The news this week that Japan intends resuming “research” whaling in the Antarctic spotlights the concern I raised in my last post. Bluntly stated, the concern is that conversations about climate change and other pressing environmental issues are driven more by political, economic and national self-interest and much less by a valuing of the natural world based on an altruistic love and respect for it. Humanity’s approach to the well-being of nature is largely pragmatic rather than ethical.
As I said, this is a blunt statement of my concern and, as such, does not completely reflect the way things are. Fortunately, the picture is not as black and white as I appear to be painting it.
Looked at in isolation, Japan’s behaviour could be seen as validating my viewpoint. Here is a country, already responsible for killing 3600 minke whales since 2005, setting out to slaughter a further 330, ostensibly for “research” purposes. Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat from the kills will be processed into food. Quite apart from violating a ruling of the International Court of Justice, Japan accuses opponents of its action of being emotional about whales and deniers of “scientific” evidence that supports its position.
But beyond Japan (and indeed to some extent within it), there is outrage about what is about to happen. As Australia’s Minister for Conservation, Greg Hunt said, “We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called ‘scientific research’.” Writing in The Japan Times, Tokyo-based historian Jeff Kingston said Japan’s resumption of whaling flouts the rule of law and would have negative repercussions outweighing any potential upsides for the country’s whaling industry. “Whaling advocates in the Japanese government may think they are justified on cultural and culinary grounds, but they are harpooning ‘Brand Japan’,” he wrote.
The extraordinary thing is that criticisms like these would never have been levelled a matter of a few decades ago. Until the 1930s Australia, along with most other maritime nations, saw whales as an economic resource to be exploited with relative impunity. Between 1822 and 1930, for example, 26,000 southern right whales had been taken in Australian and New Zealand waters. Even as recently as the second half of the 20th century, Australia was still killing sperm whales in their thousands. Not only were whales viewed as a commercial commodity, their harvesting was viewed with pride, a demonstration that humans could dominate some of the world’s largest creatures in the inhospitable environment of the open ocean. The whale was largely perceived as a distant, alien creature, even a malevolent one.
But by the 1980s, attitudes towards the whale were undergoing a profound transformation – described by Stephen Kellert in this way:
Once dominant values based on exploitation, dominion and aversion towards whales had been moderated through much of the developed world. Replacing these sentiments were far more appreciative and sympathetic values, including affection, attraction, intellectual interest, and even the spiritual celebration of the animal. This shift in consciousness toward whales became so pronounced that the animal emerged as an iconic symbol of contemporary conservation, prompting the president of the National Geographic Society in 1976, Gilbert Grosvenor, to remark: “The whale has become a symbol from a new way of thinking about the planet”.
Notice the words (in bold) Kellert uses to describe the transformation in attitudes towards whales. Each refers to a way we humans have evolved to survive and thrive in nature. Each is a way we “attach meaning to and derive benefit from the natural world” – and hence attach values to it.
With Kellert’s detailed picture of how we relate to nature, we are in a much better position to describe that relationship and to appreciate how it can differ from one person to another and how it can change.
The concepts making up Kellert’s picture are:
- affection – seeking both the “companionship” and well-being of nature
- attraction – appreciating natural beauty
- knowing – observing, understanding and thinking about the natural world
- aversion – antipathy towards and sometimes fearing nature
- exploitation – utilizing the resources of the natural world
- domination – mastering and controlling the natural environment
- spirituality – finding meaning and purpose in experiences that take us beyond ourselves
- symbolism – representing nature in art, language and music
Take a moment before reading on to think about your own experience of nature in terms of each of these concepts – the form and depth of your love of nature, for example, the strength of your attraction to natural beauty, the mental stimulation you get from nature and so on.
Expect to find that you can use all of the concepts to describe your relationship with nature. Even if you are the most ardent nature lover and admirer of natural beauty, you will also be involved in exploiting and dominating nature in some way – indirectly if not directly.
For Kennert, the concepts represent values as much as they do actions. Affection for nature goes hand-in-hand with recreational, aesthetic, psychological and conservation values, for example, just as exploitation is underpinned by an assertive valuing of the economic and material resources of the natural world.
Within Japanese society and culture, exploitation and domination (along perhaps with knowing) are the driving values as far as whales are concerned. Elsewhere, the relationship with whales is shaped much more by values associated with affection and attraction. This is not to say that the Japanese people have no affection for or attraction to whales or that they are insensitive to the suffering of the creatures. But these pro-whale values are not strong enough currently to outweigh the values associated with exploitation and domination. In contrast to the position in, say, Australia, the value balance in Japan is against the interest of whales (or the minke species at least).
Changing the balance is the only way to create a new situation that is good for whales AND the Japanese people. It was such a change that brought Australia and other nations to their current pro-whale position.
Is such a transformative change possible in relation to other species and indeed the natural environment more generally? The whale is, after all, a very charismatic species.
No one really knows the answer, but we do know that many, many factors influence people’s environmental attitudes and actions. We also know that the task of changing environmental values and ethics is challenging and takes a long time.
Kennert understands this but insists that we have no other option. Without a basic reorientation of our values and ethics towards nature, human will never flourish or be fulfilled, he argues. Environmental altruism has to replace environmental abuse across the planet.
Robert Manne agrees. His recent excellent forensic analysis (The Monthly 2015 summer edition) of why the world has failed to address climate change provides a comprehensive review of all the past manoeuvring and machinations and a compelling reflection on what needs to be done, politically, economically and otherwise. But he concludes:
Yet, as many people now realise, something much more profound than all this [the necessary actions] is required: a re-imagining of the relations between humans and the Earth, a re-imagining that will be centred on a recognition of the dreadful and perhaps now irreversible damage that has been wrought to our common home by the hubristic idea at the very centre of the modern world – man’s assertion of his mastery over nature.
Such a recognition signals a coming moral shift no less deep than those that have already transformed humankind with regard to the ancient inequalities of race and gender.
But there are grounds for optimism. Other examples apart from that of the whales show that transformations in our basic values towards aspects of the natural environment can occur quite quickly and exert lasting effects beyond those achieved by mandate or law. Kellert himself points to the radical changes that are occurring in attitudes towards wetlands, once pejoratively known as swamps. Commonly in the past they were known as places to fear, avoid and wherever possible drain and convert to more useful purposes. Now in many countries, the immense ecological value of wetlands is being recognised and action to conserve them is growing.
In the face of seemingly apocalyptic environmental challenges, it is easy to despair for the future of humanity’s relationship with nature. But we must remain hopeful and positive. Relating to nature in our everyday lives with affection, attraction, intellectual interest and spiritual celebration is key to doing this. So too is finding encouragement in environmental success stories – of the kind Orion McCarthy describes in his timely and inspiring blog, Conserve (the link is in the Blogroll).