May 4, 2023
What the life and death of a whale can tell us about our ties to the natural world
In keynote address of Research Weeks at VCU, environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth explores how ethics, species and history continue to intersect and challenge us.
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Bathsheba Demuth, Ph.D., an environmental historian, set out to study two cultures — capitalist whalers in the late-19th-century United States and communist whalers in the mid-20th-century Soviet Union. She expected to find large differences.
That turned out not to be the case. Both groups saw whales purely in economic terms, leaving little room to ponder the fine line between life and death and the relationship of human beings to the natural world.
Demuth, associate professor of history and environment and society at Brown University, spoke this week at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art. Her talk – titled “Do Whales Judge Us? Interspecies History and Ethics” – was part of the Provost’s Lecture Series, Humanities Research Center Speaker Series, and was one of the keynotes of this year’s One VCU Research Weeks.
Demuth specializes in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic, and she framed her address around the story of Chris Apassingok, a teenager from Gambell, Alaska. In April 2017, it was whaling season on St. Lawrence Island near the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. For centuries, Apassingok’s people had hunted bowhead whales in that region.
He and others in his village were chasing a whale, and the teen fired a harpoon and killed it, which provided the village with meat for the winter. The story was picked up by the Anchorage paper, and Apassingok shared it on his Facebook page. He was proud of his accomplishment.
Paul Watson, an early member of the Greenpeace environmental activist network, saw the story and launched an online attack against Apassingok. Soon the teen was getting death threats, and his life was turned upside down.
In her talk, Demuth said Watson did not understand Apassingok and his people’s rich history and relationship with whales. He did not see that Apassingok understood that both the whale’s life and death had value. Watson saw whaling only through an economic lens.
“It’s a world view that even in its environmental form keeps a very hard line between humans and nature,” Demuth said. “The politics of Watson’s attack on Chris Apassingok is the inverted politics of industrial production. If industry only sees whales as valuable when they are dead, it has a corrective of only seeing whales when they are alive. It’s another argument for renouncing death – not the denial of entropy through endless and invisible consumption – but the denial that death is bound up with human life.”
The Arctic where Apassingok lives in an unforgiving place; Demuth lived there as a teen and trained sled dogs. She came to love the land and the people and the interdependence that everything has with the whales. For example, the region has no trees, and for centuries, native people used whale bones to construct shelter.
“People used the jawbones like wood,” she said. “That is better than any timber in the Bering Strait, so it is not a metaphor to say people lived inside the heads of whales.”
That has created a synergy between whales and native people, who believe that whales pass judgment on people and are willing partners in the relationship. Only people who are ethical can harvest the fruits of the sea. In other words, whales “choose to give themselves to hunters,” Demuth said, and they allow themselves to die when people are respectful.
“It is not people alone who make the terms of good and moral behavior,” Demuth said. “To be a good and worthy person is to live up to the standards of beings who are not human. It also means whales had great value not only in their own lives but also when they are dead. Both are necessary.”
That relationship with bowhead whales in the region changed in 1848 when whalers from New England arrived in the Bering Strait. They had overhunted the waters off Canada and the United States, so they came to the waters between Russia and Alaska. The oil from the whales was used in candle wax, and the baleen was used to make corsets for women.
The hunters spent months at sea and were paid only based on the amount of oil and other whale parts that were harvested. They were incentivized to kill as many whales as possible. They ate very little whale meat and did not live in houses constructed of whale bones. They did not value the whale’s life. The whale’s only value was seen in the products of its death.
“In many ways, this is the first Arctic oil rush, long before petroleum was on the scene,” Demuth said. “It was when burning refined whale fat in the homes of middle-class and upper-class establishments all over the East Coast of the United States was considered the best lighting.”
The hunters of that era eventually left when they could not harvest the bowhead whales, which learned to avoid the whaling ships by hiding in the sea ice.
Demuth said technology improved, and whale hunting became an important part of the Soviet Union’s economy after World War II. The communist country relied on whale meat as a source of food, but Demuth said that much like the capitalists, the communist hunters had only an economic relationship with the animals. The Communist Party set harvest quotas, and the men worked to kill as many whales as needed to meet the goals.
“There was no official space for what it actually meant to go out and kill whales the world over, let alone to acknowledge whales as doing important work in the world,” Demuth said.
As well, the products created by the hunt – food and cosmetics – were detached from death. People ate canned meat across the Soviet Union but had no direct experience about what went into harvesting the animals.
“In the ways whaling operated, I see a denial of the labor and a knowledge of whales and of whalers,” Demuth said. “The word for this might be dehumanized labor, but I think it’s more than that. It is labor that has been stripped of any formal way of recognizing the actions, the emotions and judgments of beings that are not human.”
To Demuth, that was the lens through which Watson saw the killing of the whale by Apassingok – that a whale’s value was only in being alive. Watson did not see the complex relationship that Apassingok had with the whale and death.
Demuth sees the same problem today with food and humans’ connection to it. In a modern food economy, people are separated from death and the circle of life associated with consumption. Much like whaling in capitalist and communist countries, modern agriculture has separated consumers from the complex relationship between death and life.
“It conceals death,” Demuth said, “and in doing so sloughs off moral harm on the few while many of us, particularly the relatively wealthy, stay at a distance, indulging in the illusion that humans are not dependent on others.”
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