Monday, July 14, 2008

A Microcosm: The Loss of Critical Thought in Politics

Whales are maybe not the first thing on most people's minds this election cycle (even Democrats). But one of the problems that faces Americans is the lack of critical thinking that people use to connect their values to the real world, and this debate is just one small example, so forgive my digression from McCain and China.

In a nutshell: the Makah Indian tribe of Washington State hunts whales, and they've been doing it for a long time. Fine - except that they need paperwork to do it. The reason the rest of us can't go whale-hunting is that Richard Nixon signed into law the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which among other things bans whaling. (Most forget that Nixon also established the EPA.)

Now, if you're a conservative of course, you have a clear idea what your values are, and you hold your values because of the impact they have on the cold hard pounds-and-inches-and-dollars reality of the material world. "Because we always did it this way" isn't a good argument, and neither is "don't do it because it's mean"; people need to eat. A clearer way to think about it is to ask the questions: do we want whales around for our grandkids to see? At the same time, do we want to stop hunters from making a living that way? The reality is that if every industrialized country puts a fleet of high tech whaling vessels back on the high seas, your grandkids won't see the whales. In fact the whales are having enough trouble surviving today with just Japan to contend with. But if we're talking about traditional Makah hunting, the Makah are going to be able to make a living and they're not going to make a dent in the global whale population. Anticipating this problem, Congress and Nixon included a provision in the Protection Act to allow traditional subsistence activities. The Makah are allowed to do it, but they need a permit, and they're not doing themselves any favors by acting illegally while the case drags on.

See? This legislation didn't come out of gut reactions against poofy liberals trying to save whales, or hearts bleeding about the mean conservatives (or Makahs) trying to kill them. By thinking clearly about what your values are, and what impact your choices will have on the world, you can usually arrive at a solution that works for most of us. But now the debate is open again, and it's all about mean people (Makah or not) and cuddly whales and "We've always done it this way so ---- you."

In closing, if it seems like I've had this specific debate before, maybe it's because someone at my house is Japanese and although she managed to talk me into trying whale sushi on one occasion, it doesn't mean I'm pro-Japan-whaling.
(Yes, it was hypocritical, but it was once. I tried it once. Then that's it forever. Imagine really fatty beef, but raw. No, you're not missing much.)

*As an aside: interestingly enough, in 1999, a few park rangers in Denali National Park up in Alaska confided in me that the moose population was dropping because of overhunting. But not by humans. They had observed that grizzlies had developed a new technique to kill moose calves by separating them from their mothers, and the new method had apparently been spreading among the bears (yes, they're really that smart, and they can learn how to open screw-top containers too). And of course, the moose population dropped. Nature-lovers might not like the idea of fuzzy critters exterminating each other without our help, but until not long ago, every animal that went extinct did it without us around.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Not sure I'd care to try whale, but it's mainly since I'm not a big fan of sushi.

The elk herds in Montana & Wyoming have been dropping.

Seems the wolves that were reintroduced have multiplied rapidly and really like their elk.

The US has taken wolves off the endangered species list.