The Extinction Epidemic Goes Local Featured

Last Thursday, after attending the day-long workshop at Brickworks about the Southern Resident orca whales, I had to make an emergency escape to Jackson’s Beach. My mind was in disarray and so were my emotions. It felt as though the SRKWs had been utterly overlooked in favor of the “stakeholders” in the room. After being derided and ridiculed because of speaking up for the SRKWs as part of the rest of the natural world that was facing extinction, I muttered something about “kissing our own asses goodbye” and headed for the door.

The day was scheduled to begin with a Tribal welcoming by Tulalip Tribe member, Patti Gobin. But the first announcement was that she would not be attending. My heart sank because her presence on the agenda was the one overt indication that the unique and sacred history of the Southern resident orca whales would be honored. Her absence set the stage for the continued absence of heart and spirit throughout the rest of the day.

The extraordinary nature of these majestic beings remained unacknowledged. Their precious place in the natural order of things throughout the Salish Sea was not acknowledged. All that they are symbolic of throughout Indigenous history was not acknowledged. And, so began the day of “stakeholder” (i.e.: human exploiter) acknowledgement. And that, I’m afraid, reflects everything that is going wrong on this planet. Life itself is secondary to profit. Whether it’s profit in the pocket or on the professional resume, it comes first, last and always.

There was science in the room about the impact of noise in critical foraging areas of the Salish Sea—but no specific reference to where. According to a scientist who was presenting, when people see maps that indicate impact, stakeholders are offended, and they get rude. It felt, in fact, as though the entire day was choreographed to support “stakeholders” and to prevent “rudeness.” The only authentic stakeholder not in the room was a Southern Resident orca whale. And that was the rudest thing of all.

There was a momentary whiff of attention to the Governor’s Task Force recommendation to suspend SRKW whale-watching for 3-5 years; but in terms of county discussion, it was swept under the waters. There was a big hurrah for the “Whale Warning Flag Project,” designed to keep boaters away from the SRKWs. To me, it felt more like a “here we are” way to attract more and more boaters into orca whale territory. Doesn’t anyone understand that the more human attention the SRKWs are given, the more human attention they will attract.

And then, when Jeff Friedman, who is both a President of the Pacific Whale-Watchers Association and a member of the Marine Resources Committee, spoke about “Requesting allocation of fish for SRKW,” my head started spinning. Diversion, duplicity and disingenuousness are such a tragic part of these precarious times. It is excruciating to watch it all unfold here in San Juan County.

The two real-science presentations about SRKW foraging hotspots and acoustic patterns were thoroughly knowledgeable. They were also conveniently presented without any reference to mitigation methods, namely: Get the hell out of their waters. Giving the SRKWs back the peace and quiet of their home waters so they can more easily acquire diminishing food resources is just too simple for credibility—and too financially inconvenient.

“What was that all about?” I asked myself as I paced the shores of Jackson’s Beach through Thursday’s sunset. The Southern Residents are facing imminent extinction—and they were not in the room either literally, figuratively, educationally, or significantly. It was a day about mitigating the inconvenience their pending extinction was causing. It was all about money—and diplomacy.

“Have a nice day. Look the other way,” is a convenient ethic for a privileged community. But it is seriously inconvenient for the environment—and for people, too. Just like it is easier to raise a couple of million bucks for an animal shelter than it is to face the awkward reality of poverty & homelessness on the island, it is easier to blame the salmon for disappearing than to focus on the human causes of SRKW extinction.

Why, at this critical point in earth and human history, is it so easy on this fragile island to ignore the consequences of our actions? Why are we not leading the way in protecting the natural world and its place in the future of our children’s lives? Why are we not facing out-loud and head-on the rapidly growing divide between material acquisition and the spiritual, ethical, emotional and psychological well-being that gives meaning to life?

As the sun dwindled its way down, I was in tears. Being on the shores of this world is where everything has always made sense, garnered hope, and offered solace. As a kid, my life was literally saved by the seashore. If I could smell salt and seaweed it meant I was outside and safe. But after the workshop on Thursday, the weight of it all in these times of extinction came riding in on the tide and took me down. After such a day of human denial in my own backyard, even the sweet sunset could not give me comfort.

The whale-watch industry could take the heroic high-road regarding saving the Southern Residents. They could lead the way—and they wouldn’t have to give up their businesses. “Save the Whales Nature Tours” could be such solace and inspiration in these disturbing times. We all live here because of the peace and quiet of-it-all. Why are we not offering that to the world-at-large? I never send my visitors out whale-watching. But if there was a boating experience that even came close to the peace, quiet and beauty that is at the heart of this place, I would be out on a boat with them.

There is a difference between wealth and money. I learned to articulate this nearly 30 years ago from our long-time resident and Nature Connect expert and author, Dr. Michael Cohen. I wrote about Mike and his work in Chapter 18 of “The Battle in Seattle.” This chapter, “The Nature Of Life--In Which Wealth Has Nothing To Do With Money," explores an afternoon workshop with Mike, who sent us out to ask nature about the difference between wealth and money:

"Somebody had a realization about being rich. "I followed the sound of a bird as it went from place to place in the woods, but I couldn't quite catch up. It was like going after money. Pretty soon I didn't even watch where I was going."

The reductive challenge we face every day in contemporary life to describe, weigh, and measure the secrets of our lives means that they lose their power, their numinous nature, their stature. "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science," says Albert Einstein. There is nothing mysterious about money but try sitting with a cedar tree for ten minutes and listening to what it has to tell you.

The truth is that nature is always restoring. Always attracting, recovering, healing. It feeds our biological and psychological ability to regenerate. And when we connect to the natural world with our reasoning, consciousness and language, together with all our other senses, we are opened up to real power that transcends the dollar.

"The more alive we are," said Michael Cohen, "the more rewarded we are by the wisdom of earth and nature, the less dependent we are on the power of money and prestige, and the less damage we do to one another and to the planet. When are we going to learn this in contemporary society?"

When indeed?

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."


  • Heike U
    Heike U Friday, 14 December 2018 12:39 Comment Link

    “What was that all about”, the original post asks. ‘Stakeholders’ ostensibly have a stake in the status quo system and are impelled to defend, justify, and reaffirm this system. Often, they have worked to build or shape the current system and benefit from it. In order to maintain these benefits (starting with the identity of ‘stakeholder' and ending with socioeconomic status), the stakeholder subconsiously or consciously de-emphasizes inconvenient facts, risks, or solutions. Personal characteristics such as capacity for empathy or ability to tolerate thinking about subjects that cause anxiety also play a role, but perhaps the most important personal characteristic is social dominance orientation. An individual with a high level of social dominance orientation believes that inequality is normal/acceptable and considers a clear stratification of society along the lines of wealth but also gender, race, and other variables such as stakeholder status desirable. This stratification extends to animals, plants, insects, and the planetary ecology. The greater the competition for resources both material and abstract (say, salmon, space on/in marine waters, the capacity to dump toxins, the ability to capitalize and profit from the commons that includes all species), the more visible and transparent these personality characteristics of some individuals become, to the dismay of those less inclined to thrive on inequality and social dominance, of those who may have understood one way or another that an orca, a tree, or a pollinator has a place in nature that is equal to that of a human being. In short, when stakeholders have turned into stewards, positive change can follow. In the meantime we will probably still cater to the social dominance oriented individuals demanding specific co-benefits and win-win-solutions for their personal interests at the expense of the larger, long-term win-win co-benefit of a healthy ecosystem for all. My hope is that all stakeholders have or develop the proper sense of urgency required now, show capacity for creativity, wisdom, and adaptation, are willing to correct mistakes of the past, and find ways to cope with the (unfounded?) anxiety of possibly being disadvantaged or deprived. Challenging ourselves to practice ever-increasing levels of these values is how we can all contribute to mitigating the ongoing ecological catastrophe. And let’s not give up hope that humanity can rise to the occasion in a timely manner.

  • Michael Cohen
    Michael Cohen Thursday, 13 December 2018 11:47 Comment Link

    Steve says “For people who care and pay attention, we are experiencing a kind of collective insanity and can personally find solace in nature, but society cannot seem to come together to agree on anything anymore.” This is because our education and counseling omits the 1930’s “Standard Big Bang Universe and its Unifying Field that pulls all things together, including people. Without applying this attraction glue, there is little to unify our differing belief stories and the stress they generate.

    We cause the unhappiness of catastrophic climate change, species extinction, mental illness, abuse and resource depletion because we don’t add the art and science of Albert Einstein’s Revolutionary Wisdom to the excessively nature-disconnected ways we think, feel and relate.

    Add it.

    Be aware that in 1942 adding “Victory Garden Wisdom” to our food-shortage catastrophe stopped the shortage in 720 days. After that, half the food supply of the United States came from our backyard gardens for the remainder of World War II.

    At this moment, our excessiveness produces "Earth Misery" an approximate 50% natural resource deficit that increases moment by moment. This means that the life of our planet is bankrupt, ill and struggling to survive in its present form.

    With respect to the essence and whole of life, the life of Earth, you and me is identical. If Earth's life is abused or sick what kind of disorder makes us think our life is well?

    Our excessive demands on Earth’s life, since 1974, have also created an Earth Misery 50% average increase in species extinction, mental illness, obesity, climate change, oceanic oxygen depletion, loneliness, atmospheric carbon, population, forest fire size, mass shootings, and excessive stress. They are accompanied by increased corruption, child abuse, unhappiness, mistrust, unfairness, expensive health care, political and economic extremes, destructive dependencies, addiction, and many other disorders.

    Our psyche is so hurtfully stressed from society’s discontents that we seldom know the greatest unifying truth in our life that we can trust yet it is readily available.

    More on "Victory Garden" facts is available at or call me at 360-378-6313

  • Steve Ulvi
    Steve Ulvi Wednesday, 12 December 2018 11:15 Comment Link

    I enjoyed this column and agree with much of Janet's perspective. However, the separation of humans from the natural world began to inform our collective consciousness a very long time ago. As a result, I do not feel that we can get from the modern "here" to a place of humility or reverence for the natural world, that would be of any real help to the SRKW ecological disaster we are grappling with. Not pessimism, but reality.

    The very fact that the most impassioned supporters of the recovery of the SRKWs, the most knowledgeable informants of their plight were in the room and yet the magnitude of 150 years of ecological destruction of the Salmon World overwhelms the chance for reasoned solutions that can be supported by a majority of the voting public. For every single component of a solution will require significant personal human sacrifice and except when on the brink of global occupation by the Axis powers in WWII we don't have the stomach for it.

    Just as with the immense challenges of global climate change looming over the horizon, we are simply too comfortable, too quietly greedy, too uneducated and too preoccupied with constant consumption of goods and services to seriously care about undoing what we have collectively wrought.

    Massive ecological changes ongoing in the warming in the North Pacific and future lack of snowpack in the PNW with the population of the Salish Sea basin projected to be 10 million ( or more due to climate refugees) by 2050, will change everything we consider "normal" and obviate our best efforts today to save the SRKWs.

    For people who care and pay attention, we are experiencing a kind of collective insanity and can personally find solace in nature, but society cannot seem to come together to agree on anything anymore. As my crusty uncle used to say "hope in one hand and spit in the other and see which gets full faster".


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