Derrick Jensen: The Myth of Human Supremacy

Derrick Jensen: The Myth of Human Supremacy

The following is an extract from Derrick Jensen’s 2016 book The Myth of Human Supremacy. From the book jacket: “In this impassioned polemic, radical environmental philosopher Derrick Jensen debunks the near-universal belief in a hierarchy of nature and the superiority of humans. Vast and underappreciated complexities of nonhuman life are explored in detail—from the cultures of pigs and prairie dogs, to the creative use of tools by elephants and fish, to the acumen of caterpillars and fungi. The paralysis of the scientific establishment on moral and ethical issues is confronted and a radical new framework for assessing the intelligence and sentience of nonhuman life is put forth.” Visit Derrick’s website to buy the book.

By Derrick Jensen

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t talked about the origins of human supremacism. Some say it began with the domestication of nonhuman animals, as we came to think of these as our dependent inferiors, as our slaves, our beasts of burden. Some say it began with agriculture, where the entire landbase was converted to human use. Some say the model for human supremacism is male supremacism: women are physically differentiable from men, and some men decided that differentiability meant inferiority, and validated their own superiority by repeatedly violating and controlling women; this model was then applied across racial, cultural, and species differences. Some say human supremacism really got its start with the creation of a monotheistic sky god and the consequent removal of meaning from the material earth.

These questions of origins, while interesting and on some levels important, are not vital to the current discussion. Right now this narcissistic, sociopathic human supremacist culture is killing the planet, and we need to stop it. Asking where it started feels a bit to me like wondering about the childhood traumas of the axe murderer who is tearing apart your loved ones. Sure, it’s a discussion to be had, but can we please stop the murderer first?


Because human supremacism—like other supremacisms—is not based on fact, but rather on pre-existing bigotry (and the narcissism and tangible self-interest on which all bigotries are based), I don’t expect this book will cause many human supremacists to reconsider their supremacism, just as books on male or white supremacism don’t generally cause male or white supremacists to reconsider theirs. The book isn’t written for them. This book is written to give support to the people—and there are a lot of us—who are not human supremacists, and who are disgusted with the attitudes and behaviors of the supremacists, who are attempting to stop the supremacists from killing all that lives. It is written for those who are appalled by nonhumans being tortured, displaced, destroyed, exterminated by supremacists in service to authoritarian technics. It is written for those who are tired of the incessant—I would say obsessive—propaganda required to prop up human supremacism. It is written for those who recognize the self-serving stupidity and selective blindness of the supremacist position.

It is written for those who prefer a living planet to authoritarian technics. It is written for those who prefer democratic decision-making processes to authoritarian technics. It is written for those who prefer life to machines.


I’m sitting again by the pond. The wind still plays gently among the reeds, plays also with the surface of the water.

This time I do not hear the sound of a family of jays softly talking amongst themselves. This time I hear the sound of chainsaws.

The forests on both sides of where I live are being clearcut. I don’t know why. Or rather, on a superficial level I do. The people who “own” both pieces of land had a “problem” they needed to “solve.” “Problem”? They needed money. Or they wanted money. Or they craved money. It doesn’t matter. “Solution”? Cut the trees and sell them.

Never mind those who live there.

So for weeks now I’ve been hearing the whine of chainsaws and the screams of trees as they fall. For weeks now I’ve been feeling the shock waves when the trees hit the ground.

Such is life at the end of the world.


We end on the plains of eastern Colorado, where as I write this a friend is trying desperately to protect prairie dogs. A “developer” wants to put in a mall on top of one of the largest extant prairie dog villages along Colorado’s Front Range. The village has 3,000 to 8,000 burrows.

Prior to this human supremacist culture moving into the Great Plains, the largest prairie dog community in the world, which was in Texas, covered 25,000 square miles, and was home to perhaps 400 million prairie dogs. The total range for prairie dogs was about 150,000 to 200,000 square miles, and population was well over a billion.

Now, prairie dogs have been reduced to about five percent of their range and two percent of their population.

Yet because yet another rich person wants to build yet another mall (in this economy, with so many empty stores already?), much of this prairie dog community will be poisoned. That community includes the twenty or more other species who live with and depend upon prairie dogs. The prairie dogs (and some others) who are not poisoned will be buried alive by the bulldozers, then covered with concrete. This includes the pregnant females, who prefer not to leave their dens.

If you recall, prairie dogs have complex languages, with words for many threats. They have language to describe hawks, and to describe snakes, and to describe coyotes. They have language to describe a woman wearing a yellow shirt, and different language for a woman wearing a blue shirt. They have had to come up with language to describe a man with a gun.

Do they, I wonder, have language to describe a bulldozer? Do they have language to describe the pregnant females of their community being buried alive?

And do they have language to describe the murderous insatiability of human supremacists? And do others? Do blue whales and the few remaining tigers? Do the last three northern white rhinos, all that’s left because some human supremacists believe their horns are aphrodisiacs? Do elephants? Did the black-skinned pink-tusked elephants of China? Did the Mesopotamian elephants? And what about others? What about the disappearing fireflies? What about the dammed and re-dammed and re-dammed Mississippi? What about the once-mighty Columbia? What about the once-free Amazon? Do they have language to describe this murderous insatiability?


And perhaps more to the point, do we?


By the time you read this, the prairie dogs my friend is fighting to protect will probably be dead, killed so someone can build yet another cathedral to human supremacism. And by the time you read this, yet another dam will have been built on the Mekong, on the upper reaches of the Amazon, on the upper Nile. By the time you read this there will be 7,000 to 10,000 more dams in the world. By the time you read this there will be more dead zones in the oceans. By the time you read this there will be another 100,000 species driven extinct.

And all for what?

To serve authoritarian technics, to serve an obsession to validate and re-validate a self-perceived superiority that is so fragile that each new other we encounter must be violated, and then violated, and then violated, till there is nothing left and we move on to violate another.

This is not the future I want. This is not the future I will accept.


What I want from this book is for readers to begin to remember what it is to be human, to begin to remember what it is to be a member of a larger biotic community. What I want is for you—and me, and all of us—to fall back into the world into which you—and me, and all of us—were born, before you, too, like all of us were taught to become a bigot, before you, too, like all of us were taught to become a human supremacist, before you, too, like all of us were turned into a servant of this machine culture like your and my parents and their parents before them. I want for you—and me, and all of us—to fall into a world where you—like all of us—are one among many, a world of speaking subjects, a world of infinite complexity, a world where we each depend on the others, all of us understanding that the health of the real world is primary.

The world is being murdered. It is being murdered by actions that are perpetrated to support and perpetuate a worldview. Those actions must be stopped. Given what is at stake, failure is no longer an option. The truth is that it never was an option.

So where do we begin? We begin by questioning the unquestioned beliefs that are the real authorities of this culture, and then we move out from there. And once you’ve begun that questioning, my job is done, because once those questions start they never stop. From that point on, what you do is up to you.

More from Derrick Jensen on the DGR News Service.

Whales Will Save the World’s Climate—Unless the Military Destroys Them First

Whales Will Save the World’s Climate—Unless the Military Destroys Them First

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

By Koohan Paik-Mander

The U.S. military is famous for being the single largest consumer of petroleum products in the world and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its carbon emissions exceed those released by “more than 100 countries combined.”

Now, with the Biden administration’s mandate to slash carbon emissions “at least in half by the end of the decade,” the Pentagon has committed to using all-electric vehicles and transitioning to biofuels for all its trucks, ships and aircraft. But is only addressing emissions enough to mitigate the current climate crisis?

What does not figure into the climate calculus of the new emission-halving plan is that the Pentagon can still continue to destroy Earth’s natural systems that help sequester carbon and generate oxygen. For example, the plan ignores the Pentagon’s continuing role in the annihilation of whales, in spite of the miraculous role that large cetaceans have played in delaying climate catastrophe and “maintaining healthy marine ecosystems,” according to a report by Whale and Dolphin Conservation. This fact has mostly gone unnoticed until only recently.

There are countless ways in which the Pentagon hobbles Earth’s inherent abilities to regenerate itself. Yet, it has been the decimation of populations of whales and dolphins over the last decade—resulting from the year-round, full-spectrum military practices carried out in the oceans—that has fast-tracked us toward a cataclysmic environmental tipping point.

The other imminent danger that whales and dolphins face is from the installation of space-war infrastructure, which is taking place currently. This new infrastructure comprises the development of the so-called “smart ocean,” rocket launchpads, missile tracking stations and other components of satellite-based battle. If the billions of dollars being plowed into the 2022 defense budget for space-war technology are any indication of what’s in store, the destruction to marine life caused by the use of these technologies will only accelerate in the future, hurtling Earth’s creatures to an even quicker demise than already forecast.

Whale Health: The Easiest and Most Effective Way to Sequester Carbon

It’s first important to understand how whales are indispensable to mitigating climate catastrophe, and why reviving their numbers is crucial to slowing down damage and even repairing the marine ecosystem. The importance of whales in fighting the climate crisis has also been highlighted in an article that appeared in the International Monetary Fund’s Finance and Development magazine, which calls for the restoration of global whale populations. “Protecting whales could add significantly to carbon capture,” states the article, showing how the global financial institution also recognizes whale health to be one of the most economical and effective solutions to the climate crisis.

Throughout their lives, whales enable the oceans to sequester a whopping 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That astonishing amount in a single year is nearly double the 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon that was emitted by the U.S. military in the entire 16-year span between 2001 and 2017, according to an article in Grist, which relied on a paper from the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute.

The profound role of whales in keeping the world alive is generally unrecognized. Much of how whales sequester carbon is due to their symbiotic relationship with phytoplankton, the organisms that are the base of all marine food chains.

The way the sequestering of carbon by whales works is through the piston-like movements of the marine mammals as they dive to the depths to feed and then come up to the surface to breathe. This “whale pump” propels their own feces in giant plumes up to the surface of the water. This helps bring essential nutrients from the ocean depths to the surface areas where sunlight enables phytoplankton to flourish and reproduce, and where photosynthesis promotes the sequestration of carbon and the generation of oxygen. More than half the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from phytoplankton. Because of these infinitesimal marine organisms, our oceans truly are the lungs of the planet.

More whales mean more phytoplankton, which means more oxygen and more carbon capture. According to the authors of the article in the IMF’s Finance and Development magazine—Ralph Chami and Sena Oztosun, from the IMF’s Institute for Capacity Development, and two professors, Thomas Cosimano from the University of Notre Dame and Connel Fullenkamp from Duke University—if the world could increase “phytoplankton productivity” via “whale activity” by only 1 percent, it “would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees.”

Even after death, whale carcasses function as carbon sinks. Every year, it is estimated that whale carcasses transport 190,000 tons of carbon, locked within their bodies, to the bottom of the sea. That’s the same amount of carbon produced by 80,000 cars per year, according to Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos, who appeared on TED Radio Hour on NPR. On the seafloor, this carbon supports deep-sea ecosystems and is integrated into marine sediments.

Vacuuming CO2 From the Skya False Solution

Meanwhile, giant concrete-and-metal “direct air carbon capture” plants are being planned by the private sector for construction in natural landscapes all over the world. The largest one began operation in 2021 in Iceland. The plant is named “Orca,” which not only happens to be a type of cetacean but is also derived from the Icelandic word for “energy” (orka).

Orca captures a mere 10 metric tons of CO2 per day—compared to about 5.5 million metric tons per day of that currently sequestered by our oceans, due, in large part, to whales. And yet, the minuscule comparative success by Orca is being celebrated, while the effectiveness of whales goes largely unnoticed. In fact, President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill contains $3.5 billion for building four gigantic direct air capture facilities around the country. Nothing was allocated to protect and regenerate the real orcas of the sea.

If ever there were “superheroes” who could save us from the climate crisis, they would be the whales and the phytoplankton, not the direct air capture plants, and certainly not the U.S. military. Clearly, a key path forward toward a livable planet is to make whale and ocean conservation a top priority.

‘We Have to Destroy the Village in Order to Save It’

Unfortunately, the U.S. budget priorities never fail to put the Pentagon above all else—even a breathable atmosphere. At a December 2021 hearing on “How Operational Energy Can Help Us Address Logistics Challenges” by the Readiness Subcommittee of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Representative Austin Scott (R-GA) said, “I know we’re concerned about emissions and other things, and we should be. We can and should do a better job of taking care of the environment. But ultimately, when we’re in a fight, we have to win that fight.”

This logic that “we have to destroy the village in order to save it” prevails at the Pentagon. For example, hundreds of naval exercises conducted year-round in the Indo-Pacific region damage and kill tens of thousands of whales annually. And every year, the number of war games, encouraged by the U.S. Department of Defense, increases.

They’re called “war games,” but for creatures of the sea, it’s not a game at all.

Pentagon documents estimate that 13,744 whales and dolphins are legally allowed to be killed as “incidental takes” during any given year due to military exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.

In waters surrounding the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean alone, the violence is more dire. More than 400,000 cetaceans comprising 26 species were allowed to have been sacrificed as “takes” during military practice between 2015 and 2020.

These are only two examples of a myriad of routine naval exercises. Needless to say, these ecocidal activities dramatically decrease the ocean’s abilities to mitigate climate catastrophe.

The Perils of Sonar

The most lethal component to whales is sonar, used to detect submarines. Whales will go to great lengths to get away from the deadly rolls of sonar waves. They “will swim hundreds of miles… and even beach themselves” in groups in order to escape sonar, according to an article in Scientific American. Necropsies have revealed bleeding from the eyes and ears, caused by too-rapid changes in depths as whales try to flee the sonar, revealed the article.

Low levels of sonar that may not directly damage whales could still harm them by triggering behavioral changes. According to an article in Nature, a 2006 UK military study used an array of hydrophones to listen for whale sounds during marine maneuvers. Over the period of the exercise, “the number of whale recordings dropped from over 200 to less than 50,” Nature reported.

“Beaked whale species… appear to cease vocalising and foraging for food in the area around active sonar transmissions,” concluded a 2007 unpublished UK report, which referred to the study.

The report further noted, “Since these animals feed at depth, this could have the effect of preventing a beaked whale from feeding over the course of the trial and could lead to second or third order effects on the animal and population as a whole.”

The report extrapolated that these second- and third-order effects could include starvation and then death.

The ‘Smart Ocean’ and the JADC2

Until now, sonar in the oceans has been exclusively used for military purposes. This is about to change. There is a “subsea data network” being developed that would use sonar as a component of undersea Wi-Fi for mixed civilian and military use. Scientists from member nations of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), including, but not limited to Australia, China, the UK, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, are creating what is called the “Internet of Underwater Things,” or IoUT. They are busy at the drawing board, designing data networks consisting of sonar and laser transmitters to be installed across vast undersea expanses. These transmitters would send sonar signals to a network of transponders on the ocean surface, which would then send 5G signals to satellites.

Utilized by both industry and military, the data network would saturate the ocean with sonar waves. This does not bode well for whale wellness or the climate. And yet, promoters are calling this development the “smart ocean.”

The military is orchestrating a similar overhaul on land and in space. Known as the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), it would interface with the subsea sonar data network. It would require a grid of satellites that could control every coordinate on the planet and in the atmosphere, rendering a real-life, 3D chessboard, ready for high-tech battle.

In service to the JADC2, thousands more satellites are being launched into space. Reefs are being dredged and forests are being razed throughout Asia and the Pacific as an ambitious system of “mini-bases” is being erected on as many islands as possible—missile deployment stations, satellite launch pads, radar tracking stations, aircraft carrier ports, live-fire training areas and other facilities—all for satellite-controlled war. The system of mini-bases, in communication with the satellites, and with aircraft, ships and undersea submarines (via sonar), will be replacing the bulky brick-and-mortar bases of the 20th century.

Its data-storage cloud, called JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure), will be co-developed at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. The Pentagon has requested bids on the herculean project from companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle and Google.

Save the Whales, Save Ourselves

Viewed from a climate perspective, the Department of Defense is flagrantly barreling away from its stated mission, to “ensure our nation’s security.” The ongoing atrocities of the U.S. military against whales and marine ecosystems make a mockery of any of its climate initiatives.

While the slogan “Save the Whales” has been bandied about for decades, they’re the ones actually saving us. In destroying them, we destroy ourselves.

Koohan Paik-Mander, ​​who grew up in postwar Korea and in the U.S. colony of Guam, is a Hawaii-based journalist and media educator. She is a board member of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, a member of the CODEPINK working group China Is Not Our Enemy, and an advisory committee member for the Global Just Transition project at Foreign Policy in Focus. She formerly served as campaign director of the Asia-Pacific program at the International Forum on Globalization. She is the co-author of The Superferry Chronicles: Hawaii’s Uprising Against Militarism, Commercialism and the Desecration of the Earth and has written on militarism in the Asia-Pacific for the Nation, the Progressive, Foreign Policy in Focus and other publications.

Banner image: flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Experts see no way back for NZ firm blocked from trying to mine the seabed

Experts see no way back for NZ firm blocked from trying to mine the seabed

This story first appeared in Mongabay.

By  Elizabeth Claire Alberts

  • The New Zealand Supreme Court recently blocked consent for a seabed mining operation that would annually extract 50 million tons of iron ore from the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki.
  • Environmentalists see this decision as a clear victory, but the mining company has stated its intention to reapply for mining permission.
  • But experts say it’s unlikely the company, Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR), will be able to regain consent due to fundamental issues with its application, such as the distinct lack of baseline studies on resident marine life and the potential impacts of mining.
  • Conservationists say seabed mining in this part of New Zealand would cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem and threaten many rare and endangered species.

Conservationists have expressed hope that a New Zealand company whose bid to mine the seabed was blocked by the country’s highest court last month has little chance of winning approval.

The Supreme Court of New Zealand ruled unanimously on Sept. 30 to block consent for the mining operation that would extract millions of tons of iron ore from the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki on the nation’s North Island. Experts say that the decision was primarily based on the finding that mining company Trans-Tasman Resources Limited (TTR) could not illustrate that its activities would not cause “material harm” to the environment.

While TTR seems confident that it will be able to reapply for mining consent, conservationists who have spent years campaigning against seabed mining in New Zealand say the company will not find an easy path due to fundamental issues in its application. For instance, they point out that TTR’s most recent application lacked studies about resident marine life and the impacts of mining on species and the overall ecosystem.

“The company hadn’t done its homework,” Cindy Baxter, chair of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), one group that opposed the mining application, told Mongabay in an interview. “It didn’t even have baseline data for where it wanted to mine, so no one can even measure what the [impacts] would be if it went ahead.”

Duncan Currie, an international environmental lawyer who acted as counsel to KASM and Greenpeace Aotearoa, said it would be “extremely difficult” for TTR to get its application reapproved due to this lack of baseline data. He added that researching to obtain this data would be like “throwing the money away” since it would still be unlikely for TTR to prove that mining would not cause material harm to marine life.

South Taranaki coast near Patea, New Zealand. Image by Phillip Capper / Flickr.

TTR’s application proposed to extract 50 million tons of iron-rich sand from a 66 -square -kilometer (23-square-mile) area of the seabed each year over a period of 35 years. But it would take just take 5 million tons of iron-ore each year and dump the remaining 45 million tons of sand back into the ocean.

Conservationists say the mining would have caused irreversible damage to the environment by smothering sensitive rocky coral reef systems with sediment plumes. Mining residue and noise pollution could also threaten the survival of many species, including New Zealand’s little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) and critically endangered Māui dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), experts say. The region has also recently been recognized as a foraging ground for a newly identified population of pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda).

In the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, there were weeks of hearings and submissions by conservation groups such as KASM and Greenpeace Aotearoa, iwi (Maori tribes), independent scientists and even the fishing industry.

“I’ve campaigned on bottom trawling, and there we were hand in hand with the fishing industry,” Baxter said. “But the fishing industry can see the potential impact to their business … and I think we won really in the process because our environmental arguments were so strong.”

In 2017, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Agency granted TTR consent on its application to mine the seabed off the coast of South Taranaki. But in 2018, New Zealand’s high court reversed the EPA’s decision. TTR then made an appeal to New Zealand’s court of appeals, but the company was not successful.

“What was interesting there is that the [decision-making] committee specifically said in the recommendation [for the first application] that the applicant should go back and do some of these studies because basically, they hadn’t done [them],” Duncan said. TTR’s latest application still lacked these baseline studies, but did include “new plume modeling,” according to Duncan.

The new plume modeling suggested that the sediment would not cause as much harm to the marine environment as previously thought. Yet Phil McCabe, the Pacific liaison for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, told Mongabay that the modeling was “questionable.”

TTR did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. But in a statement published shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, Alan J. Eggers, executive chairman of TTR, said the company was “satisfied” with the court’s decision since it would have the opportunity to reapply.

If TTR does resubmit an application for mining, Baxter said, it will face the same opposition from environmental groups, scientists, iwi and the fishing industry.

“We’re not going to go away,” she said. “We’re not going to suddenly give up and not bother to oppose any application. We’re going to be there every single step of the way.”

McCabe said a way to ensure that deep-sea mining will not occur in the future is for New Zealand to enact a total ban on the activity.

“The world views us as a country that has a pretty strong moral compass for the environment,” McCabe said. “So I think it’s appropriate for us to stand in place of caution on this issue.

Only a few other nations have pursued plans to allow seabed mining within their territorial waters, although none of these ventures have been allowed to proceed due to environmental concerns. For instance, in 2018, the Mexican government rejected a permit for Exploraciones Oceanicas, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, to start mining for phosphate in the seabed of Mexico’s exclusive economic zone, due to the damage it could cause to habitat for loggerhead turtles, gray whales and humpback whales, as well as local fishing grounds. And in Namibia, the high court recently found the company Namibian Marine Phosphate in breach of its license when it conducted trial mining, which put a halt to its activities.

In 2019, the now-defunct company Nautilus received the first ever license to begin seabed mining in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and started exploratory drilling near a network of hydrothermal vents. But before Nautilus could start extracting any minerals, the company went bankrupt, leaving the PNG government with millions of dollars of debt and the local marine environment severely damaged. David Heydon, the former CEO of Nautilus, went on to found Canada-based company DeepGreen, which recently became The Metals Company when it merged with NASDAQ-listed Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation.

While seabed mining in nations’ territorial waters faces delays, there is a move to start mining in international waters within the next two years. The Pacific island nation of Nauru, which sponsors the Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of The Metals Company, recently triggered a “two-year rule” that would require the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-mandated body overseeing seabed mining in international waters, to allow mining to commence with whatever rules and regulations are in place by then.

There is considerable opposition to deep-sea mining in international waters from scientists, conservationists, governments and civil society. At last month’s congress of global conservation authority the IUCN in Marseille, France, delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion that called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and the reform of the ISA. Government agencies from 37 states voted in favor of the motion, including Germany, a sponsoring state for a deep-sea mining company.

“There’s a number of things that are stacking up in favor of a moratorium,” McCabe said. “And this New Zealand case is another solid, concrete example of this activity being shown to be too destructive.”

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

What It’s Like to Watch a Harpooned Whale Die Right Before Your Eyes

What It’s Like to Watch a Harpooned Whale Die Right Before Your Eyes

Author Paul Watson has no problem with critics calling him and his marine-life-defending colleagues pirates—it’s far better than helplessly standing by and doing nothing in the face of the violence against animals they have witnessed.

This excerpt is from Death of a Whale, by Captain Paul Watson (GroundSwell Books, 2021). This web adaptation was produced by GroundSwell Books in partnership with Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

By Paul Watson

In 1975, Robert Hunter and I were the first people to physically block a harpooner’s line of fire when we intercepted a Soviet whaling fleet and placed our bodies between the killers and eight fleeing, frightened sperm whales. We were in a small inflatable boat, speeding before the plunging steel prow of a Russian kill boat. As the whales fled for their lives before us, we could smell the fear in their misty exhalations. We thought we could make a difference with our Gandhi-inspired seagoing stand. Surely these men behind the harpoons would not risk killing a human being to satisfy their lust for whale oil and meat. We were wrong.

The whalers demonstrated their contempt for our nonviolent protests by firing an explosive harpoon over our heads. The harpoon line slashed into the water and we narrowly escaped death. One of the whales was not so lucky. With a dull thud followed by a muffled explosion, the entrails of a female whale were torn and ripped apart by hot steel shrapnel.

The large bull sperm whale in the midst of the pod abruptly rose and dove. Experts had told us that a bull whale in this situation would attack us. We were a smaller target than the whaling ship. Anxiously, we held our breath in anticipation of sixty tons of irate muscle and blood torpedoing from the depths below our frail craft.

The ocean erupted behind us. We turned toward the Soviet ship to see a living juggernaut hurl itself at the Russian bow. The harpooner was ready. He pulled the trigger and sent a second explosive missile into the massive head of the whale. A pitiful scream rang in my ears, a fountain of blood geysered into the air, and the deep blue of the ocean was rapidly befouled with dark red blood. The whale thrashed and convulsed violently.

Mortally wounded and crazed with pain, the whale rolled, and one great eye made contact with mine. The whale dove, and a trail of bloody bubbles moved laboriously toward us. Slowly, very slowly, a gargantuan head emerged from the water, and the whale rose at an angle over and above our tiny craft. Blood and brine cascaded from the gaping head wound and fell upon us in torrents.

We were helpless. We knew that we would be crushed within seconds as the whale fell upon us. There was little time for fear, only awe. We could not move.

The whale did not fall upon us. He wavered and towered motionless above us. I looked up past the daggered six-inch teeth and into the eye the size of my fist, an eye that reflected back intelligence and spoke wordlessly of compassion and communicated to me the understanding that this was a being that could discriminate and understood what we had tried to do. The mammoth body slowly slid back into the sea.

The massive head of this majestic sperm whale slowly fell back into the sea. He rolled and the water parted, revealing a solitary eye. The gaze of the whale seized control of my soul, and I saw my own image reflected back at me. I was overcome with pity, not for the whale but for ourselves. Waves of shame crashed down upon me and I wept. Overwhelmed with horror at this revelation of the cruel blasphemy of my species, I realized then and there that my allegiance lay with this dying child of the sea and his kind. On that day, I left the comfortable realm of human self-importance to forever embrace the soulful satisfaction of lifelong service to the citizens of the sea.

The gentle giant died with my face seared upon his retina. I will never forget that. It is a memory that haunts and torments me and leaves me with only one course to chart toward redemption for the collective sins of humanity. It is both my burden and my joy to pledge my allegiance to the most intelligent and profoundly sensitive species of beings to have ever inhabited the Earth––the great whales.

Reykjavik, Iceland, November 1986

Despite the criticisms, the name-calling, and the controversy that have arisen from our work since 1975, one indisputable fact emerged from a raid made by my crew (which included Rod Coronado of the U.S. and David Howitt of the UK) on two whaling ships in Reykjavik in 1986 in order to enforce an international moratorium on commercial whaling that had been established that year: it was successful.

The two whaling ships were razed, although their electronics and mechanical systems had been totally destroyed. Insurance did not cover the losses because the owners had stated that terrorists sank the ships, and apparently they were not insured for terrorism.

Most importantly, from that day of November 8, 1986, to sixteen years later in the year 2002, the Icelanders did not take another whale. What talk, compromise, negotiations, meetings, letters, petitions, and protests had not accomplished, we achieved with a little monkey-wrenching activity in the wee hours of the morning.

Were we terrorists? No, not even criminals, for we were never charged with a crime, even though we made ourselves available for prosecution. We had simply done our duty, and we put an end to an unlawful activity.

The only repercussion was that Iceland moved before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1987 that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society be banned from holding observer status at the meetings of the IWC. After this passed, Iceland resigned from the IWC, leaving us with the distinction of being the only organization to enjoy the status of banishment from the IWC.

How ironic, I thought, to be the only organization banned from the IWC because we were the only organization to have ever enforced an IWC ruling.

It was not much of a punishment. I had never enjoyed listening to the delegates of the member nations barter whales like they were bushels of wheat or pork bellies. I also never had much use for the posturing of the nongovernmental organizations pretending that they were actually making a difference by attending this annual circus. All that we were interested in were the rulings of the IWC, and we fully intended to continue to enforce those rulings.

I have been asked many times why we consider the IWC rulings important. Why not just oppose all whaling everywhere? The answer is that we do oppose all whaling by everyone, everywhere. However, we only actively attack whaling operations that are in violation of international conservation law. The reason for this is simple: We do not presume to be the judges and jury. We simply execute the rulings of the IWC or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or any rulings from international conservation authorities, and we do so in accordance with the definition of intervention as defined by the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature, Part III (Implementation), Principle 21, Section (e): “States and, to the extent they are able, other public authorities, international organizations, individuals, groups and corporations shall… Safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

As a seaman, I have a great and abiding respect for the traditions of the law of the sea. To attack without a vested authority would be piracy. Thus, the difference between a privateer like Sir Francis Drake and a pirate like Blackbeard was that the former was in possession of a letter of marque from a sovereign authority and the latter practiced the same trade solely upon his own authority.

I have never considered it my place to judge the illegal activities of others. However, I feel that when there are laws and international treaties that it is the responsibility of individuals and nongovernmental organizations to strive toward the implementation of these rulings, especially in light of the fact that there is no international body empowered to police these international laws. Nation-states intervene when it is advantageous for them to do so, but little enforcement is carried out in the interests of the common good of all citizens of the planet.

It is worth noting that it was not the British or Spanish navies that brought the piracy of the Caribbean under control in the 17th century. There were too many conflicts of interest, too much corruption, and too little motivation for any real action to have been taken. The bureaucracies in the British admiralty and the Spanish court did nothing because the very nature of a bureaucracy is the maintenance of the status quo. The achievement of first shutting down piracy on the Spanish Main is attributed to one man––a pirate himself.

Henry Morgan did what two nations chose not to do: he drove the pirates to ground and ended their reign of terror. As a result, the “pirate” was made governor of Jamaica, although history would show that the man was far more effective as a pirate than as a politician. In fact, he was more of a pirate as a politician than he was as an actual pirate.

When Andrew Jackson failed to get the support of the merchants of New Orleans to back his attack on the British, it was a pirate who came to his service in the personage of Jean Lafitte. When the United States successfully endeavored to cast off the yoke of British rule, it was a pirate who achieved the most dramatic and successful naval victory at sea. That person was captain John Paul Jones. Consequently, it is a pirate who was the founder of what is today the world’s most powerful navy.

Today, with the pirates of corrupt industry aided by corrupt politicians plundering our oceans for the last of the fish, killing the last of the whales, and polluting the waters, we find that there is very little real resistance to their activities upon the high seas. Once again it is time for some good pirates to rise up in opposition to the bad pirates, and I believe that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is just such an organization of good pirates.

When our critics call us pirates, I have no problem with that. In fact, we have taken their criticisms and in an aikido-like manner; we have incorporated their accusations into our image. Our ships are sometimes painted a monochromatic black. We have designed our own version of the pretty red [a flag which, when translated to French, becomes “joli rouge” and is rumored to have inspired the “jolly roger” phrase applied to pirate flags], and our black-and-white flag flies from our mast during campaigns. We even carry cannons, with the difference being that our guns fire cream pies and not red-hot balls.

As good pirates, we have evolved to suit the time and culture in which we live, and this being a media-defined culture, our primary weapons are the camera, the video, and the internet. Like modern-day Robin Hoods, we take from the greedy and give back to the sea. We don’t profit materially, but we profit tremendously both spiritually and psychologically.

Author Bio:

Captain Paul Watson is a Canadian-American marine conservation activist who founded the direct action group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 and was more recently featured in Animal Planet’s popular television series “Whale Wars” and the documentary about his life, “Watson.” Sea Shepherd’s mission is to protect all ocean-dwelling marine life. Watson has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books, including Death of a Whale (2021), Urgent! (2021), Orcapedia (2020), Dealing with Climate Change and Stress (2020), The Haunted Mariner (2019), and Captain Paul Watson: Interview with a Pirate (2013).

Fighting for the Rights of Southern Resident Orcas

By Will Falk and Sean Butler / Voices for Biodiversity

On December 18, 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wild Fish Conservancy threatened the Trump administration with a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for allowing salmon fisheries to take too many salmon, which the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas depend on for food.

The impulse to protect the orcas is a good one. Southern Resident orcas are struggling to survive — only 75 remain. According to the statement by the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Fish Conservancy, “The primary threats to Southern Resident killer whales are starvation from lack of adequate prey (predominantly Chinook salmon), vessel noise …that interferes with … foraging … and toxic contaminants that bioaccumulate in the orcas’ fat.”

You probably assume, when reading that list of primary threats to the orcas, that the threatened lawsuit would demand an end to these harmful activities. But it doesn’t. Instead, the organizations are merely asking the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency responsible for issuing permits to Pacific coast fisheries — to deal with alleged violations of the ESA.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Wild Fish Conservancy aren’t asking that activities harmful to Chinook salmon, and consequently to the Southern Resident orcas, be stopped. They aren’t asking for noisy vessels that disturb the whales’ foraging behaviors to be prohibited. They aren’t even asking for an end to the toxic contaminants that accumulate in the whales’ fat.

Why aren’t they asking for any of these things? Because under American law they aren’t allowed to ask for them.

All they are asking is that these harmful activities receive the proper permits.

Right now, laws like the Endangered Species Act are the main legal means for protecting threatened species and habitat in the United States. But these laws only allow us to challenge permit applications and ask that projects complete the permit process.

While it may hard to believe, these permits are designed to give permission to cause harm. Regulatory agencies only regulate the amount of harm that takes place. They do not, and cannot, stop ecocide. Instead they allow for softer, sometimes slower versions of ecocide.

To understand this, it helps to know a bit about how the Endangered Species Act actually works. The Act prohibits any person, including any federal agency, from “taking” an endangered species without proper authorization. “Take” is defined as: “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

You might expect that the Act completely prohibits any activity that “takes” an endangered species. But it doesn’t. Under the Act, federal agencies may harm members of an endangered species as long as the activity is “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species.”

While that may sound more promising, it isn’t. When a proposed action is likely to jeopardize an endangered species, the agency can then issue an Incidental Take Statement (ITS), which merely sets a limit on the number of individuals of an endangered species that can be taken.

In other words, a species that has already endured so much destruction can legally be further harmed if that harm is in compliance with certain terms and the correct forms are filled out.

So an ITS allows a federal agency to harm endangered species. But there are also Incidental Take Permits (ITPs). These allow private entities to harm endangered species. All a private entity needs to do to get an ITP is create a plan that purportedly minimizes and mitigates harm to an endangered species.

The irony is not lost on Professor J.B. Ruhl, who describes the situation in his aptly-titled law review article, “How to Kill Endangered Species, Legally”:

“Rather, when we strip away its noble purpose… at bottom the ESA is little different from the modern pollution control statutes which broadly prohibit a defined activity with one hand, then with the other hand give back authority to do the same activity under regulated conditions.”

In the original 1973 version of the Endangered Species Act, ITS and ITP exemptions did not exist. They are the result of amendments passed by Congress in 1982 to undermine several pro-environmental Supreme Court decisions that interpreted the Act as broadly protecting endangered species. Those amendments are a powerful and dangerous loophole.

In a 2011 report, a trial attorney with the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, Patrick Duggan, found that ITPs are being issued at alarming rates — and with ever-broader scopes. “In the first decade after the 1982 Amendments, there were 14 ITPs issued, by August 1996, there were 179, and by April 2010, there were 946 approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) alone.” Even FWS has acknowledged this trend of permissiveness, recently noting how the number of approved plans has “exploded.”

Most people mistakenly believe that regulations are being enforced by regulatory agencies. They’re not. Some environmental lawyers call this the “regulatory fallacy.” Not surprisingly, this drains focus from potentially more effective tactics by funneling it into a belief that government agencies will actually protect people and natural communities by denying permits.

The system isn’t working — and it’s very unlikely that it will protect the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. But why doesn’t it work?

To begin to understand why the Endangered Species Act is failing, it’s helpful to acknowledge perhaps the most fundamental assumption of the Act and all similar pollution control statutes, as Professor Ruhl calls them. That assumption is that we have an inalienable right to use the natural world for our own purposes.

The answer to the regulatory fallacy, then, is to turn this on its head. If we truly want to protect endangered species like the Southern Resident orcas, our laws cannot treat them and their essential food source as objects or property. Instead, we must acknowledge their inherent rights to exist, and create laws that uphold and enforce those rights. True sustainability requires transforming the status of nature from a legal object to a rights-bearing subject.

This transformation begins with granting nature the legal right to challenge the conduct of someone else in court. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in his famous 1972 dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, this “would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers…”

In the US, the rights-based approach has been pioneered by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit, public interest law firm. Since 2006, CELDF has helped dozens of communities in ten states enact rights of nature laws. Their model uses a “Community Bill of Rights,” which declares that citizens of the city or county have a right to clean air, clean water, etc., and that the natural communities within its borders have a right to exist, flourish, regenerate and naturally evolve. Natural communities are specifically granted legal standing and citizens are empowered to bring lawsuits to enforce these rights. This is similar to the way guardians represent children in court.

Southern Resident orcas range from as far south as California and along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. If the communities along the West Coast had rights of nature laws, they could now bring a lawsuit on behalf of the Southern Resident orcas, with claims that fishery practices, dams, shipping activities and pollution violate the whales’ rights to exist, flourish, regenerate and naturally evolve. They could ask the courts to completely ban harmful fishery practices in order to protect the rights of nature, and to order those responsible for harm to pay for the regeneration of the natural community. They could seek this relief from the courts because the fundamental rights of the ocean and its residents are being violated.

What’s more, because the plaintiff in such a lawsuit would be a whole population of salmon or whales, or even an entire ecosystem like the Salish Sea, the damages awarded would be measured according to the losses suffered by the natural communities themselves. And any award of damages would go toward the restoration of those communities, rather than to human plaintiffs who might not use it to benefit the ecosystem that has been damaged.

“We’d be having very different conversations and much more effective results if we approached recovery with the orcas’ best interests in mind,” says Elizabeth M. Dunne, Esq., who is part of a coalition that helped draft the Declaration for the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas, led by the grassroots community group, Legal Rights for the Salish Sea. Dunne explains that, “by signing the Declaration, we want people, organizations and governments to recognize that the Southern Residents’ have inherent rights, to recognize that we have a responsibility to protect those rights, and to commit to taking concrete actions to protect and advance those rights.”

Environmentalists who engage within today’s regulatory framework and rights of nature proponents begin in the same place. They both want to protect the natural world. But the way they frame the issue could not be more different. Environmentalists who rely on regulatory laws frame the issue as one of improperly prepared reports or how many parts per million of toxins may permissibly be released into water supplies. For example, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Fish Conservancy want to protect the Southern Resident orcas, but all they can ask for under the ESA is that the responsible federal agency “reinitiate and complete consultation on the Pacific Coast salmon fisheries” with new scientific information.

Rights of nature proponents, on the other hand, affirm nonhumans’ value as subjective beings, framing the issue in terms of whether a proposed action violates their fundamental rights. Though we cannot put an orca on the witness stand to testify about the impacts that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s plan has on her species, empowering humans to speak for her through enforcement of her legal rights brings nature’s voice directly into the courtroom.

Originally listed as endangered in 2005, Southern Resident orca numbers have continued to decline. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that the population is at its lowest point in 34 years. And, “In 2014, a population viability study estimated that under status quo conditions, the Southern Resident killer whales…would reach an expected population size of 75 in one generation (or by 2036).” Instead, it was just four years later that the Southern Resident orca population stood at 75.

In the end, the only measure of success in this case should be the whales’ recovery. The people of Washington aren’t concerned that regulations haven’t been followed— we’re concerned that our neighbors, the Southern Resident orcas, are starving. We’re horrified that these beautiful animals’ right to life is not being respected and that their ecosystem is being destroyed. And we’re outraged because deep down we believe that the natural world does have inherent value — and therefore inherent rights.

It’s time to stop begging for regulatory table scraps. It’s time to have the courage of our convictions and create new laws that recognize the inherent rights of the Southern Resident orcas and the Salish Sea as a whole to exist, flourish and evolve.