As oystercatchers startle up from a rock, vivid orange, black, and white and crying a tad histrionically, the concept of intrinsic value becomes a whole lot less abstract. Neat black guillemots dive as you approach, leaving, on a calm day, perfect ripples. Look down as the ripples glide back into surface stillness and you see a whole other world, a million lives playing out in a forest of seaweed just below you. Look behind and you realize that you’ve been tailed by a seal. As you catch its eye, it snorts in alarm and dives with a dramatic splash, but sit still on the water for a while, and a whole circle of seals, whiskery faces, curious eyes, emerge and surround you. Their at-homeness in the cold water is astonishing. The idea that these animals’ only value resides in their usefulness to people no longer makes any sense at all. Suddenly, a movement at the corner of your eye snatches your attention. A small black fin. A basking shark! The fin alerts some primeval sense of alarm despite your certain knowledge that its owner eats only plankton. The huge fish glides beneath your boat, its massive bulk shadowed in the water. It circles once and then is gone, leaving, despite the fin, a powerful sense of peace.
These are the creatures—the seals, the birds, the seaweed forest inhabitants, the basking shark—that industrialized, consumption-based lifestyles threaten on a daily basis. This is what climate change will destroy. It hurts, really hurts, to know this. But it also opens up a different perspective, and this is our way forward. In fact, to sit in a small boat surrounded by seabirds and seals and feel, even on a calm day, the immense power of the ocean as it moves below you is to open the door to multiple perspective shifts, to seeing many aspects of the dominant worldview in a very different light. Our industrialized societies tell us not only that these astonishing creatures are really only a set of resources but also that we humans can control their lives, can control the interconnections between them, can control nature. Climate change, of course, is telling us more and more loudly how profoundly wrong we are about this; but the ocean can tell us this very loudly indeed, and with an immediacy that climate change, for many, does not yet have. There is nothing abstract or indirect about the power of the ocean when you are in a small boat on even a lazy swell. The fantasy of power over nature is experienced as just that—a fantasy. But it is a fantasy in both senses of the word. And here is my howl of exuberant exultation. It is fantastic to be alive in this world, on this wave, surrounded by these astonishing beings! How unbelievably wonderful to be alive, on such an extraordinarily beautiful, diverse planet and in such amazing company!
—Kate Rawles, “A Copernican Rvolution in Ethics”
Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson, editors