Pale Creatures

Sleeping alone on a 90 foot fishing boat, moored just off the Costa Rican Pacific coast, Dr. Lori Pye was woken by a dull thud. Getting out of her bunk to investigate, she stumbled on deck and bashed her head against a davit supporting the little motor boat which kept her connected to the mainland. Knocked unconscious, she lay where she had fallen, quite still, until dawn when she became aware that next to her on the cold steel plate was another pale creature: a dead shark, wantonly fished from the ocean, its fins sawed off, and then dumped on deck.

Lori worked with the environmental-action group, Sea Shepherd, when this Godfather-like threat was delivered, presumably by a local poacher enraged by Lori’s work dedicated to the eradication of shark fishing – an activity pursued solely for the profit in preparing the luxury delicacy of shark-fin soup, largely controlled by the Taiwanese. Sea Shepherd subsequently endured an un-happy relationship with the Costa Rican authorities after their intrepid leader, Paul Watson, prematurely attempted the arrest of a long-line shark fishing vessel, the Vadero I, off of Guatemala before taking up Costa Rica’s invitation to help patrol the waters around the Cocos Islands World Heritage site. Watson was arrested when he docked in Puntarenas and charged with endangering the lives of the Vadero I crew. Watson and crew managed to flee the next morning but he has been under indictment ever since and last year was briefly extradited back to Costa Rica to face these decade-old charges.

Lori’s story unfolded in the Administrative offices of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy in a Wild about Ojai talk titled, The Human Ecosystem (January 11, 2014).

Twinned, for a few hours, with a mammal whose consciousness had been brutally ended in asphyxiation while hers had been merely suspended, Lori awoke to an epiphany: that we share our home, the earth, with all other living things in a complex ecosystem that relies, because of human kind’s great ability to do damage to that home and the life-forms within it, on ours species’ collective psychological health - on our understanding of the balance, stewardship and comity required to maintain a healthful relationship with our environment. The well-being of the individual’s psyche can thus be the key to ensuring the outer, physical, health of the planet. After briefly becoming Sea Shepherd’s Director of Operations Lori retreated to the calmer waters of academia to pursue her passion for Ecopsychology, the discipline that addresses these concerns.

 Lori challenged her audience to consider how we might create, as she puts it, “a new narrative for the relationships between nature and human nature”. There are serious structural obstacles in the way of developing such a revised narrative. The foremost barrier to lives lived on the planet in a sustainable relationship - and there are many - is a collective psychological pathology, the transcendent ideology of Capitalism.

This system is entirely dependent on turning natural resources into saleable goods and at this point, as Jerry Mander argues in The Capitalism Papers, Counterpoint Press, 2012, we are engaged in a kind of global, system wide Ponzi-scheme. The collapse of our macro-environmental systems such as the oceans, the atmosphere, rivers and the climate, at least as we know them, seems inevitable faced with the resource pillage necessary to feed the beast, for Capitalism demands not a steady resource diet but one that grows with the expansion of goods and services (the measure of GDP) necessary to ensure ‘the health’ of our economy.

As I pointed out in No Soft Landing, the development of Capitalism as a dominant economic force in the West is coincident with the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels. As such it has thrived over the past three centuries when these resources were plentiful and cheap. Given the finite nature of the world’s mineral resources it is self evident that a system for which growth is imperative will, sooner or later bump up against these limits. Put another way, Capitalism demands the conversion of the living into the dead. Animals, plants, minerals, sunlight and fossilized solar energy are appropriated by the economy at a scale that threatens the very viability of the ecosystem.

The Capitalist bastions are manned by the super-rich. With the possible exception of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age in late nineteenth century America, we have not seen such concentrations of power and wealth as exist today since the European monarchies of the eighteenth century - the excesses of which unleashed a democracy project that continues to unfold. That project, most notably in the United States, has now been captured by the Capitalist oligarchy, through political contributions and lobbying, and subverted to wealth accumulation and the cooption of the public commons to its own ends. Our government now routinely arranges for Corporations and their leaders to escape taxation, receive Government hand-outs and profit obscenely from health care, defense, communications and public works while belt-tightening in the areas of entitlements, education, social services and basic infrastructure is focused exclusively on the 99%.

We are thus faced with a system that is entrenched both economically and politically and supremely adept at the co-option of potentially threatening ideologies such as living in a sustainable relationship with the Earth. In the West, the development of newspapers in the latter half of the nineteenth century enabled the rich to quickly regain control of the recently enfranchised (male) masses. The ability to shape the debate around issues of war and peace remains with the media - still mostly owned by the oligarchy, and still supported, by and large, by purveyors of consumption, advertisers of goods and services blindly driven to an expansion of their markets - and is key to the demagogic control of the public-mind.

Eco-warriors such as Paul Watson operate entirely at the margins or worse, provide fodder for the media industry that perpetuates heedless consumption. Watson’s Whale Wars is into its sixth season on Animal Planet Cable TV which, as VP of ad sales Sharon O’Sullivan gushes to Adweek, November 18, 2013,

“… had all the pet endemics and all the major female packaged-good companies…now we have a really strong proposition against male categories—alcohol, home improvement and the more male-focused end of the movies category.”

Mander, like Naomi Klein (No Soft Landing), believes in a kind of Eco-socialism where corporations would be reconstituted “to harvest private interests to serve the public interest, rather than seek profit”. Perhaps he should try selling that idea on Animal Planet, right between the ads for Gillette’s Venus Embrace Women's Razor and Bud Light.

The history of systemic and radical societal change over the last few hundred years is not pretty, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the French Revolution and moving to the nineteenth to include that first foray into modern industrial warfare, the American Civil War; the twentieth century then offers up the grisly examples of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot, to name only the most egregious actors in the effort to create new social, economic and political paradigms.

The restructuring necessary to accommodate a fundamentally altered relationship between humanity and nature will dwarf all previous efforts at systemic change. Interior psychological remodeling seems like a very attractive alternative but the ‘new narrative’ must necessarily wait on the unraveling of Capitalism. The resolution, for now, may be to initiate a slow, peaceful, pulling of threads.