Last Tuesday’s SRKW Task Force meeting at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge in Anacortes reflected all the bells and whistles of capitalism vs. life itself. When I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, there was a fellow in the parking lot who looked like he knew where he was going. I mentioned the Task Force meeting and he said, “Yes. Follow me.” So, I did.
We entered a side door that went right into an immense casino area. It was like walking into a virtual reality cartoon of bright and robotic color. The place was empty of people but for a couple of white guys sitting at machines and pulling on handles. We crossed the giant room, went through a small door, and entered the conference room. It, too, was huge. But the cartoon color faded into an ambiance of greys and beige, soft blues and greens. The table was set up for its more than 40 task force members and there were many rows of chairs for the visitors. Turned out they would not be enough. It became a standing room only event that ran long past its scheduled ending. Even so, most of the visitors who signed up to speak were not given the opportunity.
The irony of it all—a gambling casino as well as a gathering place to save life-on-earth—was in full evidence throughout the entire day.
The reality of the Southern Resident orcas pending extinction could not be greater. Not only are their overall numbers down to 75, but their breeding females are extremely low in number. There is very little in their world that bodes well for them.
I try to comprehend the extent of the destruction we have perpetrated upon life-on-earth and I cannot. It all translates into a kind of breathing mourning that is challenging every spiritual teaching I have ever received. And there have been a lot of them—starting and ending with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was a teenager when I heard about his escape from Tibet as the Chinese were bearing down on him. Leaving his life and his loved ones behind, he headed over the Himalayas to India, precisely to save the Tibetan people as well as Tibetan Buddhism. In the face of so much tragic loss, he has not stopped loving everyone. My anger at everyone survives, even after attending HH Dalai Lama’s teachings in India over recent years and reading his books constantly.
I realize that the depth of my anger reflects the depth of my grief. But grief is a no-no in a “have a nice day, look the other way” culture. Grief isn’t cool. It makes everyone uncomfortable. It is the social faux-pas in the room. It’s an inconvenient truth--just like the fate of the Southern Residents. Facing their demise means facing the massive destruction we humans have perpetrated upon our earthly home. It is so much easier to spread wonder and “love” than it is to do the right thing and get the hell out of their way, so they can have the peace and quiet they need to survive. “Love” is much less expensive than real care and concern.
As I sat through the Governor’s SRKW Task Force meeting, it was the prayer songs and the heart- and spirit-filled speeches of the Native Americans in the room that kept me there. The pseudo-scientific opinions that served the stakeholders at the table were excruciating to hear. The repetitive rhetoric about taking down the dams became a diversionary tactic to leave the more immediate actions irrelevant in the room. Yes, the dams are a huge problem—they have destroyed entire eco-systems in their wake. Yes, we must restore salmon—as long as no-one is inconvenienced. Yes, let’s clean up the contaminants and stop the freighters—as long as we can still buy cheap shit from China. Yes, let’s have a protection zone—as long as it’s reasonable for business-as-usual.
Human hypocrisy knows know bounds. And as we descend further and further into sound-byte-disposable-materialistic mayhem, it is this hypocrisy that is getting fed. Not the Southern Residents. And certainly not our spirits.
There are Four Noble Truths in Tibetan Buddhism: One: Life is suffering. Two: There is a cause to suffering. Three: The end of suffering comes from the awakened and enlightened mind. Four: By reflecting inwardly and living ethically we can wake-up to the inherent and reverent nature of life. And, in doing so, we become an authentic part of it all.
There is nothing easy about this. It leads down the slippery slope of inconvenient truth. It demands that we be a part of it all, not above it all. It flies in the face of capitalistic unconsciousness and asks us to wake up to one another, to our suffering, to the suffering of the planet, and to the solution: respect and reverence for life in all its manifest forms.
There were young people in the big Swinomish conference room. They were filming and interviewing throughout the day. I learned they are working on a film titled, “Co-Extinction.” I felt heartsick that it had come to this—the next generations must face all that the rest of us have been afraid to face. Some legacy.
Sitting next to me was a scientist who spent his career working to saving mammals from extinction all around the world. Timothy Ragen, PhD, recently retired as Executive Director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. He now lives in Anacortes. He also happens to be the scientist who was vitally important in writing the Orca Relief petition to NOAA for a Whale Protection Zone.
Dr. Ragen addressed the group during the all-too-limited public comment time. For decades, he’s been involved in conservation efforts on behalf of numerous marine mammals. He is very familiar with the shortcomings of recovery methods. “Often there are areas of science we think we understand, but we don’t,” says Dr. Regan.
To be effective, we need safeguards from our own limitations, which is why the basic precautionary principle is so critical: “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” This puts the survival needs of the SRKWs first and foremost.
At the task force meeting, Dr. Ragen closed his comments with one simple question: “Are we humans willing to change our behavior?”
Later, when I discuss the SRKW situation with Dr. Ragen, he says to me, “We should be doing all we can to reverse their decline and facilitate their recovery. We may not be able to recover them in our generation, but we should be able to leave them in a better state for the next generation.”
I am reminded of a very recent article by Chris Hedges in which he writes: "One of the great existential crises of our time is to understand how bleak the world is and resist anyway." Hedges, author of several books, is a prominent journalist, Presbyterian minister, and lecturer at Princeton University. This weaving together of spiritual faith and environmental action is essential in these nihilistic times. It is the generational path that keeps on giving. Where would we be if not for those no longer alive who committed to survival beyond their own?
Dr. David Suzuki, who wrote, “A sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, is another scientist with a far-reaching message that goes beyond scientific reductionism: In his book he writes: “Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come. Our breath is a part of life's breath, the ocean of air that envelopes the earth.”
When it comes right down to it, it is our breath-in-action that will save the Southern Residents from extinction—and, perhaps, ourselves.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."