Who Are the Commons? Rethinking Capitalism by Considering the Interests of Whales
Rather than having conservationists advocating for whales, we ought to be giving the whales themselves a seat at the table
The International Whaling Commission meets every two years to decide the future of the whales. That is, it decides which nation will kill how many, and for what reasons (commercial, subsistence, “research”). The meeting engages stakeholders from around the world are engaged, from whaling and non-whaling nations alike.
Photo by Sylke Rohrlach
Notably absent in these discussions on the future of whales, are the whales themselves. But this is not just because they would have a hard time fitting into the conference room. It’s an intentional omission, since whales are a part of the Commons: that great, amorphous void which we draw individuals out of, pour refuse into, and in which live the nameless, faceless “biomass” that we refuse any real legal or political consideration on a categorical basis. According to our current paradigm, the whales, and everyone else in the oceans, are resources to be protected, conserved, or exploited: divided up (albeit unequally) amongst ourselves and consumed.
This might sound like an article about whales, but it isn’t. It’s really about us, and what we chose to believe about ourselves, our societies, and what our future can look like. For perhaps the first time in history, we human cultures of the world are largely united in a struggle for what comes next — an active discussion, a exercise in collective imagination that’s becoming all the more urgent as we watch our current world, and worldviews, fall apart — or more aptly, being ripped apart by late-stage capitalism.
Our current system is incapable of addressing the problems faced by our own species because inequality is embedded within its very foundation. Strategies to dismantle plutocracy and eradicate poverty often involve new ways of “managing” the Commons. However, as long as we try to preserve or manage habitats and ecosystems for human benefit alone, the resulting damage to the lives of other species will reverberate into our own in increasingly disastrous and unpredictable ways.
Within capitalist models, individuals of other species are not only neglected – their very existence is denied. They are instead relegated to the realm of property, only to be considered or “conserved” when their bodies are seen as necessary for the health of an ecosystem of value; and then, they are lumped into “populations” or “stocks” rather than recognizing them as individuals with interests, deserving of their fair share of resources like any human being.
However, when we begin to consider this legion of individuals of other species, the Commons can transform into a system for mutualizing responsibilities wherein other species are considered active stakeholders as they participate in and benefit from those responsibilities. This can maximize the health and generative capacities of a given area, be it in the ocean or upon the grasslands or within a forest.
Let’s go back into that conference room again, with its notable absence of the whales who are being discussed. The changes I’m proposing might sound extreme, but not if we begin with species that we can all agree are intelligent and sophisticated enough to have interests of their own. We can begin by considering whales’ needs, desires, and perspectives as stakeholders.
Rather than having conservationists advocating for whales’ protection in the name of ecological equilibrium or for future human generations, we ought to be giving the whales themselves a seat at the table – via representatives such as a guardian ad litem – to express what’s in the best interest for these individuals in matters concerning them, such as establishing Marine Protected Areas designed to protect their culturally relevant spaces in the ocean. Whales should also be considered stakeholders where industrial projects, such as salmon farms, may have adverse impacts on their lives.
This is no quaint idea rooted in sentimentality towards charismatic megafauna. It’s an idea that can save us – all of us – because when other species thrive, we all thrive.
Any accounting of the Commons without acknowledging the presence and interests of others within these spaces will lead to their continued destruction, to our human peril as well. But when we consider the perspectives of the other species, whom we rely upon for our survival and vice versa, can we begin to work towards nurturing an environment that is actually sustainable. Doing otherwise will only doom us to repeat history. And we are running out of time to make more of the same mistakes.