Well, I’m gonna clean up this world
The best I can, if I can
And I’m gonna clean up this world
And I think I can.
I’m gonna leave this world behind
The best I can, if I can
I’m gonna leave this world behind
And I think I can. And I think I can.
- Woody Guthrie in “Gonna Get Through This World”
Last week, I was scrolling lazily through my Facebook news feed when one key article jerked me out my summertime stupor. Four humpback whales had died and washed up on B.C.’s coast in the space of a week. After centuries of whaling had finally ceased, the humpbacks—one of the largest mammals on Earth—were making a comeback. But this many whales dying at the same time is cause for concern. Scientists are scrambling to find causes and it will take a few weeks for tests to offer explanations for such an unprecedented tragedy.
Since living on Canada’s west coast, I had taken a strong interest in the health of the planet’s water systems. I was so inspired that I founded a non-profit watershed group in Vancouver and have worked on this for over a decade. This means I am accustomed to hearing dire news about the ocean with endless threats that are growing more extreme by the year. There are reported imbalances of plankton—the plant food that is the building block of everything that lives in the ocean. Massive overfishing continues from ships equipped with sophisticated technology to gain maximum yield, and this tragically includes excessive by-catch. Islands of plastic pollution and a disproportionate amount of floating debris constantly kills and maims sea life. Local orcas are filled with toxins and starving to death for lack of fish. The gradual demise of B.C.’s once prolific salmon runs is always in the news. And to add to this, the world-class city of Vancouver, which is continually responding to the apparent need to house thousands of new residents, has only a primary treatment sewage facility and an upgrade is only due in five years.
This is the tip of the iceberg. The indomitable human-run industrial resource extraction machine continues to dream up projects that would further impact the land and coastal waters and their resident flora and fauna. And unfortunately most of these proposed projects are encouraged by governments. Large corporations plan football field-sized tankers filled with Alberta tar sands bitumen to deliver the poisonous cargo to Asian markets. Others want to create a coal terminal at the mouth of the Fraser—yet another insult to the largest salmon river in the world. Tankers with liquified natural gas (LNG) are to ply the coastal waters with their supposedly less dangerous freight despite extreme dangers and potential impacts on ecosystems. The government continues to okay even more open net fish farms in pristine waters. These facilities use the ocean as a toilet and receptor of a host of diseases which often affect wild salmon. This, after the results of the 2010 Cohen Commission which studied the collapse of the sockeye in 2009—at a cost to the taxpayer of over $30 million—had urged the precautionary principle with respect to the creation of new open-net farms. And to add insult to injury there is the ever-accelerating saga of runaway climate change—a much greater worldwide problem which is seriously impacting local waters.
To say that the knowledge of all these stresses is depressing and overwhelming is an extreme understatement. However our watershed group can only continue to respond by educating the local population on water issues and encouraging them to influence policy makers to shift their focus in a more water-aware direction.
But therein lay the problem. Democracy and its supportive human systems of economics, commerce, technology, and information dissemination has to this point proven itself a woefully inadequate champion of environmental causes. This is no great surprise since these human-made systems were never meant to support the Earth portfolio and it certainly isn’t happening today. Democracy had only evolved so people could represent their own interests and needs. Over the last few centuries there had been an urgent demand as the population of Europe grew and the rulers couldn’t manage these large collections of people effectively. It took revolutions and upheaval and many lives lost before the balance of power shifted from monarchy to elected democracies. And even then, women, indigenous people, and other minorities only gained the vote many decades and sometimes centuries later. But even today, there is inequality as the rich continue to influence government leaders with their dollars.
The point of democracies is to offer people the possibility of representation. Except that the needs and interests of the natural world are hardly ever considered. Plankton, salmon, whales, or any other species certainly are not consulted on their fate. They do not have the power of a vote. Nor do they shop or influence popular media. Since the rise of modern economics nature has not even been considered in the measurement of gross domestic product (GDP).
Actually sea life is still only valued as a positive in human economic systems when caught and sold. It is considered a “common-pool resource” and fishing continues from the ever shrinking “commons”—an age old free marketplace where humans can take whatever they please because there were hardly any rules. Besides no one could ever see what was going on anyways in water bodies miles offshore or inland and there is little policing if they do. When efficient technology is added to the mix, this free-for-all becomes that much simpler and more effective. Between that, greedy governing systems and excess population growth, the outcome continues to be catastrophic for sea life.
It wasn’t always like this. Before colonization, the B.C. coast was one of the richest places on Earth. Whales, fish, and plankton lived in balanced systems and the indigenous humans who ate them managed their take carefully, integrating this activity into their spiritual systems which offered checks and balances. At that time most First Nations on the coast grew to large populations because of the abundant food supply. But they were careful to steward the land and water and place resident species on a sacred platform, always highly aware of their precarious availability. Plus they were careful to teach their children the same stewardship methods and important relationships.
So what about four humpbacks dying in one week makes my soul weep at the careless way my fellow humans today fail to steward the watery home of these magnificent giants? First of all, after years of watching and learning to better understand water systems, I had grown to understand that when the oceans become sick beyond repair, humans are sure to follow soon after. Water covers 70 percent of the planet. It keeps the Earth’s life systems in healthy balance. The carbon, nitrogen, and hydrologic cycle are crucial to the existence of organic life and these procedures—on land and sea—are key to planetary and thus human health. And yet their importance is largely ignored. Actually few people know much about them more than what they learned at school a long time ago. And most do not consider this daily in their lives. Far from it; notions of what goes on “out there”—seldom figures in the interests of people sitting in coffee shops, office towers, vacation homes, and houses of parliament. However the human body is 70 percent water. The liquid tides of our existence travel through us and subconsciously hearken back to the ocean in every aspect of our waking and sleeping lives.
There is more to my despair than just the threat to planetary systems. The tragic death of these four massive animals is a profound incident. It is easy to slough this off as nature’s way of controlling itself. But I think there is something bigger here. It is as if by these events—the humpback are crying out to us. Our species is the one who has caused the destruction of their homes. Perhaps this is a desperate plea to get the attention of those who have failed to notice the precarious well-being of our common waters. Humpbacks are our fellow residents on the Blue Planet. They have large brains just like ours and birth live young. Even though their limbs are suited to water and ours to land, their eyes stare at ours, and we immediately know each other. How many stories have we heard about intense human-cetacean encounters? We should not be surprised. After all, evolution teaches us that all living beings came from the water.
Can the tragic deaths of our brothers and sisters underwater force more people to notice that our democratic, economic, and business systems do not even begin to address these wrongs? Does the complete lack of moral base for so many of our present day dealings figure in our heart strongly enough to do something about this dire situation?
I believe my fellow Homo sapiens can do better and I am always hoping that a profound shift in consciousness will happen to make more people realize they depend on the health of the ocean. That they will realize that all natural systems are connected and no matter what our beliefs and philosophies—we are naturally connected as well. And despite humanity’s preoccupation only with itself—its mental and physical health is intricately tied to the health of the natural world.
Do I think whales and fish and a host of other creatures dying daily in the Pacific as a result of man’s activities is a Canadian election issue? Quite frankly, I believe the repair of our very broken human-nature relationship is the only election issue. Because without a sincere intention to alter the course of the present dominant world-view, our children will not have a sustainable future. Call me ridiculous, naïve, crazy, and misguided. But I fear that those who are in charge of our trajectory are the problem—and this includes the people who actively or passively support them. Some turn away in fear; they cannot even face the issues and imagine any change. Others shrug their shoulders and say it’s just not that important. But by only holding human needs first and foremost and not urgently responding to the intense negative events that are happening in the natural world, these people are the ones who are seriously misguided. And they are often the ones who help to tragically lead us all down a path of perpetual doom.