Ramming the Barges of Consensus

A recent essay in the New Yorker described the always intriguing exploits of Paul Watson’s ‘wild crusade to save the oceans’ Neptune’s Navy , New Yorker November 5, 2007. Hitting the headlines in Australia earlier this year, Watson’s crusade came to light via the hostage taking of two Sea Shepherd crewmembers after they boarded a Japanese whaling vessel illegally engaged in ‘scientific whaling research’ in the Southern Ocean.

I would say that these heroic deeds of Watson and his crew were rather universally admired in at least the Australian press. While there were some grumblings from the Australian government bureaucracy over the questionably legal tactics of the Watson’s big black ship, it was the Japanese whalers who fared worst. They were (also) breaking the law, after all. And no civilised person could ever condone whaling…

Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker post has some interesting insights into the living Watson legend and the Sea Shepherd campaign. Insights like the fact that the Sea Shepherd has strengthened bows to faclitate its efforts to forcibly and intentionally ram whaling (and other) fishing vessels. Another is Watson’s rather tyrannical reign over his pirate flagged crew. And the sometimes scary lack of maintenance and, sometimes, unseaworthiness of his ship. But even more interesting were suggestions of a basic level of misanthropy as the foundation world view of the dashing man of action; and his eviction from Greenpeace on the foundation of his rather unremitting dedication to physical violence as opposed to their preferred passive resistance model. The article also delves down to a discussion on the anthropocentric-ecocentric distinction and the philosophical roots of deep ecology. Watson is a man who seems refreshingly keen to say exactly what he thinks; like there being a good few billion too many humans on the planet; that the hegemony of humans is over asserted in all our environmental policy making affairs, and…if you don’t like what he’s got to say, well, you can always jump ship! It’s a wonderful essay.

What intrigues me on all this is the momentum Watson provides to force us all to contemplate a spectrum for human-ecology relationship: a spectrum from the abysmal extremes of pure anthropocentricism asserted by its white knights of the economics profession, through to, right at the other extreme of ecocentricism, people just like him. Clearly, people do sit across a sepectrum. Even if one were to denounce Watson (as no doubt many in the Japanese whaling business would do), we are forced to realise that people with views such as his exist. And, their viewpoints are asserted in most colourful ways. Which means that if governments won’t privilege positions such as theirs with suitable empowerment, Watson and Co. seem to be rather more than capable of privileging their position all on their own! Their position is hardly subtle. The pirate flag and military decor of Captain Watson are not even thinly disguised messages to this effect.

To draw some ideas from one of my favourite turfs, Watson asserts the breadth of the discursive society. He asserts the reality of divergence of viewpoint, mental models and philosophical position. So much of our contemporary environmental policy making seems to be devoted to the fantasy of commuinity ‘hermeneutical’ homogenity: that we all have, more or less, the same outlook. Policy bureaucrats seem intent on forcing their one-size-fits-all cookie cutter economics machinery into the formulation of policy frameworks that fit the world only in theory. Too much of messy, discursive reality is assumed away as ‘aberration’ and the musings of the nutters. The ‘white noise’ of economics is a rather fertile ground. It is that place that contains, generally, the far more realistic bits of human behaviour that economic theory cannot sensibly represent. Things like the reality of a spectrum of ecophilosophical positions, rather than the (implicit, but theoretically asserted) assumption that we are all defined as a uniformity of profit maximising, utility optimising invisible hand driven community of short sighted carpet bagging rent maximisers…

While you or I might not actually want to go sign up for passage on the Sea Shepherd, we are forced to notice that manifestation of world views that, perhaps, are vastly different to our own (especially, as I said, if you are a Japanese whaler). This means that we can’t really just ignore world views such as Captain Watson’s in our efforts to devise one-size-fits-all environmental policy prescriptions because, to be blunt, the Sea Shepherd my well point its metaphorical gun our way and blow us out of the water. Now that forces the necessity to give the complexities of real world policy making some more detailed attention.

All of which means, in my view, that our ecocentrically inclined co-inhabitants of the human social melle provide a critically important service. They preclude the inanity of compressed opinion and flock-like conformity to theoretically defined models of economic-ecological interaction. The danger from that kind of conformity is pretty stark: if the theories are wrong or faulty, a blissfully bleating well ordered flock will quickly become extinct. One only needs to note the current human-induced acceleration of global warming to derive at least a few indicators of that our policy making models are in need of major overhaul. The big guns of the Sea Shepherd inspire us to react a little more quickly and with more creativity than might be the case if Watson et al were to simply take up furious letter writing campaigns instead. There is nothing like a ship ready willing and able to ram our policy barge if it heads too far off course. But, I am keen to state, I am not advocating the transfer of our democratic helm to the Captain Watson’s of the world. Their task is to remain on the side, as a peripheral spectre of a less ‘forgiving state’ should our engagement of the robustly divergent discursive community relapse back to fantasies of a tame artificial world of people and place ordered by the dictates of theories rendered reckless through their naivety. There is nothing simple about the way our socio-economic systems work. Captain Watson keeps us awake and vigilant when, otherwise, the torpor of academic wish models might otherwise blanket us all.

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