Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds: Empowering our Children with Ways to Protect the Environment while Cultivating the Earth

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Environmentalism Gets Personal

I suspect that any environmentalist reading Robert Sullivan's A Whale Hunt would be disturbed by the depictions of environmental activists contained within. I certainly was. Throughout Sullivan's casual but well-formed prose, environmentalists come off as violent racists at worst and spoiled, pseudo-spiritual fuddy-duddies at best.
For those who haven't happened upon Sullivan's book: A Whale Hunt describes the Makah tribe's two years of preparation for the revival of their key cultural tradition, the ceremonial hunting of the grey whale. Since the 1920's, the Native Americans of this west-coast tribe had voluntarily ceased their whale hunting, due to the near extinction of the grey whale from commercial whaling. But when the grey whale was officially cleared from the endangered list by government scientists in 1994, the Makah expressed their desire to hunt once more. For them, this was not a matter of mere sustenance. Their tribe suffered from the typical blights associated with the tragedy of the modern Native American tribe, including alcoholism, drug-use, and general apathy and depression; and it was hoped that the revival of the whale hunt would restore a sense of pride and communal identity that could bring the Makah back to their feet as the proud people they once had been.
As Sullivan describes, the Makah had little trouble securing the permission of the government; without resistance, federal officials honored those treaties dating back to the nineteenth century that secured the Makah's whaling rights off the Washington coast. But despite this official support, the general public, swayed by a legion of vehement environmentalists, severely disproved of the Makah's plans. The legendary Paul Watson, founding father of Greenpeace made notorious for his violent methods, anchors the huge boat of his organization, Sea Shepherd, a short distance across the bay from the Makah and persists in taunting and terrorizing the Makah throughout their preparations. Another environmental group, In the Path of Giants, attempts to convince the Makah to convert their whale hunting trip into a whale watching trip; and when they fail, they respond with extreme bitterness, publishing diatribes against the Makah on the internet. Both Sea Shepherd and In the Path of Giants, as well as other environmental groups, depict the Makah as disorganized, un-spiritual, and mercenary thugs to the media, and so the Makah suffer from widespread public prejudice and condemnation.
Following Sullivan's portrayal of the Makah plight, I could not help but loathe these narrow-minded, vicious environmentalists who seemed eager to steep to the lowest accusations and deeds in order to protect the grey whale. As Sullivan tells it, it seems as if the grey whale, as a species, was in no desperate need of such protection: with the whale having been taken from the endangered list, and the Makah promising to kill only a handful of whales, it seems that, ecologically speaking, the environmentalists' passion was somewhat absurd. Certainly, Sullivan portrays the environmentalists as emotionally-geared, animal-rights-oriented activists rather than clear-headed, practical ecologists.
Meditating on this after I read the book, though, it occured to me that, for the past few months, this sort of seething, emotional, and personal environmental interest has been my mantra and my goal. When our class read Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild, I readily agreed with his somewhat radical thesis that a more spiritual and passionate connection to the environment (and, importantly, to large mammals in particular) is essential to the environmental movement. And as I read John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, I found it easy to admire David Brower of the Sierra Club, who was intensely sentimental and paid no heed to facts, being more than willing to stretch the truth in order to persuade people to protect the environment. Having been in the mindset of these books, I have been willing to dismiss Turner's irrationality and extremism and Brower's sentimentality and outright lies as necessary, and perhaps even charming displays of love and visceral connection to the environment.
But this sort of deep-seated link to the environment goes beyond the mere science of ecosystem health, it seems, which can be rationally supported by arguments of the necessity of biodiversity and the continuity of evolution. Turner's passion stems, at least in part, from his relationship with individual animals; and Brower's zeal is derived from his sentimental attachment to particular places. And certainly, it is this sort of direct and personal relationship with the grey whales that drives the rabid and often disgusting environmentalists of which Sullivan writes.
And so I am feeling somewhat more timid, more circumspect about my environmentalism than I have been in weeks past. Is it really advisable to be an environmentalist of such myopic zeal? I am wondering. Is it possible to be passionate, and yet to be sensible and respectful, as well?

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