Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Get angry for the right reasons

This is my contribution to the February APLS carnival. This month's host, The Purloined Letter from the Green Phone Booth blog, has chosen a wide-ranging topic under the title "A Carnival of Nature". I have chosen to focus on the following part:
"How has your experience with the natural world shaped your own environmentalism? Is love of the natural world an essential motivation for sustainability?"
To participate in February's carnival, please submit your posts to
aplscarnival (at) gmail (dot) com by February 13.


The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) runs a high-profile advertising campaign that focuses on the annual seal hunt in Atlantic Canada. A series of very thought-provoking posters regularly appears on our local bus stops:

It was this kind of campaign that drew me into the environmental movement as a child. Raised on a diet of James Herriot and David Attenborough, I loved all things furry, feathery and blubbery. Before the 80s pop stars took over, my room was covered in posters of birds and beasts. On one of our regular Sunday family hikes on the North Yorkshire Moors, a glimpse of a falcon or a fox would make my entire week. And I would literally cry at images of whales and dolphins being slaughtered in Antarctica.

I joined the RSPCA when I was about eight, and Greenpeace when I was ten. I read all their newsletters avidly, and joined in their letter-writing campaigns. I had a Greenpeace t-shirt with a diving whale's tail on it, and a sweatshirt with a picture of the Rainbow Warrior, and proudly wore the latter on a trip to France. For a time, I even wanted to grow up to be one of the Zodiak heroes who interfere with the hunt.

I've never lost this passion for the natural world. I love to get out into the mountains or onto the ocean and submerge myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the wild. The sight of an eagle or seal from a kayak is still a visceral thrill, and I was delighted to see a coyote in Whistler on Sunday. (The family of raccoons who constantly try to get into my roof can bugger right off though, I don't care how cute they are).

Other things have changed though.

I've become much more aware of the importance of an animal's habitat and ecosystem. The glamorous, photogenic species are just the tip of the iceberg - we can't save the whales while ignoring the plankton. Systemic changes such as the warming of the air and acidification of the oceans are a threat at all levels. And, while I would have been cheering him along when I was a kid, who is multi-billionaire Paul McCartney to jet in to Newfoundland, telling people on welfare that they should give up their main source of income for the year? Yeah, that's great in an ideal world, but it ain't the solution in this one.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of the seal hunt. And conservation efforts that focus on one superstar species do benefit the entire ecosystem; how much habitat has been preserved in Asia due to sanctuaries set up to protect pandas, or tigers?

But I think the true battle lies elsewhere.

The kind of poster that would really attract me these days might read as follows:

The entire planet is in crisis
And you're worrying about a few seals
Get angry for the right reasons

(Cath presses "Publish" and waits to be flamed by animal rights activists. For the record, I'm sure the people who use cute cuddly critters as a call to arms are fully aware of the bigger picture. And I still think the Greenpeace dudes on zodiaks are heroes).


  1. Well, I agree with you, so your first comment is still friendly ;)
    Saving seals is great, but unless some major global changes take place, that just won't do anything about the underlying problem.
    Wonderful post Cath!

  2. I agree with you, but I am now an adult who can think things through logically (most of the time).

    However, I think that focusing on the cute, fuzzy and bizarre might attract that attention of younger people who can't appreciate the complexity of the real problem. Then, as they grow up being aware that there are issues, they can start thinking more globally.

    Also, sometimes when something appears too hard, many people don't even bother to try. If they can focus on one small aspect (the cute seals, say) it makes it seem easier to manage and they are willing to actually DO something to save their favorite fuzzy. Maybe it is better for a whole bunch of people to be working on small bits, rather than these same people putting it all in the 'too hard' box?

  3. Good point - it worked for me at that age!

    I hadn't really considered the fact that focusing on the superstar species has the effect of breaking the problem down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Hmmmmm.

  4. Great post cath! my biggest issue with the anti-seal hunt, is that its usually a bunch of white middle-class (or richer) people protesting the hunts. Its not just about the economic survival of the people in NfLd and NWT, its about a integral part of native culture. I fully believe that cultures evolve and change, but that has be done by working with community, not just coming in and condemning them.

  5. There's several issues here. For me it does come down to animal welfare and I'm not terribly sympathetic to the economic argument. In Britain the same people that bleat on and on about the banning of fox hunting are the same people that couldn't care less when the miners were all fired. In their case many just want the prehistoric unevolved right to abuse animals for fun.

    Secondly one should not discount the terrible damage this does to Canada's reputation internationally. Whether it is a reasonable picture or not, the rivers of blood from (cute) animals beaten to death was certainly the biggest thing about Canada that I knew for years and this is true for many people in other countries.

    I would like to know how much of the seal hunt is part of traditional culture and how much is really a dying industry trying to survive. If it is the later, then rather than beating animals to death to support it, the more moral thing to do is to assist kindly with it's demise (unlike the cruel end to coal industry) and deal with the reality.

    I will continue to sign the petitions against it as I will the numerous other abominations of animals that take place in the world. I'm sure that breaking these things down and dealing with specific issues does assist with the changing zeitgeist. If people see one thing no longer being tolerated, then with it so must go others things in a similar vein. As a nation I think Canada should be trying to move with (and preferably leading) the changing zeitgeist towards animals, things need to be improved everywhere.

  6. "I would like to know how much of the seal hunt is part of traditional culture and how much is really a dying industry trying to survive."

    It's very much the former; traditional *native* culture. Not related to fox hunts at all.

  7. What about rights for yeast? The people in the lab next door kill billions of them on a daily basis!

    (Nice to see someone being a bit more sober about the fluffy wuffies, Cath)

  8. Hey Silver Fox, define 'native'.

  9. Yeast is a unhelpful analogy. Yeast do not feel pain. Seals do when they are beaten to death and it is not done quickly. If it is true as it is said that some are skinned alive, then that is even more unacceptable.

    As for native culture, I meant native traditional culture vs. modern day Canada and non First Nation Canadians. I'm not sure I except culture as a reason for beating animals to death in any case. If, however it is just a modern day fishing industry then I would also like to know.

  10. Oh yeah, and I believe by native culture Silver Fox is referring to the Inupiat/ Inuit people (commonly known as Eskimos. Not to put words in her mouth or anything. And a lot of these people do live a subsistence lifestyle that is unimaginable to most people in Europe or American/ Canadian cities. It is interesting that Russia, which has a much higher incidence of baby seal killing (which there is primarily for economic reasons) does not seem to be on the radar as much as Canada. Please note that I am neither expressing support or condeming the practice but do believe it is a bit more complicated than many would believe.

  11. Soooooo many points to address here... apologies if I miss anything!

    I understood "native" to mean "aboriginal", the two terms being used interchangeably here. According to my citizenship study guide, this category contains the First Nations people, Inuit, and Metis.

    I had always thought that the native take is a relatively small percentage of the overall take, and Wikipedia seems to agree, at least for the most recent season:

    "The total allowable catch for 2008 is set by the Canadian government to 275,000 harp seals, (the quota include 2,000 seals for personal seal hunting, and 4,950 seals for the Aboriginal seal hunt,) 8,200 hooded seals and 12,000 grey seals."

    I think that if natives were killing a greater proportion of the total seals, there'd be much less controversy and outcry, white guilt being one factor.

    So - the commercial hunt. If this was a stand alone black and white issue - for or against? - of course I'd be against it. And I believe the economic incentive (i.e. the market for fur) is declining (I never have and never will buy fur), and will hopefully die a natural death at a rate that allows people time to find other sources of income. But for someone like McCartney to ask people just to stop, without offering them any alternatives, is not the solution and just raises the hackles. If you really want to help - how about funding an ecotourism outfit in the region that depends on a healthy ecosystem? Something, not just talk.

    However this post was looking at the sealing issue as part of the bigger picture of the environment, and trying to live sustainably. In that context, I really think that there are other priorities.

    Dr. J's point about Canada's reputation abroad is very well taken. We (especially Mr E Man) get endless comments and jokes about this when we go to the UK. (Wayfarer, very interesting comment about Russia!). But again, big picture, I think history will judge things like overfishing and especially the oil sands to be bigger black marks against Canada's name. (The BBC recently ran a feature about the environmental impact of the oil sands, and it ended up being the most emailed story on the site for a whole week (I've been meaning to blog about this)).

    Richard, didn't we have a similar conversation recently about the rights of butterflies vs. Drosophila?!

  12. And by the way, I just want to say how much I value the little community that's built up on this blog. When I first started to read blogs, I always preferred the ones where the commenters seemed to know each other, and talked amongst themselves, not just to the blogger. We seem to be getting there! Thank you all, and keep up the good work ;)

  13. yes, we did :)

    How come natives get a free pass at being cruel?

  14. I'm not saying that they should, just that they often do. Something to do with a desire to show reverence and respect to the culture that early European arrivals did their best to destroy - at least that's what I've picked up from anthropology museums and general Canadian culture since I've been here.

  15. Not that killing animals for food and warmth is inherently cruel. I eat meat, after all. What (I think) I'm trying to say is that if all/most of the dead baby seals were killed by native hunters rather than Canadians of European descent, the context would change and the whole hunt might well be viewed very differently.

  16. " What (I think) I'm trying to say is that if all/most of the dead baby seals were killed by native hunters rather than Canadians of European descent, the context would change and the whole hunt might well be viewed very differently."

    and I'm asking if that actually makes a *difference*, really. I mean, why are we so down on the Japanese killing whales, if we think it's ok for native Americans to kill seals?

    It's still cruel, or not (I've read interesting things on this, and the image of cuddly seals being battered to death is not the whole story. I'm not coming down on one side or the other, I'm just asking questions), no matter who does it.

    As for fox hunting, I was sort of making the point that it is a 'native' British thing. Just because our natives have fancy jackets and a civilization doesn't make it any less valid.

    For the record, I object to fox hunting on the grounds of efficiency. If you're trying to control the fox population, then a high-powered rifle makes much more sense.

  17. I think it comes down to the difference between subsistence hunting for meat / essential cold weather gear / heating oil and commercial hunting.

    I don't think fox hunting is a valid analogy, because:
    -foxes aren't edible
    -no-one in the UK actually needs a fox hat, unless it's part of the punchline of a joke about visiting some remote area
    -fox hunters have not had their culture systematically destroyed by a colonising power (see this article about the residential school system.

    There's also a class element there that feeds into the anti-hunting movement.

    Man, I don't know how some bloggers manage to keep posting controversial stuff day in, day out... it's exhausting!

  18. And apparently renders me incoherent. Hopefully you know what I mean.

    Another example - at primary school we watched a documentary series about the life of the Inuit. Our teacher backed this up with intensive study of the culture, hunting practices, etc. We did drawings, role plays, songs, all that. Everything was taught very respectfully, almost reverently - an ancient and noble people, all that stuff.

    Contrast that to images on the news of some Newfie clubbing a seal... the way the commercial and the native hunts are portrayed are very different.

    And the traditional practices are no doubt more sustainable than the commercial hunt (trying desperately to drag this thread back on-topic).

    Killing is killing, no doubt about that, but there are some complicating factors...

  19. "no-one in the UK actually needs a fox hat, unless it's part of the punchline of a joke about visiting some remote area"

    Believe it or not, I actually had occasion to use that very joke today.

    OK, after talking about how much I like this chatty community of commenters, I am apparently now talking to myself. Oh well.

  20. I tried to comment further, but Webkit broke your blog. Sorry.

  21. I am intrigued... what were you going to say? And what is Webkit? Is that another scary Mac thing I need to learn about?

  22. Excellent post Cath, thanks.

    I think I agree with you that the fox hunting is not a great analogy. As for the whales and the Japanese, a difference might be to extract from a resource in a sustainable (? with an effect on population numbers?) fashion or not. I guess we haven't figured any of this properly yet, otherwise we wouldn't be discussing it...

    Otherwise, as much as Greenpeace have done good things, I always wonder if they are any good at preaching other people than the converted. And I HATE being stopped by them on the street, and asked if I am "concerned about the environment".

  23. Thanks!

    When I was a member of Greenpeace, their newsletters etc. said that the Japanese only started eating whale meat out of necessity during WWII, due to the blockade. So it's not a long-standing and ancient tradition... but that might be GP propaganda.

    Your comment about GP stopping you on the street reminds me of the time I turned up to vote in the Scottish election, on my bike... members of the Green party positively swarmed me!

  24. Wow! I have to say that your path toward environmentalism (or whatever you want to call it) is much like mine. I did all those things as a child. Cried (and still do) when I see an animal injured. Cheered on the crew of Sea Shepherd when they went up against Japanese whaling ships. But we have to maintain a bigger picture.

  25. I'm all for having as many entry points to the green movement as possible. Whether it is the plight of seals makes someone stop and re-think daily choices or the fate of plankton (or the entire planet), I'm thrilled there is another person feeling the connection to the world.

    This is why I think it is so important for children (and, for that matter, adults) to be able to experience nature first-hand. Who knows what will speak to each person? Increasing the number of experiences increases the likelihood that something will grab that person and create a deeper connection.

    Thanks for sharing the story of your connection!


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