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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Last Stand for Whales, Humans

Herman Melville, who created the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, could not imagine the extinction of the sperm whale.


Nineteenth-century writer Herman Melville handed the baton of intrepid global travel to the contemporary naturalist David Attenborough. Melville traveled by ship: Attenborough travels by airplane. Both men’s lifework is relevant to today’s struggle for environmental health and economic equity, though neither was aware of it.

Melville, a New Yorker, was the third of eight children in a prominent Dutch American family. He found satisfaction in his “double revolutionary descent”. Both his grandfathers were Revolutionary War heroes: Major Thomas Melvill in the Boston Tea Party and General Peter Gansevoort in the defense of Fort Stanwix in New York. His father was Unitarian, but his mother’s stricter Dutch Reformed Church ensured that she was well versed in the Bible in English and in Dutch, which she spoke at home with her parents. In his writings, Melville’s Biblical allusions are many.

His father lived beyond his means, which led the family to move to Albany. By the age of 15, Melville had taken positions as a bank clerk, a teacher and in the store of the family fur business.

Melville had a classical, albeit interrupted, education. His familiarity with Shakespeare, Homer and Dante, among many others, are plain in what the cultural critic, Edward W. Said, called “the greatest and most eccentric work of literary art produced in the United States”. He wrote Moby-Dick, his feverish paean to the mammoth of the seas, after stints on a merchant ship from New York to Liverpool, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts to the Tahitian Marquesas Islands, where he and a shipmate jumped ship, and a U.S Navy frigate from Maui, in Hawaii to Boston.

So, the very American Melville wrote a novel that only an American of Melville’s prodigious temperament and knowledge could write in its breadth, its density and its diverse characters.

“For Melville, America’s society was not as settled, established, and patterned as Europe’s; nearly everyone was, if not an immigrant, traceable to immigrant stock,” said Said.

As for indigenous Americans, Melville knew about genocide. Captain Ahab’s fictional whaler, Pequod, “you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes.” Also, Melville bought a 160-acre farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which he named Arrowhead because of the native American arrowheads that were dug up on the property during planting season.

Yet, somehow, Melville, who created the monomaniacal Captain Ahab who holds a place in popular culture, acknowledged the extermination of buffalo but could not imagine the extinction of the sperm whale.

In Chapter 105, “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? – Will He Perish?”, The narrator, Ishmael asks “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”

He concludes that many factors forbid “so inglorious an end.” Ismael argues that although humans have noticed whales’ numbers declining, there is no need for worry: “If one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.”

“The whales have two firm fortresses, which, in all probability will forever remain impregnable. And as upon the invasion of their valleys, the frosty Swiss have retreated to their mountains; so, hunted from the savannas and glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man.”

The icy fortresses are not forever. The ice caps are melting at frightening rates. “Not only is there no longer any ‘everlasting December’ anywhere on the globe, but December itself becomes ever less Decemberish as we log year after year of ‘hottest on record,’” said Kathleen Rooney in Los Angeles Review of Books (August 1, 2019).

Moby-Dick, the object of Captain Ahab’s vengeful quest, is a sperm whale. The Endangered Species Act lists sperm whales, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act lists it as depleted.

“Admittedly, Ishmael is sort of correct in predicting that it’s not exclusively hunting, per se, that will drive whales to extinction,” said Rooney. “Rather, it’s the fact that they, like every other living creature, will not be able to survive in the over-warm toxic death slurry that human activity has made of the oceans.”

The melting of ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctic was evident in the filming of David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020), a witness statement of the 94-year-old English naturalist whose career spans seven decades. The documentary is now on Netflix.

The veteran documentary-maker was born in Islesworth, Middlesex, which is now a part of west London. Attenborough grew up on the campus of the University College, Leicester, where his father was principal. He studied geology and zoology at Clare College, Cambridge and obtained a degree in natural sciences. He is the surviving middle son of three: Richard, an actor and director, and John, an executive at Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo. During the Second World War, his parents also fostered two Jewish refugee girls from Germany through a British volunteer network known as the Refugee Children’s Movement.

As a boy, Sir David tells us that he explored disused ironstone workings as a boy. He says that he spent all his time searching in rocks for buried treasure: fossils. Then, we had little understanding as to the working of the living world. We called it natural history.

Now, we know more.

Biodiversity loss and climate change are accelerating the planet toward a sixth mass extinction event over a period of centuries rather than the hundreds of millennia which triggered the previous mass extinctions.

Attenborough offers a glimpse of the planet if human activity remains unchanged: the Amazon rainforest could degrade into a savanna; the Arctic could lose all ice during summer; coral reefs could die, and soil overuse could cause food crises.

“This is now our planet run by humankind for humankind,” says Attenborough. “There is little left for the rest of the animal world. . . . We account for one-third of the weight of animals. Sixty percent of animals are raised to eat.”

Only 4 percent account for wild animals, from mice to whales, which “were being slaughtered by fleets of industrial ships in the 1970s”.

“The world is not as wild as it was. We’ve destroyed it. Human beings have overrun the world. . . . We must restore diversity. It’s the only way out of this crisis we’ve created. We must ‘rewild’ the world.”

“Only humans can imagine the future. It’s not all doom and gloom. We can once again become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so.”

Attenborough says that the solution has been staring us in the face all along:

“To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing that we’ve removed.”

The naturalist claims that the human population has nearly reached a plateau and that its present growth is largely due to individuals’ longevity. He proposes raising the standard of living around the world without increasing our impact on that world. He advocates universal healthcare and girls’ education.

Renewable energy such as solar, wind, water and geothermal could power all of human energy usage. Coastal areas could be protected for the thriving of fish populations. Human diets based on plants, not meat, would allow land to be used more efficiently.

Costa Rica reversed deforestation, the fishing regulations of Palau, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, restored the fish stock, and the Netherlands has used technology to grow more on less land.

Attenborough says that he wishes he did not have to speak on the matter of environmental devastation but alas . . .

Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, which is as much a philosophical treatise as a novel:

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

We should be feeling that halter tightening around our necks now. We do not have time to dither about making changes to save the planet, which will survive without us. Attenborough opens and ends his documentary with a look at Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Today, nature is reclaiming the deserted city as trees shoot up from apartment tower blocks.

All of the 189 states of the United Nations climate control convention have become party to the 2016 Paris Agreement, which requires them to determine, plan and report on its contribution to mitigate global warming. The only significant emitters are Iran and Turkey.

In June 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the agreement. The earliest effective date of withdrawal is November 4, the day after Election Day and two months before the end of President Trump’s 2016 term.

Countries around the world expressed their regret at Trump’s decision.

In Portugal, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said that “climate change is a problem and denying, for political reasons, that that problem exists won’t make it go away”. He reiterated that Europe should remain a champion of the fight against climate change, “a just and real cause”.

During a visit to an elementary school, Prime Minister Antonio Costa commented:

“It is a shame that President Trump did not attend this school and does not know what these children already know . . . that we only have one planet and that our first duty is to preserve it for future generations.”

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