Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You Can't Put Beauty in the Bank

The Japanese whaling fleet continues on its way to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. It comes with an armed patrol vessel to suppress nonviolent marine conservationists upholding the Sanctuary’s integrity. Japan means to take what it wants by force, with utter contempt for the law.

We live in an overpopulated world with a rapidly depleting environment. Only respect for the rule of law can protect humanity’s general interest in a sustainable planetary ecology from the intense demands of special interests or powerful nations. Japan is now attacking the very foundation of that peaceful and cooperative world order. It asserts that its national will supersedes international law on the global commons. It seems to believe that its show of force will intimidate the world into letting it have what it wants.

Once the authority of law is successfully challenged then the international system loses all credibility.  If Japan can forcibly rape a whale sanctuary without penalty then others too will grab what they can. The oceans will be gobbled up in a feeding frenzy. We will revert to the law of the jungle, first at sea, then on land.

The Southern Ocean has already sustained tremendous damage. Krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures at the base of its food chain, have declined by up to 80% since the 1970s due to global warming. Industrial fleets are decimating its fish stocks. Its whales, once numbering in the millions of several species, are down to a few hundred thousand of the smallest Minke whales. This ocean should be left alone to regenerate, not biologically strip mined at gunpoint.

Beyond these pragmatic considerations there is a spiritual dimension. Will we let an insatiable economic machine devour all that is beautiful and wondrous?

Our planet is 70% ocean. We share it with fellow mammals, the whales. All whales have bigger brains than ours (six times larger in the case of sperm whales). In some species the cerebral cortex, the site of intelligence and higher emotions, is more complexly convoluted than ours. Some also possess special ‘spindle’ neurons, a trait otherwise found only in the great apes and human beings.

Brains are metabolically very expensive. The three-pound human brain constitutes 2% of our (average) body mass, but consumes 20% of its blood sugar and oxygen. It seems unlikely that such an energy-intensive organ would evolve in the whales and have no purpose or value.

All of this is circumstantial evidence for cetacean intelligence. It would be inadmissible in any court of law. But it is suggestive. It seems entirely plausible that an advanced mammalian consciousness could have evolved in the oceans over the last thirty million years. (Humans, in contrast, have existed in their present form for only about 250,000 years.) Obviously such a consciousness would differ from ours. Perhaps these ‘armless Buddhas’ have developed a telepathic rather than a technological form of intelligence. We don’t know, but should respect the possibility.

Japan rejects the intelligence argument out of hand. It confidently insists that whales are simply a natural resource, basically cattle of the sea. Such lack of doubt in the face of inconvenient facts shows real arrogance. It parallels the arrogance Japan displays towards world opinion and international law.

Whales, at the top of the food chain, also regulate the ecology of the oceans. Yet Japan has officially stated that the small number of remaining whales should be culled because they eat too many fish, which could be taken by them. Essentially Japan advocates reducing a wild ocean into a managed fish farm. This is pure hubris. Are the Japanese intelligent enough to run a complex oceanic ecosystem? Is everyone else willing to entrust our planet’s ecological fate to its quack scientists and fisheries bureaucrats?

The Japanese government is serious enough to kill over this. Is the rest of the world serious enough to stop them?

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