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
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Brainless, Impersonal, Implacable

Dark clouds over the Caribbean, Chicxulub beach July 21, 2021

No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life and our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed, if commoning has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject.

—Sylvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (PM Press: 2019) p. 110

In Marx’s masterwork, Capital, volume I, the abstract and impersonal power of capital is itself an historical actor, a self-developing subject. Its value form is “the dominant subject of this process.” The increasing hegemony of its value form over all of social life grinds down into subjection the living human subject, the worker.

—Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press: 2016) p. 171

…The social dynamics of impersonal power … are intrinsic to capital as the alienated subject of the historical movement of modern society… the reproduction of the human life process under capitalism is a concrete form of an essentially inverted form of existence where the object dominates the subject… workers are subsumed into capital, becoming a particular mode of its existence.

—Martín Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism (Verso Books: 2020) p. 59 and 82

Who, or what, is the subject of history? Is anyone running the show, or are we on a runaway train with no exit? As these epigraphs indicate, Capital is the self-developing subject of modern life, but it is a subject with no brain, no feelings, no purpose other than the unending expansion of value. Its priests and acolytes concoct endless ideological cloaks to justify and explain the necessity of subordination to this stony, impersonal, and seemingly irresistible force. Their preposterous claims that the world is wealthier and happier than ever require an acrobatic process of forgetting the genocide and slavery that started this whole process, and then “unseeing” the millions of starving, water-less, landless destitute, the countless homeless camping in the streets of rich cities, the climate refugees beginning their peripatetic search for new homes.

Far from creating the material conditions for the transition to communism, as Marx imagined, capitalism has produced scarcity on a global scale. It has devalued the activities by which our bodies and minds are reconstituted after being consumed in the work process and has overworked the earth to the point that it is increasingly incapable of sustaining our life.

Federici, p. 189

I’ve spent the last quarter century trying to stimulate the sense of historical agency that everyone embodies, or ought to. I think each of us is an historical actor, every day and all the time! The central idea is that if we were to reclaim our ability to determine our shared fate, an ability that requires an engaged sense of agency and its potential power, we could find a way to consciously choose the path forward for our lives. My work with grassroots bottom-up history via Shaping San Francisco has its own roots in my life-long rejection of the organization of society, from the mind-numbing busywork I faced in elementary school to the absurdities of wage-labor. Self-employment gained me a modicum of independence, but it did nothing to affect the larger arrangement of society, which if anything, has grown demonstrably worse in my years.

In 2008 I published Nowtopia, which tried to locate an emergent subject in the work people were doing outside of wage-labor, where they were able engage their full humanity and creativity, deciding the purpose, design, and outcome of their own activity. In this analysis I was still groping for a way to shoehorn the working class into a role in its own liberation. Now, almost a decade and a half after I wrote the book, most of the initiatives I described remain marginal at best. In no way could it be said that a new recomposed working-class is emerging outside of paid work, where it is laying the foundations for a liberated life. In that hopeful analysis, at least up to now, I was dead wrong.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl flying east from Mexico City.

I still think work is central to our lives for better and worse. The plethora of recent writings on work, some of which I’ve taken up in past posts (here, here, here) reinforces the centrality of the crisis we face. That said, it’s pretty clear by now that seeking unity at work is seldom achieved, usually temporary, and a shared vision of a better life beyond that workplace, job, or industry can barely be said to have ever existed! As Arboleda said in the epigraph, workers have become so embedded in a capitalist division of labor that they embody a particular mode of capital’s existence. That existence has become so fragmented, atomized, and deskilled that we have to agree with Sylvia Federici’s description: “there is only one logic… to form a labor force reduced to abstract labor, pure labor power, with no guarantees, no protections, ready to be moved from place to place and job to job, employed mostly through short-term contracts and at the lowest possible wage.”

I have been trying to reset my thinking lately. Obviously nature looms large in that, between my posts on plants and forests, and my ongoing focus on the relationship between work and nature. My old friend Sylvia Federici, a long-time feminist, Marxist and member of Midnight Notes and author of many books, has reckoned with the more obvious failures of Marx, especially his obliviousness to the most important form of work of all, producing human beings! She also notes his myopia regarding the vast life beyond industrializing Europe: “In 1867, Marx did not see the power emerging from the communal organization of life of millions in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. This failure remains a key element of Marxist thought to this day.”

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Forests Are Family, Too!

An ancient Douglas Fir near the Russian River

The title of this post echoes the post from February about plant sentience for reasons that will become clear. I’ve always loved forests. I say that with the caveat that I’m quite sure nature is trying to kill me. In an ocean, I’m never relaxed, fully expecting a bite or sting from some unseen creature. On land I feel a lot better, and have even been known to bliss out in an old-growth forest. Bugs, bears, and snakes all lurk of course, but I can trust my eyes and ears and feel like I can evade danger if I need to (fond fantasy #23). (Admittedly, I feel safest in cities, where I do the lion’s share of my wandering and exploring, even facing the rare armed hold-up.)

The current surge of catastrophic wildfires, already far worse than any previous year (which we could have said in each of those years), is devastating areas across the northern hemisphere and choking cities thousands of miles away with smoke. In the U.S. this is all compounded by a severe drought over most of the West. But let’s not get too provincial here. In Siberia, wildfires are raging across the once frozen boreal forests, sending tons of carbon into the atmosphere, in a third consecutive year of unheard of drought and fire in the arctic north. And the ongoing destruction of the Amazon in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia adds South America to the hot spots of deforestation-by-fire. Indonesia is another (check that Indonesia link to get to a great website Global Forest Watch, that has a dashboard where you can dive deep into any country in the world and see maps of forest cover, forest loss, fires, and more.)

The Amazon on fire in 2020. Photo courtesy Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Siberian forests ablaze (skynews)
Peat fires smolder in below-freezing Siberia last winter.

It’s hard not to feel completely apocalyptic, given the devastation underway, especially in light of the fact that it is part of a very bad feedback cycle, adding ever more carbon ever more rapidly to the atmosphere, which is quickly worsening droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. If we ever doubted that humans are an integral part of nature, it would be impossible now.

But in the midst of this dire situation, I still have confidence that we can turn it around. Some days it seems truly impossible, but when I read a book like Suzanne Simard’s new Finding the Mother Tree, I reconnect to the longer flow of history, as she describes so eloquently her own 45-year path from summer job for a logging company to a new (old) synthesis of modern science and ancient indigenous knowledge.

I have been given a glimpse of these ideals—almost as a stroke of luck—through the rigid lens of western science. I’d been taught in the university to take apart the ecosystem, to reduce it into its parts, to study the trees and plants and soils in isolation, so that I could look at the forest objectively. This dissection, this control and categorization and cauterization, were supposed to bring clarity, credibility, and validation to any findings. When I followed these steps of taking the system apart to look at the pieces, I was able to publish my results, and I soon learned that it was impossible for a study of the diversity and connectivity of a whole ecosystem to get into print. There’s no control!, the reviewers cried at my early papers. Somehow with my Latin scintillation counters, and my training to consider only sharp lines of statistically significant differences, I have come full circle to stumble onto some of the indigenous ideals: Diversity matters. And everything in the universe is connected—between the forests and prairies, the land and the water, the sky and soil, the spirits and the living, the people and all other creatures.

p. 283

Her book is great reading. She hones in, in a rather folksy and anecdotal way, on deep epistemology. How do we know what we know? What is knowing? She intersperses the episodes of her life with her evolving knowledge, from early romance and marriage, kids, moving, career path from lumber companies to British Columbia Forestry Agency to graduate school in Corvallis, Oregon, to eventual tenured professor at University of British Columbia, 9-hour commutes and the impossibility of balancing work and domestic life, divorce, eventually finding new love with a woman, cancer and survival. Amidst it all she makes the stunning discovery that various species of mycorrhizal fungi play key roles in a communicative web among trees in the forest, weaving together “mother” trees with their offspring, as well facilitating the sharing of carbon, water, and other elements with other trees species “in the neighborhood.” With a phalanx of graduate students following her research path, new breakthroughs soon follow, proving what the naked eye can already clearly see: clearcutting old growth forests is like chopping off our limbs. As a child of a horse-logging family of settlers in British Columbia, she is not opposed to a functional connection to trees and forests as resources that we must use. But her research shows that, contrary to lumber industry arguments, birch and douglas fir need each other and support each other over time, and both thrive in each other’s presence, as opposed to the narrow paradigmatic focus on a “competition for resources [water].”

Continue reading Forests Are Family, Too!