Whale deaths a harbinger?

Therecent deaths of whales at opposite ends of the world shook me up, bringing tothe surface emotional moments from my childhood, my professional life and mynew role as a father.

Inearly June a Humpback whale died after being hit by an oil tanker bound forPort Valdez, Alaska. Images of a magnificent whale T-boned on the front of anoil tanker reinforced for me the importance of Dogwood Initiative efforts tosecure a permanent oil tanker ban in northern BC’s inside coastal waters.  However, it was the horrifying images of 55Pilot Whales (called mock Killer Whales) inexplicably beaching themselves on KommetjieBeach in South Africa that linked together the challenges of childhood andfatherhood.

Ihave always been fascinated by whales. Some of my earliest memories as a childare school field trips to see Blue Whales off the coast of California. The boxlunches, the rocking boat and the magnificent whales breeching off the bow areburned into my memory signifying a more serene time.

Mostof all I remember a frantically trying to save a beached Humpback Whale when Iwas a kid. It was my first experience of death. A huge smelly, slippery, butbeautiful mass of flesh slowly wheezing its way to death despite heroicattempts to move it back in the water and to keep it wet. Along with countlessothers, I hauled buckets of water and wet towels until I was exhausted. Iremember asking why it was happening, and a no one could answer. My questionsseemed to confuse the adults. Was the whale sick or hurt? No one knew. Why hadthe whale come on the beach? All I got were hesitant stuttering answers. At thetime I couldn’t explain it, perhaps I sensed what many of the adults werehiding from me, the fear that perhaps the magnificent whale had purposefullybeached itself effectively committing suicide. Why? No one knew or knows.

Whaleshave once again become a focus for me. This spring Dogwood Initiative joinedwith other groups in lawsuits against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)to force the government to protect Orca Killer Whales and their criticalhabitat on BC’s coast. . As the keystone species of British Columbia’s coastal waters, the fateof Orcas mirrors our own. More importantly, the Orca’s survival depends on ourability to protect its habitat and food supply (salmon) from our excesses.

Howeverinstead of igniting my activist fervor the beached Pilot Whales in South Africatook me right back to the helpless feelings I had as a child watching the dyingHumpback take its last breaths. Childhood questions resurfaced with difficultcorollaries.  Why did the whales beachthemselves? Was there something in the environment that was poisoning them? Hasglobal warming already made their lives unlivable?

Thehelplessness I felt as a child with unanswered questions renewed as thesickening photos of the dying whales collided with my struggle to figure outhow to confront climate change as an activist and a father. New twists on oldquestions emerged.

AsI read daily reports of human activity knowingly pushing our life supportsystem to the brink, I am often confronted by a similar feeling. Why?

Whydo we collectively continue to follow what is essentially a suicidal path?Global warming threatens the lives of millions of people yet we seem unwillingto change course. Are we just following misguided leaders? Are we too attachedto the comforts of the fossil fuel driven economy to give up an addiction thatis killing us? Or are we manifesting a secret desire to throw ourselves on therocks in perverse atonement for past sins?

Perhapsthe leading whale in South Africa miscalculated the risk and beachedhis followers. Perhaps our political leaders are underestimating theexistential threats of global warming as well.

Idon’t have answers to these questions. As a father of an infant I have been haunted by these whale deaths. Howcan I answer my daughter’s inevitable questions about our country’s (ourworld’s) continued addiction to fossil fuels while heat-trapping gassesthreaten to end life as we know it? How can I explain the inexplicable?

The$64,000 question facing people concerned about global warming is how to get amajority of Canadians out of their comfort zone; making sacrifices to reducetheir personal polluting emissions, but more importantly pushing our politicalleaders to take strong actions on climate change. Voluntary personal measures likechanging light bulbs are akin to my well intentioned, but ultimatelyineffective, efforts as a child dumping buckets of water on the dying whale. Itmade me feel better but didn’t save the whale’s life. We need a massiveoverhaul of how we use and produce energy. We need to transform how we feed,clothe, house and transport ourselves. Individuals can’t do this by themselvesat the scale and pace necessary; we need government intervention.

Iget up every morning thinking about how to mobilize people politically, tocatalyze a movement that forces our leaders to take meaningful actions againstglobal warming. I don’t have the answers. There is no obvious path; there is noslick campaign that can trick people into recognizing the potentially suicidalconsequences of the status quo.

Ikeep trying to test new ways of connecting with people to have a dialogue aboutthese existential issues. I make mistakes, but keep trying different approachesso least I can say to my daughter that I did the best that I could.

Theclock is ticking. Ecosystems are collapsing, emissions are rising, and Ice capsare melting. But more and more people are beginning to understand the suicidal
path we are on. Is it enough people, can we organize fast enough to becomeformidable? No one knows. But the only option left is to get out of bed everymorning and do our best and hope.

Mydaughter is beginning to verbalize words; soon she will be asking questions. Ihope I can tell her about how humanity woke up and avoided calamity. I hope Ican tell her about how some whales beach themselves, butthe rest survive.

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