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Orcas and the Human Lifestyle

From the Interspecies Newsletter

The southern resident population of orcas — J, K, and L pods— spends a significant part of each summer feeding on salmon along the scenic west side of San Juan Island in northern Puget Sound. Because this near-shore habitat is located in the middle of the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria these orcas are the most watched, studied, loved, groped and photographed whale population in the world.. Using photo-identification methods that focus on shape and markings of the dorsal fin, annual censuses have been conducted on these whales since 1974. The census shows that the population grew steadily each year, and by 1995 there were nearly 100 individual whales in the three distinct pods.

By October 1999 the count had dropped precipitously to 83 whales, a decline of more than 15%. This decline is in marked contrast to the 3% rise of the orca population that resides two hundred miles north off the coast of Vancouver island.Three factors are commonly cited to explain the decline of the southern residents: high levels of toxic chemicals in the orcas bodies, especially PCBs the vastly diminished availability of food resources mostly salmon, and increased whalewatching activities in the San Juan Islands themselves. Although whalewatching regulations exist, they are clearly ineffectual at containing boat traffic.

On the weekend of May 19, the Puget Sound Chapter of the American Cetacean Society and “Orca Free” collaborated to produce a workshop in Bellingham Washington with the very worthy objective of bringing together biologists, environmental activists, natural resource bureaucrats, educators, self-designated ombudsmen, whalewatching entrepreneurs, whale film makers, and one lone interspecies artist, myself, in an attempt to develop a strategic action plan to address the critical problems affecting the orcas.

I am not usually interested in attending such mainstream animal-issue gatherings because of the essentially data-driven format of the discussions. This one got my attention because it focused on seating an ecumenical gathering representing many different vocational and avocational approaches to studying, playing with, caring about, working for, documenting, writing, and even making money from the local orcas. I had wished the organizers had further expanded the context of their gathering to include an orca T-shirt maker, a public health officer, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of at least one of the major cities, a pulp mill chemist, an officer of a fisherman’s guild, and the owner of one of the shipping fleets that plies the waters between Vancouver and Seattle.

Despite this laudable diversity of the participants, I suspected the format of our gathering would provoke a predictable debate about whales’ rights versus resource development, with both sides relying on numbers and charts to define their positions. I traveled to Bellingham hoping to represent a different paradigm; promoting the actual form of our gathering as a better measure of the whale’s future, than any strategy we might devise.

My self-designated role seemed worthwhile, mostly because our culture has codified certain legally and culturally acceptable mechanisms for arguing against the demise of nature. But something isn’t working because more activists than ever are engaged in the cause of species protection, and yet the seas are more trashed than ever, and the whales are dying. Perhaps the strategy that activists follow to feel useful—for instance, hiring lawyers to advocate for nature before judges—isn’t much good at saving anything.I also went to Bellingham because I don’t mind being viewed by a room of peers as an epistemological clown who seems to find demonic joy gumming up what everyone else would probably end up calling "a serious environmental discussion."

At the outset... I argued, that our ecumenical format bodes well for the whales, and may be the the most importnat idea to emerge from our weekend. What clearly isn’t working for the local orca population, is a human society that grants regulatory power to one group, politicians, whose very success is measured by how closely they heed the glaringly anthropocentric path known as "representing the citizenry". This citizenry incontrovertibly weights the scales against the prosperity of any non-human species.

We should never let politicians decide the fate of animals. These are people who spend their days in artificially lit rooms seeking out the opinions of a few biologists of their own choice, countervailed by business people who represent the ponderous economic slant, finally enduring the opinions of a few noisy activists and representatives of the Media. I sometimes think that far more ecological wisdom would be expressed if we simply handed this onerous task over to children between the ages of seven and sixteen.Clearly the natural world needs ambassadors, not just gatherers of information, not just crafters of legislation, not just boosters of our profoundly anti-environmental economy. Playing on this stage makes me long for the insight of John Lilly and Jacques Cousteau who wrote many years ago that the cetaceans will best survive when humans grant them legal standing through a UN trust protectorate. The two men named this state of mind the Cetacean Nation.

All to say that a weekend workshop that grants an equal voice to participants representing not just politics, and science may have a glimmer of a chance to provide a balanced forum. We might best regard our own diversity as an ecological format. If the medium is the message then, ultimately, such a holistic structure guides us by default toward a world that takes ecological coexistence seriously. Could it possibly offer me some hope for the whale’s future?

Saturday Morning

Edward O. Wilson writes that humanists are the shamans of the intellectual tribe, wise men and women who interpret knowledge and transmit the folklore, rituals, and sacred texts to the greater culture. Scientists are the scouts and hunters. No one rewards a scientist for what he knows. Nobel prizes and other trophies are bestowed for the new facts and theories he brings home to the tribe.

Keeping that in mind, it was disappointing, but no great surprise, that most of the invited biologists decided to stay home. In fact, as we assembled and identified ourselves, it was immediately apparent that our group was not very diverse at all, consisting of mostly whale activists, with just two bonified researchers and one lone whale bureaucrat in attendance. It was then that we all learned that The Media was not invited, for fear that their reportage would inhibit all those absentee biologists from speaking their minds.

From Wilson’s perspective, the scientist’s didn’t show up because there was no data here to scout out. This meeting was entirely about interpretation, thoughts concerning our own perceptions about the problems of whales, a self-reflective toying with mindsets that rankles the biologist’s egregiously unjustified sense of neutrality.

By contrast, an activist’s career is self-motivated, driven by compassion, undertaken by well-educated idealists ardent about environmental preservation, people who know going in that they won’t make much money, and that principles count for more than money. For one example, the lawyer who is currently spearheading the endangered species designation for the Puget Sound orcas told me he loved his work, had already helped protect the golden trout, and had depleted his salary potential by at least a hundred thousand dollars per year to work within the animal protection movement.

Playing the Angles

Our workshop leader was a bright young woman who had been for some years guiding business managers through a meeting model known as the “Strategic Funnel Process”. Like most everyone else in the room, she relinquished a successful career to help animals and the environment.As a funnel suggests, the guided discussion followed a format of defining an issue in the broadest terms, then adopting a funnel-like discussion process to refine the indicators, problems, goals and objectives. Out the other end, eventually comes a plan of action, a mission statement, and most importantly, a newfound sense that a diverse group focusing on various disconnected aspects of one general cause, are now bonded into a working coalition. Everyone present affirmed the empowerment that comes through an expanded network.

It was clear from the start that the group was attentive to new ideas, new shifts in perception to drop into the open mouth of our conceptual funnel. It was also clear that the group vastly preferred their own familiar dance of mining data as the best practical method for protecting orcas in an imperfect world.

In keeping with the geometric motif, regard the activist’s struggle as a circular process, a golden ring if you will, that starts by discovering some new, profound angle to emphasize the plight of whales and their habitat. This fresh angle is then polled and publicized to galvanize the public around the issue. Let it be noted that this “public” has shown itself time and time again to be overwhelmingly in support of environmental reforms with the one life-throttling caveat that it doesn’t ask them to give up their SUVs. The galvanized public demands that politicians activate bureaucrats to grant funding to biologists to provide research. If the original angle hasn’t been diluted too much by the telling and retelling, then the plums of this research are gathered up by the activists who cook the numbers into a more pointed insight they then use either to galvanize an even greater public segment or directly confront the despoilers with irrefutable arguments for protection.

Of many “angles” proposed at our workshop, the most obvious good idea asked for better funding for necropsy studies on dead whales washed up in Puget Sound. This was suggested by the same courageous biologist who blew the whistle on the Navy’s sonar testing in the Bahamas. In that instance, necropsy revealed that all the stranded whales had hemorrhaged their inner ears.

If the local orcas were found to have high levels of e coli, for example, we could assume that a local sewer treatment plant had something to do with it.As a pertinent aside, one activist pointed out that a recent analysis of water near pristine Glacier Bay Alaska has shown a three thousand time increase in the amount of fecal effluent, all of it traced directly to dumping by cruise ships.


With the strategy of the golden ring alluded to at the start of our workshop discussion, (although no one but me calls it that), it soon became clear that non-data driven issues would be deemed intellectually intriguing but ultimately irrelevant to the process. That historical moment's US lawyer-in-chief, attorney general John Ashcroft, may have said it best when he recently replied to reporters “I’m not a good person to be asking ‘how do you feel’ questions. I feel like doing my job.”

At best, “non-data” implies opinion and speculation, and at worst, whimsy. In a culture void of any overarching moral authority to preserve nature, moral arguments are deemed relative, unauthoritative. Everyone has one or two of them. They make the bureaucrats walk away. Judges throw them out of court. Despoilers laugh up their sleeves.

It’s funny, I’ve always thought it was the data that was unauthoritative. It's hard to explain, which I agree is a cop-out. But there it is. Right there.

I argued that there are many environmental ideas possessed of a greater ethical conviction than “scientific indicators”, and that we not forget to let one or two of them dribble into the mouth of our whale funnel. Certainly, no one disavows the practical value of indicators as a means of playing the golden ring game, but maybe we ought to consider not playing that game any more, and spend our weekend devising a new activist paradigm.

whalewatchingHow often does data actually protect animals? Isn’t the environmental crisis best understood as a crisis in human perception? If so, then isolating indicators may only serve to make activists feel useful for playing a game by rules that, from another perspective, upholds the perceptual cause of the orcas demise? The point is subtle but important because the construct of indicators relies entirely upon the language of the objectivist worldview. It invalidates the intuitive, the artful, and the spiritual, which are, in fact, the best methods humans have ever worked out to transform perceptions. Language is key, providing many clues about the paradigm we honor. As it pertains to this particular issue, the activists referred to themselves as stewards of the whales, a perception that treats the orcas as patients seeking a cure, perhaps from the human cancer that infects every earthly sphere except the econosphere. Indicators are what doctors use to diagnose disease.

Jumping through Hoops

I prefer to define myself, not as a steward, but as an ambassador. Rather than diagnose indicators of disturbance, or of lack of food, I say why not categorize all these indicators as sub-headings under the perceptual and political rubric of self-determination. Let us dream up a world in which whales get to determine their own lives. Everybody knows the detritus of human activity impedes any whale’s ability to determine it’s own fate, so let’s call human activity a negative indicator by default. Let’s stop jumping through hoops just to abide by a stale process that upholds outmoded perceptions that are causing the death of nature.

Only a dreamer dreams such dreams. Granted, self-determination may be a political term with admitted perceptual overtones when used to describe the rights of animals. It certainly endorses the political standing promoted by the Cetacean Nation. But the bureaucrats and politicians who actually write the legislation, don’t dream about “relations” with whales. They dream “wildlife policy”.

The shift of values expressed by language like steward versus ambassador, policy versus rights, and diagnosis versus relations, reaches for a different kind of golden ring. As one supporter at the workshop remarked, “Self-determination means we have to consider not only data, but what it means for a whale to have a good day. Is it a good day for the orcas when whalewatching boats follow them for ten hours straight? Has it been a good day when biologists shoot darts into their hide.”

In the old paradigm, scientists gathering data were largely exempt from the regulations that kept the rest of us from getting too close to whales. But if we use self-determination as our bottom line, scientists are suddenly perceived as much a part of the problem as everybody else. The list of suspects grows larger by the minute.

The Good Day Indicator

It is no coincidence that the purveyor of the "good day concept" directs the only activist organization in Puget sound that specifically targets whalewatching as a cause of stress in whales. In his own words, ?Most people agree the whales are crashing because of chemical pollution, salmon depletion, and whalewatching in that order. Whalewatching may be third on the list, but it’s the issue we have the best chance of altering in the shortest amount of time.

He didn’t need to add that reigning in eco-tour companies is a mighty thankless task. These are hard-working entrepreneurs who insist that the whales join the econosphere. They regard their own job as educating the public about the orcas’ needs. Self-described good guys, commercial whale watchers fight fiercely when someone bearing intuition (but no irrefutable data) decides to place them in the despoilers hall of fame alongside dam builders and oil company executives.

The morning’s most imaginative “indicator” was suggested by a woman who holds a near-legendary status for writing op-ed pieces about whales for the Seattle Dailies. On a blackboard displaying lists focusing on sediment toxicity, and herring mortality, she asked that we consider conducting a poll among schoolchildren asking what they are dreaming about orcas. As she put it so well, “What if 100 kids are having the same dream about one particular whale?

She has already assessed the public’s resolve to protect these whales. 34% answered that protecting the whales was critical. Of those, 5% believed boats were the primary problem, 67% thought it was toxins, and 58% blamed it on the collapse of the salmon fishery.Precautions No one becomes an activist without first experiencing a deep spiritual connection to nature. This love affair (what else can we call it?) provides abundant fuel for the activist heart to confront the human arrogance that despoils nature.

However, this arrogance is only obvious to lovers. In fact, it so deeply entrenched in our society as to be considered a virtue by some violators like our current vice president, while it goes mostly unnoticed by the vast majority of the public.

Activism is a schizophrenic discipline because the deep spiritual experience that got activists involved in the first place, also gave them the eyes to see the national arrogance as the status quo. Yet the only way activists know to elicit change is to work within the status quo.

Some of the rules they accept just to play the game would make a less devoted lover turn and run. Consider just one, “the burden of proof”, a rule that activists abide by, even though it ultimately feeds the perpetuation of arrogance.

It doesn’t matter that pulp mills, chemical plants, and the town of Bellingham are all dumping into the orcas’ environment toxins known to destroy the immune systems of living organisms. But the burden of proof demands that activists demonstrate that this dumping is specifically harming orcas. Otherwise, politicians bury it in the slow-as-molasses list of things the government ought to change if it’s public servants only had more time, money, and resolve. It doesn’t matter that 67% of the public strongly believes that toxins are killing the whales. They are not experts. Nor will the dumping be stopped if specific toxins are linked to specific local industries. Dioxin for example, is primarily produced by pulp mills. Granted, but how can anyone be certain that any specific pulp mill’s dioxin caused the die-off?

Always practical

As the workshop progressed into Sunday, it became apparent that the majority of activists in our group don’t question this basic rule. It’s really a simple matter of practicality, the only viable way to honestly serve animals and habitat at this precise moment. What are they supposed to do? Wait around forever for human consciousness to transcend itself? Does anyone disagree that the southern population of resident orcas simply doesn’t have the luxury to wait patiently for metropolitan Seattle to embrace the community of all species rather than steam-rollering it? How else do we draft a working strategy to get the federal courts to place the orcas on the endangered species list?

Such a listing sets in motion a remarkable urgency to solving the problem, starting with a vastly quickened schedule to institute protective measures. Although such status does not actually annul the burden of proof, it certainly compromises its absurd power. You can be sure that spewing pulp mill will be fined and possibly even closed without giving its owner the chance to flaunt his usual option of putting up legal roadblock after roadblock.

Because the Bush administration is comprised of a cast of characters instigating profoundly anti-environmental policies such as the lowering of arsenic levels in human drinking water, the court case for the orcas has to be absolutely air-tight. In order to win that quickened status, every practical activist in the room knows that the court will insist that the burden of proof not only be adhered to, but be well fed, entertained.The burden of proof is less an issue in Germany, France, Italy, and England, where it is counter-balanced by a more earth-friendly rule known as the “precautionary method”. If, for instance, a German company wants to introduce a new chemical into paper technology, it must be rigorously tested and irrefutably shown that the effluent generated will not pollute the environment.

Americans use the precautionary method right now for assuring the safety of medicine. It’s the reason most often cited by drug companies to justify the ballooning price structure for new medicine. Although the precautionary method clearly lessens the immediate threat of pollution to humans, habitat, and wild animals, ironically most of the testing is done on animals.

All Around Us

I left the workshop a few hours before it concluded. For days afterward, it seemed that everything I heard about or read related directly to the perceptions aroused there. Arriving back home, my thirteen year old daughter informed me she had spent the day trying out a summer job working as a waitress on a local whalewatching boat. She needs the money to pay for an outward bound trip to Utah, so she lowered her eyes to tell me she just couldn’t do the job. “They don’t give the orcas any room.” She responded when I asked what the problem was. “And the so-called naturalist was a liar. He kept telling the tourists that the orcas actually like people to visit them. It would make me ill to be on that boat all summer.” I didn't doubt her.

I opened my email on Monday morning to discover a letter from an interspecies member:

"When I asked my teacher what the best action is for working with whales, he replied: ‘Teach the human beings to love all divinely created things. When this occurs, people will no longer need to go and look at the whales.’?

The woman noted that she was asking my advice because of conflicting thoughts about her naturalist job. "I love being on the water," She continued. I love the wind and the air and the relative quiet and the movement, and, at the top of the list—from some deep inner place—I love the whales. But I notice that the boat cuts through the whales path just to see them. Not in an obvious invasive way, yet it’s noticeable. I notice how many boats are on the feeding grounds, and how many creatures bear cuts or scars. Imagine what we dump in the water each trip. If the situation was reversed, with others crowding me while I’m trying to eat, or hang out with my kid, I’d be less than pleased.

I wrote back, telling her to hope that one day the burden of proof will be placed on the tourists, showing they don’t upset a whale’s nice day. She answered me again telling me to quote her letter but asking that I not use her name.

Who can be sure what corporate spies might be reading this essay?

Only joking.

Complex Society

And finally this pertinent aside, excerpted from the monthly cultural "Museletter" written and published by Richard Heinberg of "peak oil" fame. Richard’s newsletter arrived at my door as I sat down to write about the workshop. To receive this news yourself, write him at

“The mass movements against privatization of basic resources, the genetic engineering of food, the patenting of organisms; against sweatshops, clearcut logging, and mining on indigenous people’s land, are joined with movements to promote local production for local consumption, human rights, animal rights, preservation of natural environment, and forgiveness of debts owed by impoverished nations to international banks. There are so many identifiable groups involved, and so many issues, that the mainstream media have had a hard time understanding this as a coherent social phenomenon.

“What the media can not recognize is that those who govern grow accustomed to solving problems by increasing the size of the society, inventing new technologies, and expanding the bureaucracy. Eventually a point is reached at which the benefits accruing from such investments begin to diminish. Then as problems arise resulting from diminishing returns on prior and ongoing investments in complexity, they perceive only one solution: more complexity. But that just makes the problems worse.

“From the elite’s perspective, further investment in complexity appears essential: ‘Don’t you see?' they tell us, 'The globalization of capital and the deployment of new technologies (like the genetic engineering of food) are necessary for further economic growth. Without them, we will not be able to sustain the standard of living to which people have become accustomed, nor will people in the developing world ever be able to attain that standard.’”

And in the End

the love you take
is equal to the love you make


On Their Behalf