Friday, October 19, 2018
October 19, 2018: Whaling Histories: Contemporary Whaling and Greenpeace
[On October 18, 1851, the first edition of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in London (under its initial title, The Whale). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Melville’s novel and other histories and stories related to the book’s ostensible subject, the world of whaling. Leading up to a special weekend post on a wonderful colleague at the New Bedford Whaling Museum!]
On an ongoing issue, an activist response, and why I’m writing about them here.
This first paragraph is one of those moments on the blog where I could pretend like I knew much of anything about the day’s topics prior to researching this post, but I’d be lying. I vaguely remembered something about a recent debate over whether commercial whaling should be allowed after a long moratorium (turns out the moratorium began in 1986 and the debate took place at the 2010 meeting of the International Whaling Commission), and had a general sense that Japanese whalers had been practicing commercial whaling even when they weren’t supposed to. But holy moly is the issue still much more widespread and prevalent than that in the 21st century, from the fact that whaling of various types and for various prey has apparently never stopped to the fact that numerous countries (such as Iceland and Norway in addition to Japan) have advocated for a return to commercial whaling, among other surprising (to me at least) and salient details. Again, I could pretend I know all this because I drink and I know things, but in truth I learned much of what I now know from this excellent Wikipedia page on contemporary whaling.
What I did have a better sense of, but which has been confirmed and amplified by my research, is the dangerous and inspiring work that Greenpeace (among other organizations, but with Greenpeace at the forefront) has done to challenge contemporary whalers. Greenpeace came into existence with an act of nonviolent protest at sea (using a chartered fishing boat to protest US nuclear testing on Alaska’s Amchitka Island), and it was not long thereafter that the organization began using the same form of activism to oppose commercial whaling. Those courageous efforts certainly played a role in the move toward the 1986 ban, but I would argue that it was the organization’s overall Save the Whales campaign which truly raised public and popular awareness of the issue (it was even the center of a Star Trek movie!) to the point where support for such a ban became a driving force. Moreover, just as not all commercial whaling has stopped since the ban, and just as those various countries are arguing for a return to legal commercial whaling today, so too has Greenpeace continued to fight the good fight into the 21st century. Indeed, the anti-whaling campaign is one of the most sustained and successful environmental activist movements of the last half-century, and a model for all those who seek to use every means and method to protect our planet from ourselves.
Those inspirations for activism against injustice in all forms represent one big reason why I wanted to dedicate my last post in a series on American whaling histories to these more international and contemporary sides to the issue. But another reason is one for which we have reminders all around us all the time these days: that the past is never past, that echoes and extensions of our histories (including, if not most especially, our darkest and most destructive histories) are central and influential and inescapable parts of our world. Which is to say, of course 21st century whaling isn’t the same as the industry’s 17th or 19th century histories, no more than any part of the present is ever identical to the past. But nonetheless these prior and ongoing histories are on a spectrum, are interwoven threads within the same patterns—and those very complex patterns can be best understood if we examine and work to understand all of the threads, historical just as much as (if not more so, as they are less immediate and thus take more effort to understand) contemporary. As the story of whaling continues to unfold around us, it’s vital that we remember and engage with the very American histories of that industry and world as well.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?