Ideas that persist

Ideas that persist

Nor, considered aright, does it seem any argument in favor of the gradual extinction of the Sperm Whale, for example, that in former years (the latter part of the last century, say) these Leviathans, in small pods, were encountered much oftener than at present, and, in consequence, the voyages were not so prolonged, and were also much more remunerative. Because, as has been elsewhere noticed, those whales, influenced by some views to safety, now swim the seas in immense caravans, so that to a large degree the scattered solitaries, yokes, and pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies. That is all. And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and 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.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This quote is from a fictional account published in 1851. I get that.

Except that I can’t help feeling that this passage reflects how Melville thought about this issue. He had been to sea of course, as a merchantman and on a whaling voyage, so he had first-hand experience with months of time to talk and explore what other mariners knew about the sea and its fish. Somewhat cutely, whales were fish back then.

Melville chose to ignore the evidence as many a purveyor of fiction is want to do, and refashion it. He used spin in a novel.

Or did he?

The ideas that actions of hunting could deplete such animals on unfathomably large oceans defied logic to the Victorian generation. It just could not be possible. The evidence of obvious depletion, reduced distribution, lower contact rates and changed behaviours, just did not fit the worldview.

In ‘Awkward News’ there is a passage reflecting a similar thought in the minds of early settlers to Australia. Here so vast an expanse of country lay before the first, second, third and even subsequent generations of rural folk that no amount of vegetation clearing could ever deplete it.

It is a though there is something in our DNA that programs us to ignore the possibility that resources could ever be in short supply. We seem to have to believe that resources are infinite.

This helps us in two ways.

A belief in every renewable resource buffers us from the fear of lack. This is a powerful base fear, for starvation is a slow and emotionally painful death.

It also allows us moral latitude for actions that deplete resources, especially pertinent in the case of whaling that was a brutal culling of wild sentient creatures for commercial gain. If the belief is that taking a few whales does little or nothing to their long-term survival as a species it mollifies the obvious brutality of killing individual animals slowly with harpoons and lances.

Same idea with bulldozers and chains. Removal of native vegetation is justified because there is plenty more of it across the horizon.

Jump forward 160 years and the demand for natural resources has increased beyond what could have been imagined in the 1800’s. We don’t need whale oil anymore and, for the most part, whales are back in the stomping grounds of their ancestors if not quite in the same numbers as before.

We do need land though. Water too. And space to live and recreate in. The world has shrunk perceptibly with technology able to whisk us over the ocean at speeds and distances that the old whalers would have defiled as some evil magic.

Yet that DNA is still expressed.

Many of us continue to believe that resources are either infinite or if, for some bizarre reason, a resource is used up, our technological ingenuity will conjure up a replacement that is better and more profitable.

Whatever we do those base fears of lack are still there. They persist and our emotional response remains to ignore them or refuse to believe that their realities will ever be realised.

It should be a sobering thought. Only our response is to thrust our heads in the metaphorical sand and hope that that nagging feeling will go away.

When we look up again all is well because, for sure, “some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle”.