The World in the Whale

“Or, the Whale,” by Jos Sances, seen here at its Richmond Art Center debut in May 2019.

To belong to a charismatic species is to be a pack animal for human imagination.

from Fathoms: The world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs, Simon & Schuster, 2020, p. 129

I’ve been thinking and dreaming about whales for as long as I can remember. I was quite taken by the whale as a teenager in Oakland around 1970, during the first big “save the whales” campaigns and when the first recordings of whale “songs” were being captured and transmitted. When I finally got around to reading Moby Dick I quickly became completely immersed in what I still think might be the greatest novel ever written. I later read CLR James’s analysis of it as well as Loren Gouldner’s.

Once, when I was visiting Cape Cod, I saw an old film from the beginning of the 20th century showing emergency rescue teams along the beach pulling people from the surf during a storm, where they had managed to arrive after their ship went down offshore. I suddenly had a flash of cold memory, feeling I had drowned at sea, and on a moment’s further reflection that I had been on a whaling ship… a past life perhaps? I don’t generally believe in such things, but it was a powerful, visceral experience, and it also went some distance toward explaining my life-long fear of being in the ocean (though I’ve had some beautiful snorkling experiences off Hawaii and Mexico, I was always quite tense, expecting something terrible to happen).

I’ve also written a bit about San Francisco’s history as a whaling port, and have been interested in the role of whale oil in early industrialization. So it was easy for me to send off for a new book on whales after reading a very glowing review of it. Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: the world in the whale is in fact a fantastic book. It’s quite up-to-date and does a great job of surveying a lot of recent science and research to contextualize her often amazing digressions into the cultural and social meanings of our relationship to the largest mammals on the planet. She also puts the whale in the center of our understanding of climate change and the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a connection that surprised her when she came upon it, and me too when I read it!

Each whale has been calculated to be worth more than a thousand trees in terms of carbon absorption…. Far from being mere passengers or victims carried along by the environmental crises set in motion by climate change, according to these models, the presence (or absence) of whales in the sea continues to shape carbon dioxide levels. More incredible yet, researchers have projected that increased numbers of whales could help offset a measurable quantity of emissions… A study conducted by the Institute for Capacity Development in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that increasing phytoplankton productivity by just 1 percent would have the same effect as the sudden appearance of two billion mature trees. . . I had been troubled by the notion of whales as landfill; of cetacean bodies as, in some instances, a type of animate superfund site. But this research recasts whales as a means of renaturalizing the air—not as the end point of atmospheric pollution, but as the mechanism of its remediation. Whales as gardeners in the greenhouse. (emphasis added)

p. 59
Jos Sances “Or, The Whale” is 52-feet long and done on scratchboard panels. Within it is an incredible tapestry of industrial and technological history juxtaposed to the ecological and social devastation that has been its inexorable companion.

In one of the other whaling books on my shelf I read how John D. Rockefeller subsidized the whaling industry all the way into the 1910s, long after it had been superceded by his own petroleum oil business. It’s always been a bit of a puzzle to me, but Giggs importantly underscores what the persistence of whaling teaches us for fantasies of technological evolution solving our current crises:

Whaling, an ecologically untenable industry, was not suppressed by the invisible hand of the market as alternatives to its use became viable—rather, it continued long after it had ceased to be advantageously economic. Our expectation that renewable energy sources will, as a matter of course, supplant fossil fuels by function of expediency runs counter to this history.

p. 56
John D. Rockefeller peers down from his perch alongside the vanishing arctic ice. Deserts, tropical storms, overpopulated car-choked cities, all rooted in early land clearance and displacement and genocide of original peoples… all this and much more appear “in the whale” as we get closer and closer to it.
A skeletal dinosaur meanders towards oncoming Edsels, while working class ghosts float above black lung protesters, clearcut forests, oil pumping donkeys, and transmission lines connecting far-flung energy sources with sites of industrial production…

Giggs provides the clearest summary I’ve yet seen on how the whale and its bodily oils became one of the pillars of “primitive accumulation,” providing a low-cost and irreplaceable substance without which modern life would not have ever started…

Thinner in viscosity than modern vegetable oil, whale oil met many needs. It eased mechanical cogs in textile and metalwork factories, aided in the cleansing of wool and the tanning of leather. The oil lit smokeless streetlamps, factory-floor and shop lights, extending trading hours and mercantile business into evening hours (so whales contributed to changing concepts of public space in nighttime and were even thought, by some, to reduce crime). Whaling was the context that coaxed industrial manufacturing and commerce into its modern shape—whale oil initiated automation; sped up repetitive, task-based workflow and expanded the working week; it preconditioned the transformation of the natural environment by numerous enterprises, driven to faster and more thorough manufacturing schedules. In agriculture, humpback oil was included as an ingredient in insecticide washes, glossing the leaves of California fruit trees and French vines… Printing inks were emulsified with whale oil; in stately houses, whole libraries might be spelled out in alphabets distilled from whales.

p. 39
An homage to Dorothea Lange’s Depression photography looms over the Flint Water tower, heavily contaminated by industrial waste; unhoused tent dwellers face daily police violence.
Industrial pig farming connects directly to automated systems, early computers, while Dick Tracy and his wrist phone, Hal2000 and other technological fantasies litter the landscape as a pelican, one of charismatic creatures that was saved by environmental activism a half century ago, continues to soar above the devastation.

Though we go on murmuring in our green dream, our former relationship with the wild resists restoration. We are all tumbled together, human and nonhuman, the far and the nearby, deeply in torsion, inhabiting this change of state. . . The world as we once knew it has of course disappeared. Now, too, quietly, the world as we don’t know it yet—a nature we’ve barely met—slinks away.

p. 215

I listen to Harry Shearer (voice of many characters on The Simpsons, co-founder and member of Spinal Tap, among many other notable achievements) weekly on his wonderful hour-long show Le Show. He does a lot of regular bits, including stuff on the nuclear industry, the Olympics, Apologies of the Week, reading “the trades,” and microplastics. So I’m familiar, thanks to his dogged reporting (and joking), with the crisis of microplastics, and we’ve all heard endless talk of the islands of trash in the sea. Actually it turns out that there’s hardly a place left on earth where the water, both oceanic and fresh, is not contaminated with microplastics. Giggs reports that as of 2015 industry had produced apx. 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste, only 9 percent of which had been recycled. Another 12 has been incinerated (and gone airborne!), but 80% of that waste is still here. I read somewhere that about half of all the plastic in the world was produced since 2000, and we’re about to radically increase production because Shell Oil is building a huge factory near Pittsburgh, PA to churn out billions of plastic pellets. Where do you suppose those will end up before long?

News has just broken in the past couple of days about big oil spills offshore in southern California. Giggs usefully dispels the weird mental separation we have made between the obviously objectionable, ugly, and violently contaminating oil spill and the subtler version that is the pervasive filling of oceans with microplastics:

Oil spills rightly arouse people’s disgust, provoking strict regulations. Darkening the ocean, or sometimes setting it alight, spills draggle marine creatures and seabirds in asphyxiating grease. A visually alarming event (the sea on fire, great tracts of it blackened), an oil spill’s morbidity is all surface. Plastic may look prettier—microplastics resemble nothing so much as fine confetti—and, being degusted by animals, smaller plastic may also be less conspicuous: but plastic is an oil spill, once-removed. An oil spill modulated, objectified, in fact, into something more persistent, and harder to capture or remedy.

p. 227
Pipelines leaving Nigeria’s delta, tankers transporting oil across the world . . .
Overlapping histories appear, here the Black Panthers leap out at the head of Harvey Milk as he shakes hands with George Moscone, who was killed in the same 1978 moment by our local murderous white supremacist Dan Whilte…
Finally finishing in 2019, Sances could not avoid including the cheerleaders for the apocalypse, the blonde boosters of banal evil who are still knocking at the gates of power.

I highly recommend that you get Rebecca Giggs’ remarkable book, and keep your eyes peeled for a chance to see Jos Sances’ incredible work “Or, The Whale” when it next appears (most recently it was at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in June-July). Both works are compelling in their own ways, and I thank both creators for my use of their work here.

Thinking broadly about whales, oceans, climate, planetary futures, I was dismayed to learn that we are on the cusp of deepsea ocean mining! This is among the stupidest things that our unplanned, anything-goes, market-based society will ever do. The undiscovered species and habitats of the ocean are so vast that it’s hard to believe that in the 21st century we could authorize giant lumbering machines to go down and scrape around randomly to try to find valuable metals and other substances. Talk about blind stupidity!

Avoiding despair, I find myself delving down into both history and the nearness of biology, even our own bodily condition. I just started reading a new book on fungi, which follows on earlier posts on plants and forests. I’m excited to take up fungi as a doorway into ecological interconnectedness in a future post. And interestingly, Giggs ends on a similar note in her sprawling and beautiful book:

Defaunation—depleting and displacing animal biomass; in this case, the immense bodies of whales—proves tantamount to terraforming and habitat loss for less conspicuous, subtending creatures that humans may yet encounter. . . These enigmatic microflora and fauna influence our moods, our appetites, our outlooks, and may even shape our senses, though we usually can’t discern them until they are in some way disrupted. Egocentrism turns out to be zoocentrism, in the fine print.

p. 254 and 265

3 comments to The World in the Whale

  • Anita Rao

    Learnt a lot from the observations made as well as the breaking down of the details hidden within the whale’s outline! The hope that whales bring, will be my focus, since humanity’s greed and blindness in this world of endless cnsumerism, only overwhelms my sense of hopelessness! Appreciate the insights!

  • Bruce light

    Missed your writing it was a long time since you posted. your take on our situation always is spot on keep up the good work hope you are feeling ok physically take care peace bruster

  • Great reporting, as always.
    Then there’s that word “despair,” though. To despair is to be relatively cognitively intact given the states of reality in our world. An over-ridiing, largely inherited sense of despair inhibits not action, but in action facilitates Independence.
    Of course that could be my brain’s relentless search for self-justification, but that’s our biology for us. As David Atten-bruh,says, “Shit’s fucked, fam.”
    The Internet needs you. Stay safe and productive.

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