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NI Essay

Issue 360

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Earth Warrior

Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, is a pugnacious environmentalist who heads the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He’s never shied away from unpopular opinions or controversy. John F Schumaker caught up with Watson aboard the Farley Mowat (formerly the Ocean Warrior) in Christchurch harbour.

JS: Your worst critics claim that you are crazy.

Watson: The film Trashing The Planet implied I was insane because when I was 12 I shot another boy in the ass with a BB gun who was about to shoot a bird. I thought this amusing because in my neighborhood in New Brunswick, in eastern Canada, every 12-year-old boy shot at other boys with their BB guns for fun. The difference between them and myself was that I actually had a practical reason for shooting the kid. He received a bruised posterior and the bird lived. I was happy with that.

JS: Why are you so pessimistic about the prospect of governments making a difference?

Watson: To me government is an organized body that oversees the mass destruction of human and non-human life. Governments sell the licences to over-fish, to clear-cut, to hunt, to drain swamps and to destroy wetlands. Politicians seem to be incapable of action unless they are reacting to situations that force them to take action. Even then their actions are unimaginative and indiscriminate.
For example, the US acted in reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Government’s motivation ever since has been fear, primarily the fear of appearing impotent. Their actions have for the most part focused on curtailing the freedoms of their own citizens and imposing more restrictive immigration policies against innocent peoples wanting to enter the United States. The US Government has also reacted by waging war against Afghanistan and then Iraq to cover up the failure to destroy al-Qaeda.
War is always good for making it appear that something is being done. However, none of this will end terrorism. Terrorism won’t end until the root causes are removed. The removal of the root causes – poverty, totalitarian regimes supported by the US, environmental destruction – requires an imagination and an applied intelligence that government bureaucracy is simply incapable of providing.

JS: Will any of our current world leaders make ‘a good ancestor’, to use one of your terms?

Watson: I have struggled over the years to identify a world leader who has made a difference with regard to conservation and the environment and I haven’t found one. There are many who pay lip service but none who have taken action. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway spoke strongly about sustainability and the need to take action yet her country is involved with illegal whaling, ruthless over-fishing, destructive salmon farming, over-exploitation of its forests and the eradication of the wolf. Norway has talked the talk, especially when lecturing to Third World nations. But the reality is they dictate solutions they do not support in practice in their own country.

JS: You once commented that the ‘average Joe’ lives in a world of illusion and fantasy, and prefers it that way.

Watson: The great majority of people live in a reality defined by the mass media. Modern media defines morality, political and spiritual views, as well as our heroes and our ideals. The industry of illusion is one of the most lucrative on Earth and it is certainly the industry that has the most profound impact on our daily lives. Media entertains us and in return we sign our soul over to the media moguls and worship at their house of commerce.

JS: Whatever happened to freedom?

Watson: In the US we are slaves to a perverse definition of freedom. We are free, by god, and if you don’t agree that we are free we might have to throw you into jail until you agree with us. We have freedom of speech until we speak. We have freedom of assembly until we assemble and then we are dispersed by riot police. We have the freedom to express ourselves until we actually express ourselves. Freedom in the United States is a concept not an actuality. You agree with us or you agree with terrorism. The US has the best damn government money can buy. The Parliament of Whores in Washington is more loyal to the idea of commerce with the People’s Republic of China than it is to the freedom of its own citizens. Unfortunately most human beings believe that the oppressor is their saviour.

JS: Since the ‘average Joe’ inevitably votes out of self-interest, isn’t democracy a curse from an environmental standpoint?

Watson: Democracy may or may not be a good idea. It really has never been tried. The real problem is that people can be controlled. The citizen is a crop to be cultivated and harvested for the money required to support the bureaucracy. All the citizen sheep require is a shepherd (leader) to provide bread and circuses and to whisper electronic promises of security into their ears at night. And it is so easy to do in a media culture with television and sophisticated technologies to supply a diverse smorgasbord of entertainment.

JS: Speaking of circuses, you describe celebrities as the aristocrats of today’s ‘cultural circus’. Yet you rely heavily on them for support. Aren’t they some of the biggest ecological hypocrites on the planet?

Watson: In our culture people who make a living pretending to be other people have the most credibility. I don’t look on our celebrity spokespeople as hypocrites. I see them as having the wisdom and courage to harness their celebrity status for causes they believe in.

JS: We hear a lot today about the collapse of compassion in consumer society. Is that hampering the environmental movement?

Watson: Yes, compassion is declining. Add to this the internet – the latest media narcotic – and you find a wholesale retreat, especially amongst young people, into the matrix-like world of cyberspace. This is creating the perception of the natural world as an alien place and removing humanity even further from nature than before.

JS: You said recently that we are losing the battle. Why?

Watson: We are losing the battle because we live in a culture that nurtures us on materialism and promotes greed as a virtue. We are also taught to deny the consequences of greed.
I do see a solution but my solutions are unacceptable. I would curb the powers of corporations. I would implement serious educational programmes to reduce population growth. I would take away control of the media from special interests. I would outlaw advertising. I would create an international organization to police international conservation law. I would outlaw animal experimentation and give rights to other species and ecosystems. We give rights to corporations so why shouldn’t trees have standing before law?

JS: Isn’t it a colossal irony that our species is, as you put it, so ecologically stupid?

Watson: It is very much a cultural problem. Our story is self-centred. We equate intelligence with technology. Our religions are exclusive to our species. We have excluded ourselves from the natural world. We are the Titanic sinking slowly into the darkness of extinction due to our own stupidity. We saw the iceberg coming but we were too busy dancing in the ballroom to take action to avoid it.
And as the ship sinks ever deeper we toss out other species to make more room in the lifeboats for even more human passengers. Meanwhile, governments are more concerned about arranging the deck chairs and organizing the shuffleboard games even to notice that we are sinking.

JS: You mentioned religion. I see that your name has made the ‘Celebrity Atheist List’ next to Bruce Willis and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Watson: I reject any religion that places humanity at its centre and all the world’s religions do that. A biocentric planetary religion that promotes ecological ethics would be ideal but I do not envision such an innovation until it is too late.

JS: Do you see a link between overpopulation and biological meltdown?

Watson: I regard the diminishment of ecological carrying capacity and the extinction of plants and animals as the most important problems facing the future of evolution on Earth. Both problems are the result of out-of-control population growth. In 1972 when I attended the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm human overpopulation was the number one issue. Twenty years later when I attended the UN Conference on the Environment and Development in Brazil the issue of human population was not even on the agenda. If humanity does not implement a solution to the population problem, nature will deliver a very unpleasant solution and our lack of action today will guarantee an ecological nightmare for the people of the next few generations.

JS: What do you make of the latest emphasis on ‘family values’?

Watson: Family values have become a distraction. Concentrating on the nuclear family has led to wholesale ignorance and neglect of the family of nature. We share this planet with millions of other species and we ignore their welfare at our peril. We must get out of this vicious circle where we live only to perpetuate our family name. There are more important things than the nuclear family – like conservation of biodiversity, the need to lower human populations and the interdependence of species. The family is a concept used by government to keep us under control. So many people tell me that they would like to help protect endangered species and habitats but they can’t do much because of family obligations. In the end what is the good of family without a healthy environment to make life liveable and possible? Conservation and protection of the carrying capacity of the planet must be and should be the first priority of every person.

JS: In 1994, you predicted the collapse of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic. That’s now become a tragic reality. Any more predictions?

John F Schumaker is a psychologist living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. His latest book is The Age of Insanity.

Watson: I can safely predict that we will see more single-hulled oil tanker spills. My predictions for this new century are that in addition to oil wars we will see water wars, more fishery wars and other resource wars. A war will be fought over control of the resources of Antarctica. Canada and the US will go to war over water. Europe and Africa will go to war over fishing in African waters. And of course the media will continue to report that the experts from government and industry assure us that everything is all right.

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