Earlier this summer Japan, Norway, and Iceland announced that they planned to dramatically increase the scope of whaling, extending it to species that currently aren’t hunted. (They were eventually rebuffed by a small margin.) Upon learning this, I remember experiencing a strong sense of anger and frustration. Part of this was due no doubt to my recent trip to Hawaii and the opportunity I had to get up close to humpback whales, which were slated for slaughter by the Japanese. These magnificent creatures pose no threat to humans, are highly sentient (their famous songs are as complex as symphonies), and every year take part in the longest migration on the entire planet.

After I called the Japanese, Icelandic, and Norwegian embassies, and sent out emails to my friends urging them to do the same, I took a moment to examine my strong reaction to this news. At a time of genocide in the Sudan, the ongoing carnage in Iraq, and the continuing AIDS epidemic, was the intensity of my feelings misplaced? Was I falling prey to the charge often leveled against environmentalists, that they care more about animals than about people? It took me some time to wade through my emotions; here’s what I’ve concluded:

  1. In some ways I have become desensitized both to the cruelty that is an everyday phenomenon in today’s world and to my inability to do much about it. But if this is so, then why did I react so strongly?
  2. Part of the intensity of my feelings likely stems from the fact that it is some of the richest countries in the world that are killing the whales; this killing isn’t necessary for their survival, or even a major component of their well-being. The Japanese are actually the worst offenders; under the guise of “scientific research” they harvest whales and subsidize whale meat in order to increase domestic consumption, and seem more motivated by nonsensical claims of “cultural imperialism” than by actually wanting to support local industry (take note, all you people who romanticize “local culture”). In short, for the offending countries, the whale industry is either a ridiculous extravagance or an expression of political stubbornness by those who want to cling to old traditions that fly in the face of moral progress.
  3. Another part of my frustration flowed from the simple calculus of how easy or difficult certain problems are to address. Of course I would choose to end the AIDS epidemic over preventing whaling, but the former is infinitely more difficult. Ending whaling would literally be as simple as getting a few of the outlier nations to agree to stop it. And there is no opportunity cost of such an action; ending the slaughter of whales would not decrease the ability to cure AIDS. In fact, all of the effort now being expended to prevent whaling could be used instead for other causes.
  4. On some level environmental issues such as the slaughter of whales (or dolphins, lions, tigers, elephants) are highly and importantly symbolic. The prevailing ethic on the planet is that animals exist for nothing more than to satisfy human desires; they have no worth of their own. Beside the fact that this ethic is arbitrary, and in my view immoral, I think it feeds into a larger worldview that leads to continual conflicts over the Earth’s natural resources: conflicts which are at the root of most major wars (if the Middle East weren’t home to the world’s biggest oil reserves, we would not be in Iraq today). While ending whale slaughter won’t turn us into eco-friendly societies overnight, the adoption of more enlightened environmental policies sometimes hinges on the cumulative effect of many seemingly small victories.

In summary, there are dozens of problems deserving of our attention, and perhaps some of the energy spent on environmental causes would be better spent on directly ending human suffering; but in the end, the moral deficiencies that lead some to shoot elephants for sport, others to kill whales, and others to kill people are more intimately linked than many of us probably realize.

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