Will The Whales Inherit The Earth?

Rupert Read

How can we resist the sixth mass extinction in our imaginations? What kind of cultural shift does it take? In this latest post for The Vanishing series, Rupert Read considers the future of human societies, following in the wake of whales. With artworks by Angela Cockayne. Originally published on The Dark Mountain project here.

Whalehood Blueprint. by Angela Cockayne, Giclee print. Character traits we share with cetacean which defines sentience and personhood.

Our planetary home is haunted by a spectre, one becoming more incarnate by the day: the spectre of extinction.

What would it mean, to rebel against this ‘fate’? To rebel against extinction?

Here’s my take, as one of the many who has heard that call, inner as well as outer, to rebel:

Surely it is to stand up against the extinctions that are happening right now. The sixth mass extinction, anthropogenic, that is taking out many many species every day; alongside the extinctions of much-needed ancient human wisdom cultures; and of biodiverse wild ecosystems. And to revolt against the prospect even of human extinction that comes with a business-as-usual trajectory.

Why rebel in this way? Because some of what we do at least makes the destruction of our civilisation less painful, literally. Even just slowing down the coming of a potential apocalypse is potentially worth doing, if it preserves some more good years, or reduces the suffering that occurs in the process, or even if it merely manifests some sane loving joyful consciousness amidst the madness that surrounds us.

But most importantly of all, how much we degrade the Earth’s ecosystems matters. Because, even if we (our species, homo sapiens sapiens; or perhaps, more accurately, homo sapiens adnihilens (the kind of human that knows how to annihilate) almost or completely vanish, we are very unlikely to eliminate complex life completely or anything like it. Our first priority must be to seek to reduce the chances of a near-exterminatory event such as the Permian mass extinction. That should be doable, even for us.

If we manage moreover to preserve more of nature rather than less, then, even if we do vanish, or become hemmed climatically or geographically or toxico-chemically into some restricted zones of the Earth, what we will have done, in preserving more rather than less of life-not-ours, is hugely important: because life can then go on.

And evolution too.

Imagine a future in which we mismanage things so utterly that humanity goes extinct, or becomes drastically reduced and highly geographically restricted for a geologically long period but in which we don’t nihilate so categorically that complex life goes extinct. What next? What might happen over the tens of millions of years to follow?

Imagine for instance that some kind of a runaway heating effect ends human civilisation with extreme prejudice. But that some non-human life continues to flourish: in some corners of the oceans.

Imagine, say, that some orcas survive. And over time, no longer massively depleted by humanity, their cultures flourish and spread.

Imagine them sophisticating themselves further, in the next several million years. And then, partly by pressure and ability of evolution, and partly by choice, they notice substantial chunks of the Earth under-inhabited by anything like them.

It is entirely possible that, given 10 or 20 million years or so and some open ecological niches, social species of whales or dolphins could evolve biologically and culturally so as to take to the land (from which, of course, they originally came, about 40 million years ago). They could re-evolve those vestigial hands or feet.

Cold Feet by Angela Cockayne. Deer skin. Whales have been around over 60 million years having evolved in the ocean some came on shore, some developed into sea-wolf type creatures but then returned to the ocean, evidenced by their skeletal vestigial hips. Their nearest living relative is the hippopotamus.

And perhaps if they ever get to make civilisations of their own, on the basis of the splendid cultures they already have, they will do so in a way that is less short-sighted than the world’s dominant culture of empire has done.

For, like most cetaceans, they seem to have evaded the prejudice of – the very idea – of ‘the individual’, a prejudice that is hegemonic in the English-speaking world and much beyond, today. And that is killing us (not to mention, them).

It is not individuals who are the fundamental units of social existence, it is embedded communities. We are born into community. Individuals die; the community lives…

Humanity in our time seems mostly not to understand this. Might we be able to learn from other animals who seem, in the way they live, to have a better grasp of the point?

Cetaceans have evaded the very idea of ‘the individual’, a prejudice that is hegemonic in the English-speaking world and much beyond

I’ve been reading a marvellous book: The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. It’s truly extraordinary that cetaceans have managed to maintain and develop their cultures, when one considers the extreme butchery that they have been subject to at human hands over the past few centuries. They retain their culture(s) – their changing traditions of singing, their fashions, holidaying, their concern for the dead and dying, all documented by Whitehead and Rendell – despite this history of horrors. If you can imagine humanity being taken down murderously to about a thousandth of its size. This is what we have done to some cetaceans. It is incredible in its barbarity, cruelty – and, in a long or wide enough view, an ecosystemic view, stupidity. It is soul-rending.

And yet: they manage to go on. And thankfully, we have to some extent woken up to our barbarity, and have given them half a chance to survive.

White House by Angela Cockayne. Giclee print. The whale was the first global commodity, lubricating the industrial revolution, from resource to veneration, it was once found in every room in the house.

Whitehead and Rendell suggest that another mark of culture, which we should look for in cetaceans to confirm that the adjective ‘cultural’ is appropriately applied to them, is: social stupidity. It is possible for cultural beings to be seemingly stupid, sub-optimal, in ways that are not open to beings without cultures, without malleable traditions or social learning.

We can understand this at a suitably high level of abstraction by reference to ourselves (we are all too familiar with human stupidity at scale); but the point about such irrational or incoherent behaviour is that in its specificity it resists such understanding. Thus we’ll typically say of people who we describe as doing something stupid; but that’s stupid, why are they doing it?’

Whitehead and Rendell offer a powerful case, in cetaceans: mass strandings.

Now, some mass strandings can be explained, tragically, by reference to pollution making the cetaceans in question ill; or by reference to the sonar frequencies which our navies are, indiscriminately and highly destructively, filling our seas with. But there are plenty of cases which don’t fit this kind of model. Cases where one or some of the pod are beached, ill, or wounded, while others, fit and healthy, are not decisively so. And then it appears stupid, that the latter are unwilling to save themselves even when their conspecifics are doomed unless we change the frame, and, instead of asking repeatedly, ‘Why won’t this dolphin save itself, nor even allow itself to be saved?’, we step back to think in this case about whether our notion of ‘self’ in play here may itself be prejudicial.

Perhaps the cetacean sense of self transcends what for us present as divisions between ‘individuals’.

To understand cetacean society, perhaps we have to let go of philosophical – or ideological – assumptions about the separateness of living beings from one another, assumptions which seem, in the Capitalocene, natural to us regarding human beings (but perhaps only because we are so deeply captive to an ideology of individualism: we don’t see it, for it’s the sea we swim in). We may have to contemplate the lived reality of what we would call ‘larger-than-self’ identity.

We may have to contemplate the lived reality of what we would call ‘larger-than-self’ identity.

I’d argue that, if cetaceans were able to speak to us, what cetaceans in a pod undergoing a mass stranding, and who we were seeking to lead back out to sea, might say is: ‘You ask me to save myself. But you haven’t understood that it would be (part of) myself that I would be leaving on the beach, if I did as you asked. And how could I possibly do that?…’ If we could understand that, then we might have a much better chance of survival on this planet even yet. For that would be: being an us.

Those who choose to stay with their dying conspecifics, and so, often, die themselves, are perhaps saying: Here we stand, here we lie – we can do no other.

If we had that, if we were able to feel so close to ‘others’ that we couldn’t let them go, then we might be better placed to think not ‘only’ as a mountain but as a civilisation. And so to survive. For we would feel directly the reality of all those who we are committing to suffering or death. And we wouldn’t be able to go on doing it.

The social cetaceans expand our sense of what is possible vis-à-vis relationship and community. Or perhaps they exceed it. They indicate a spectrum upon which we are far from some reptiles (who have no interest in their own young, and will eat them if they come across them), but not quite as advanced as them, as cetaceans.

What kinds of beings do we need to be(come) in order to survive the coming ecological devastation, and in order not to accelerate it beyond the beyond of survival? We’d have to think-and-feel as a we. Cetaceans such as sperm whales, orcas, humpbacks, and bottlenose dolphins, present us with an enormous clue as to how being thus would be: if we were willing to hear them.

Maybe reflecting deeply on how cetaceans do sometimes walk willingly into mass suicide – because, in a way so wonderfully, they’re unable or unwilling to imagine leaving each other, as we see played out in the incredibly moving way that they actively resist being saved, in mass strandings – might even yet help us figure out how not to walk into mass global suicide. Because perhaps we’re doing so only because, unlike them, we find it too easy individualistically to imagine leaving each other to our fates.

Maybe we can learn to think and be more like those whales and dolphins – who simply will not do this.

But now, once again; imagine that we fail to imagine. Imagine that therefore we fail, but that we don’t so acidify and overheat the oceans that we completely take out the cetaceans, in the course of our down-going. Imagine even that, in our travail, we use some of our remaining agency to try to stop them (and elephants, and bonobos, and all the other animals whose cultures show promise that ours sometimes lacks) from being wiped away. Imagine that they survive, and then prosper, in the millions of years to follow.

It could happen.

It might even happen in a world where humans had not been eliminated, but only long-term geographically restricted (perhaps, to the poles). So imagine too a perhaps-even-more-thrilling prospect: a world in which humans and cetacean-descendants co-existed, and learnt from each other. The implication of my argument of course is that, even if we were doomed (which of course we most certainly do not yet know ourselves to be), then every ‘holding action’ we take on nature’s behalf could still turn out to be of incalculable value. If we stop the seas from filling with plastic, not to mention from boiling off in a runaway greenhouse effect, then we increase the chance that some marvellous scenario such as sketched above could be made room for.

When we think of civilisational succession – when we take seriously the idea that our civilisation will be replaced by something – still we don’t normally factor non-human animals into what may succeed us. But, if we start to think long-term enough (which is exactly what we now need to learn once more to do) then such a possibility starts to become real. Perhaps one day there will be an eco-sane, communitarian civilisation descended from our present-day cetaceans, living on and off the ruins we left behind. If that happens, they will be very glad indeed that we didn’t destroy even more than we already have.

Sing Out for Him by Angela Cockayne. Whales made from a pewter church organ.

It is hard to face the possibility of humanity vanishing from virtually all or even all of the Earth. Because we have the capacity to be great-hearted, and to do and create beautiful things and relationships. Cetaceans have some such capacities too. In fact, some of their capacities in these spheres appear to be potentially even greater than ours.

I am ecocentric in that what should be at the centre of our concern is nature. Without viable ecosystems, we are nothing. The fundamental unit in nature is of course not the biological individual or the species, but the community: the ecosystem.

We can credibly hope for such natural communities to be less vulnerable to destruction in future – if we humans are willing to learn for example from whales and dolphins. Or if we end up making way for them. (Or for corvids, wolves, elephants, orangutans, bonobo chimpanzees, perhaps even cephalopods.) Any of those species could easily evolve, over the vast course of the time left to Earth before the Sun starts to chronically over-heat it and Gaian balancing feedbacks can no longer operate, into a species capable of doing on balance a better job than we have so far done of enjoying a rich cultural life at scale.

While our extinguishing ourselves would be unutterably stupid and tragic, extinguishing species such as these too would be far far worse still. There is a very high premium on keeping these species in particular intact, unextinct. Both for the glories of their life now, and for the richer-still glories that might await them in an evolutionary future.

Biodiversity hotspots are the new monasteries, in the likely coming Dark Ages. It is going to be almost impossibly difficult to preserve the social cetaceans through what is coming. We have to try to do what we can to stop the oceans becoming gigantic dead zones; one implication of this is that geoengineering schemes are doubly wrong. Then there is the unsmall matter of stopping our contemporaries and descendants from directly killing those that should be given a chance at inheriting the Earth. Civilisational collapses will be unlikely to be hospitable environments for zoos (or aquaria). These glorious fellow beings need to be given enough space in which to live and thrive. And that is a lot: because there is likely to be much human predation upon them in failed states and collapsing civilisations.

I see this as the greatest of all motivations for rebelling against extinctions. Struggling on the macro and micro scales to give whales and dolphins and bonobos and more as strong a shot as can now be managed at surviving the future. This process – and the vital, deeply-challenging aspect of it that has to do with rendering these our kin sacred so that fewer and fewer of us are minded to be willing to kill them, even if doing so would feed us for a while – begins with reflection, imagination, and with feeling.

And then actions which speak more urgently than any words.

Sense-ful acts of beauty.