale.

I'll be posting at the Action-Alert and picking up news tidbits there. If it's something that interests you, sign up and join in. It's an experiment in the effectiveness of Web-based networking, and I'm hoping that it proves as rewarding as it is promising. [Full disclosure: The site administrator is my sister.]

Also note that I've created a new "Orca links" section to my blogroll.

I'm sure I'll lose some regular readers in this shift, though I'm hoping that most of you are coming not just for the right-wing loonies but the writing, too. I may not always write about topics you're interested in, but I hope, at least, to keep writing interestingly. Hope you all stick around for the ride.

No comments: