My friend said I’d probably already seen them: the “new species of rare beaked whale discovered in Bering Sea,” according to the headline at OregonLive. I hadn’t already seen them, and I’ll probably never see them in person, but I now know that they dive deep to feed on fish and squid in underwater canyons; that in Japan they have the common name “karasu” or “raven”; that scientists have so far, if I read the article correctly, only found them dead, and determined their newness by comparing their appearance and their DNA to that of other, more familiar beaked whales. If this is the case, there might not be any alive anymore.
The whale isn’t really new; it’s my knowledge of them that’s new. The fish and squid they eat know about them; the water knows about them; they know about each other. The whale this article refers to was found in 2014, and for all I know, human knowledge of this whale has risen and sunk many times over the years. And in order to exist now, these whales must have already existed for a time that seems long to us; that’s evolution for you. Ending them forever could be much quicker.
When I saw the artist’s rendering of this whale, I was seized with the desire to protect them. The OregonLive article, too, quotes Erich Hoyt of Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the UK: “The implication of a new species of beaked whale is that we need to reconsider management of both species to be sure they’re sufficiently protected, considering how rare the new one appears to be.” But to protect a creature you have to protect everything around them: it’s not enough to just stop killing them directly. Whatever they eat–plants, live animals, corpses–has to keep renewing itself; the land, air and water around them have to maintain the qualities and relationships that make their lives possible, with at least tolerable levels of warmth, contaminants, movement and activity.
And some of the forces that affect those things originate hundreds, thousands sometimes, of miles away from the path these whales are thought to swim, from the tropics to the pole and back: currents of warm water, gouts of greenhouse gas, nitrogen-based fertilizers. Typing away on my coal-powered computer, sitting in front of my coal-powered box fan, I am injuring those whales right now, molecule by molecule. I’m injuring the creatures whose predators they eat, and the creatures who eat their corpses after they die.
This is the point at which a lot of us break down, I think: we recognize our interconnection with the systems of life and their defaults, both human-engineered and not, but so many of the systems that sustain humans in particular have abuse of other parts of those systems built into them. So many of our motions do harm we can’t see firsthand, and a lot of people’s response to this–judging by what they say to me at the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, and in conversation, and in a kind of low-grade hum that arises from the ways that people talk in public about complicity–is a moment of stricken paralysis, of suspended motion, and then a resumption of similar actions because there’s nothing they can do about it, after all: there’s no other place for their actions to go, no other way for their actions to lead. The most they can hope for, or so they think, is to do less damage, with things like renewable energy sources and water-saving dishwashers and buying fewer new objects.
What if instead of harming these whales incrementally, my ordinary tasks allowed me to help them incrementally? Could we wean ourselves onto methods of eating, building, burying, that shifted the flow and the burden of work, of waste, of making and mending and breaking down? Where is the give in our relations–what can’t we interrupt without severe damage, and what might be more mutable than we might suppose?
Not every system we’re part of may be susceptible to this, and we may not have time to adapt the ones that are. Climate scientists like Guy McPherson and others say that we probably don’t, that it’s too late not only for the new whales but for us, that talking about conservation, preservation, borders on the insane: what are we keeping, and for whom?
Back in the early days of the booth, I had a conversation that I didn’t handle my part of well; my interlocutor seemed to think that something could only matter if it mattered forever, if it persisted unchanged; that something that ended could not matter. I wish I’d asked that guy a few more questions. I’m still here, and if these whales really are still here–if the last of them didn’t wash up on St. George Island in 2014–I would like to make their life here as possible as possible, even if that time is short. The same is true for your life, you who are reading this: I want your life to be possible for you. I want us to change whatever we have to change for that to happen. I would want it if I knew for a fact you and I and the last of these whales were all going to die within the week. I would want it if we were all going to swim through the world for centuries to come.
Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life, which I’m in the early middle of, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which I’m rereading, helped with the framing for this writing.