Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Laura Bridgeman: What Whales Have to Teach Humans About Capitalism

Any accounting of the commons without acknowledging the presence and interests of others will lead to their continued destruction, to our human detriment as well.

The International Whaling Commission meets every four years to decide the future of the whales. That is, it decides which nation will kill how many, and for what reasons (commercial, subsistence, “research”). Stakeholders from around the world are engaged, from whaling and non-whaling nations alike.

Notably absent in these discussions on the future of whales, are the whales themselves. But this is not just because they would have a hard time fitting into the conference room. It’s an intentional omission, since whales are a part of the commons: that great, amorphous void which we draw individuals out of, pour refuse in to, and in which lives the nameless, faceless “biomass” that we refuse any real legal or political consideration on a categorical basis. According to our current paradigm, the whales, and everyone else in the oceans, are resources to be protected, conserved or exploited: divided up (albeit unequally) amongst ourselves, and consumed.

This might sound like an article about whales, but it isn’t. It’s really about us, and what we chose to believe about ourselves, our societies, and what our future can look like. For perhaps the first time in history, we human cultures of the world are largely united in a struggle for what comes next – an active discussion, a exercise in collective imagination that’s becoming all the more urgent as we watch our current world, and worldviews, fall apart – or more aptly, being ripped apart by late-stage capitalism.

Our current system is incapable of addressing the problems within our own species because inequality is embedded within its very foundation. Strategies to dismantle plutocracy and eradicate poverty often involve new ways of managing the commons. However, as long as we try to preserve or manage “habitats” and “ecosystems” for human benefit alone, the resulting devastation of the lives of other species will reverberate into our own in increasingly disastrous and unpredictable ways.

Within capitalist models, individuals of other species are not only neglected – their very existence is denied. They are instead relegated to the realm of property, only to be considered or “conserved” when their bodies are seen as necessary for the health of an ecosystem of value; and then, they are lumped into “populations” or “stocks” rather than recognizing them as individuals with interests, deserving of their fair share of resources like any human being.

When we begin to consider this legion of individuals of other species, the commons can transform into a system for “mutualizing responsibilities” wherein other species are considered active stakeholders as they participate and benefit from those responsibilities. This can maximize the health and generative capacities of a given area, be it in the ocean or upon the grasslands or within a forest.

Let’s go back into that conference room again, with its notable absence of the whales who are being discussed. The changes I’m proposing might sound extreme, but not if we begin with species that we can all agree are intelligent and sophisticated enough to have interests of their own. We can begin by considering whale’s needs, desires, and perspectives as stakeholders. Rather than having conservationists advocating for whales’ protection, we ought to be giving whales a seat at the table – via a representative such as a guardian ad litem – to express what’s in the best interest for these individuals in matters concerning them, such as establishing Marine Protected Areas designed to protect their culturally relevant spaces in the ocean. Whales should also be considered stakeholders where industrial projects, such as salmon farms, may have adverse impacts on their lives. And, one day, whales should be considered stakeholders at the very meetings where their kin are being scheduled for slaughter.

This is no quaint idea rooted in sentimentality towards charismatic megafauna. It’s an idea that can save us – all of us – because when other species thrive, we all thrive.

Any accounting of the commons without acknowledging the presence and interests of others within these spaces will lead to their continued destruction, to our human detriment as well. But when we consider the perspectives of the other species, whom we rely upon for our survival and vice versa, can we begin to work towards nurturing an environment that is actually sustainable. Doing otherwise will only doom us to repeat history. And it’s already a bit late for that.


 

Laura Bridgeman is the director of Sonar, an organization that critically examines the human/nature divide.
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The fate of whales is discussed by stakeholders around the world every four years at meetings of the International Whaling Commission, as those in power discuss the fate of much of the world population without offering them a seat at the table. (Photo: Cyrille Humbert/Flickr/cc)

2 comments on “Laura Bridgeman: What Whales Have to Teach Humans About Capitalism

  1. johnlawsonpoet
    October 23, 2017

    Reblogged this on Site Title and commented:
    Guardian ad litem for whales? Great idea, but we need to expand it.

    Like

  2. johnlawsonpoet
    October 23, 2017

    I love Bridgeman’s idea here of a guardian ad litem for whales–and for other elements of “the commons,” which she correctly describes as “that great, amorphous void which we draw individuals out of, pour refuse in to, and in which lives the nameless, faceless “biomass” that we refuse any real legal or political consideration on a categorical basis.” Two quick observations:

    One, human beings ourselves are largely relegated to that realm of the commons, as reflected, for example, in the way US authorities interpret our laws to exclude citizens of other lands from constitutional protections; in the way corporations are allowed to treat our own citizens and communities like prey, playing us off against each other to extort their own maximum advantage; and in our own citizens’ deprivation of rights to adequate healthcare, wages, environmental conditions, etc. To the ruling elite, we’re animals, features of the landscape to be exploited no less than wild game or mineral deposits.

    Two, Bridgeman’s example of the whale refers to a specific conference room, that of the International Whaling Commission, where a discussion of another species’ survival is at least possible. No such conference room exists with authority to determine the future of most of the rest of the commons. If Bridgeman is right in saying that “when other species thrive, we all thrive”–and, of course, she is right–then what we really need is an institution–or set of institutions–empowered to gather data, hold in-depth discussions, and issue mandates on behalf of the commons.

    How do we get from here to there? That’s another question–but one we should start asking.

    Liked by 1 person

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