Are we the walrus?

This post was supposed to be about the People’s Climate March.  As I sat down to draft it, however, a headline about a different climate-related gathering caught my eye: tens of thousands of Pacific walruses have again hauled out onto the beach near Point Lay, Alaska, prompting authorities to reroute flights that could panic the herd into a deadly stampede.  Since 2006, stampedes have killed thousands of walruses.

Why are these consummate swimmers coming ashore in nervous, writhing hordes?  In short, it’s because anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is rapidly eroding formations of Arctic sea ice.[i]  Pacific walruses depend on sea ice not only as a place of refuge, but also as a vital part of the trophic system that sustains mollusks, crustaceans, and other staples of the walrus diet.  As the ice dissolves into the sea, walruses have no choice but to look for food and shelter along the shoreline.[ii]

Like the elephant or polar bear, the walrus is an example of a “charismatic” species whose ecological troubles occasionally make international headlines.  Thus it’s no surprise, to quote the Guardian’s Karl Mathiesen, that “the walrus and their reason for being on that forlorn shore [are] enmeshed in the politics of climate change.”  So what, then, does an unusual gathering of walruses signify?

My interest here is not in how climate-change denialists have answered this question, though you can be sure they have rushed to do so.  Instead, I want to reflect briefly on how it has been taken up by those aiming to spur collective action.  What do we do when walruses confront us with our impact on the planet?

Two different ways of answering this question seem most salient.  One response enlists the walruses in the iconography of global crisis, with the haul-outs interpreted as an “unprecedented planetary distress signal.”  The other asks us to identify with the walrus and consider how we too suffer from a lack of political will to address climate change.  As New York Times columnist Gail Collins put it, “We are the walrus.”

My previous posts have contemplated, on the one hand, the risk that Anthropocene narratives will deepen our anthropocentrism and, on the other, the challenge we face in defining the “anthro” of the Anthropocene .  One might expect, then, that I would welcome these responses to the walrus question.  Each contains the kernel of a non-anthropocentric understanding of humanity as a “geophysical force” at the planetary scale.[iii]  And, in that respect, I do welcome them.  There is conceptual and strategic promise in interpreting mass walrus haul-outs as a sort of Walrus Climate March–an analogy to the marches recently organized by people in cities around the world, only in this case emerging from a nonhuman community facing climate-related displacement.

At the same time, though, I fear that we may be asking too much of the walruses.  What they’re experiencing is a symptom of a problem whose root causes lie elsewhere.  Images of walruses in distress may help galvanize collective action or at the very least help us better grasp the scope of our impact on the planet.  What’s more likely, though, is that these images will never be connected to a critical, global understanding of capitalism and will instead be received as advertisements for Arctic conservation efforts—efforts which are vital, but which alone cannot address climate change or broader questions of ecological justice in the Anthropocene. [iv]

The travails of distant megafauna have a way of attracting our attention—and rightfully so.  But that attraction almost always proves fleeting and may actually distract us from the “slow violence” that is unfolding in our own backyards.[v]  If displaced walruses so readily inspire us to declare “This is climate change,” so must the smoke stacks of refineries, the flares of rigs, the engines of jets, and the tar-sand wastelands.  We are (responsible for) all of these things, but the walrus most certainly is not.

Further reading:

[i] Eric Post, Uma S. Bhatt, Cecilia M. Bitz, Jedediah F. Brodie, Tara L. Fulton, Mark Hebblewhite, Jeffrey Kerby, et al. 2013. “Ecological Consequences of Sea-Ice Decline.” Science, Vol. 341, No. 6145, pp. 519-24.

[ii]  The Guardian’s Karl Mathiesen has done excellent reporting on how all of this unfolds ecologically and what it might mean for the walruses in the long term.

[iii] Dipesh Chakrabarty. 2012. “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 1-18.

[iv] James Igoe, Katja Neves, and Dan Brockington. “A Spectacular Eco-Tour around the Historic Bloc: Theorising the Convergence of Biodiversity Conservation and Capitalist Expansion.” Antipode 42, no. 3 (2010): 486-512.

[v] Rob Nixon. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

2 thoughts on “Are we the walrus?

  1. Thanks for this, Noah–though I’m eager to hear what you have to say about the climate marches too!

    I’d like to ask about the very last thing you say here, however: I take it that you suggest that just as we might want to see the walruses as climate change we should also see “landmarks” of the energy economy as climate change, hence, I gather, via our responsibility for those landmarks, ourselves as climate change. I read you to mean that the attention to the plight of the walruses in a sense allows us to displace attention from its ultimate cause (“us” in some appropriately defined sense) to an immediate, but ultimately limited conservation oriented solution. But I wonder whether the comparison to those hideous landmarks might also allow for a displacement of attention–few people, I imagine, identify with the images you conjure up, but rather feel alienated from them. So I’d say that the comparison to the walrus haul-out ought to be to a traffic jam, or to a full parking lot at a shopping mall, or to the crowded concourse at a busy airport. For, obviously, the landmarks you mentioned are intermediaries between the effect and the ultimate cause–the way “we” live (again, as you have pointed out, there is much to be said about who “we” are).

    But even those agglomerations of cars and people might not be right, again because they are typically experienced not just as alienating, but moments when a system is not operating properly. But, I suppose, the walrus haul-out is not itself a flaw in the system that produced it–it is, unlike a traffic jam, a true externality. What we should see as climate change is the energy economy functioning smoothly–providing us a nice easy drive, making good time. But this is really hard to do.

    The problem–and I think it is a deep one–is that well-functioning systems tend to be invisible. I think there are two reasons for that. On the one hand, they don’t call attention to themselves–they recede into the background, allowing us to attend to what we use those systems to do. On the other, and I think this is the really deep issue, from one’s own private point of view, one doesn’t experience the system as a system, i.e. as something larger than one’s own point of contact with it. When the system functions well one thinks about one’s own experience of it, and not about the fact that one is participating along with millions and millions of others in a vast whole that in the aggregate has devastating external impacts. I think it is a real challenge to learn to see the way we–in our social structures–live in the fullness of our connectedness to the world, without collapsing from cognitive overload, or succumbing to moral paralysis.

    • My apologies, Zev, for this extremely delayed reply to your thoughtful comment. I agree that the imagery of refineries and jet engines isn’t as immediate to most peoples’ everyday lives as SUVs filling a big-box parking lot or jamming a freeway. Perhaps we need to repurpose the old adage “you are what you eat” to “you are what you drive.” Sure, many in the US already identify with their vehicles, but usually as a status symbol, rather than a marker of ecological accountability. So, the challenge is to shift that identification so that driving (and flying for that matter) aren’t sentimentalized or naturalized as an inevitable part of our culture, but rather experienced as an activity that is damaging our entire biosphere. That such knowledge is already widespread but relatively limited in impact points further to the question of infrastructure—things like the refineries and rigs I was conjuring in my post. Switching to hybrids is not enough, and perhaps less likely to serve as a consolation for ecologically mindful citizens if we somehow identify ourselves and take moral responsibility for the system as a whole.

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