Published on
The Guardian/UK

Shepherding Social Change

The battle to halt whaling in the Southern Ocean represents in microcosm why we must put the planet before profit

Ben Trott

For two days now, two crew members of a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessel have been held on a Japanese whaling ship, which they boarded in the Southern Ocean. They were delivering a letter informing the captain that his ship was in violation of both Australian and international conservation law.Since the late 1970s, Sea Shepherd has sought to monitor and prevent illegal whaling and seal hunting around the world. The current venture coincides with a ruling by the Australian federal court that hunting in the Australian Whale Sanctuary is illegal - the result of years of campaigning by environmental groups.

Sea Shepherd has a long-held commitment to using direct action as a means of stopping the hunting of whales, and has considerable support for their attempts at doing so. Their strength, however, comes less from their willingness to carrying out spectacular and daring acts (although they certainly can be awe-inspiring), and more from being rooted in a worldwide movement, which is increasingly questioning our society's relationship with the ecosystem on which it relies for its survival. Increased debate about climate change over the last few years has led many to make the argument that the requirement of a capitalist economy continually to "expand or die" inevitably sets it on collision course with the biosphere. The profit motive behind the whaling currently taking place in the Southern Ocean, supposedly for purely "scientific" reasons, is clear to anyone but the most blinkered.

The question of ecological limits to accumulation - to which much of the left has, until very recently, largely been blind - challenges us to consider how we can radically remake the world, moving beyond a logic that prioritises profit over survival. In the very, very short term, the answer surely has to lie partly in supporting the efforts of Sea Shepherd and others in directly preventing whaling from taking place. For those of us not on a boat in the Southern Ocean, this means building pressure on the British and Australian governments to demand the immediate and unconditional release of the two crew members being held hostage. In the slightly longer term, however, more of us need to engage with the question of how the crisis of accumulation presented by the Earth's ecological limits (whether that be rain forests, whales or the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 emissions) can be harnessed as a means of creating another, better world.

If we fail to build a broad social movement to campaign on this front, the alternative may be the manipulation of ecological crises (and the fear thereof) to the advantage of existing hierarchies and vested interests, along the lines of what has been described by Naomi Klein in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in Aceh and elsewhere following the east asian tsunami (pdf). That is not an option we can afford.

Ben Trott is active in the alter-globalisation movement. He is associate editor (Global Justice Movement) for the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500-Present (Blackwell Publishing, 2008).

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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