Though not as closely related as they are to hippos, whales have much in common with elephants. Speaking scientifically, they belong to different taxonomic orders—whales to the taxonomic order Cetacea and elephants to the order Proboscidea, but they come from a common ancestor with hoofs and are therefore distinct from other orders of mammals such as primates or rodents. Of course, they both are large, intelligent, social mammals and they share a precarious existence.
Therefore, I was glad to read recently a New York Times op-ed that condemned the plan of the U.S. Navy to carry out tests and exercises using explosives and sonar devices in the Earth’s major oceans during the five-year period 2014-2019. The Navy estimates that this military activity will negatively affect 33 million marine mammals. Reading this caused my mind to wander back to the stories I read in the Times last month about the widespread slaughter of elephants by members of African militias who remove the ivory tusks and sell them to purchase weapons. Though the butchery of elephants by African militaries is bloodier business than effects such as temporary hearing loss and ruptured eardrums of marine mammals that the U.S. Navy deems “negligible,” I can’t help but think that Earth is in the dire shape it is today because of this type of behavior.
Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Katy Payne, an acoustic biologist attributed with discovering that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs to communicate, and understanding that elephants communicate with one another across long distances by infrasound. One can’t help but be heartbroken at the suffering experienced by these sophisticated beings as a result of such unjustifiable military activities—legal and illegal, in the sea or on land, by developed or developing nations. Dr. Payne comments:
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“My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.”
In my opinion, human societies must grow a generation of spiritual scientists who, like Katy Payne, respond emotionally to their scientific work and can try to help change the path down which this planet is headed.
I don’t know if he knew her but I bet Thomas Berry (1914-2009) would have loved Katy Payne. Berry, a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who called himself a “geologian”, spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth and urging humanity to save the natural world in order to save itself. In his last book, The Sacred Universe, he wrote that we must respond to its [the Earth’s] deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us. He dreamed of a new geological Era, the Ecozoic, in which “humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.”
When it comes to other beings on planet Earth, scientists must do more than articulate their observations of other organisms as if with objectivity. Elephants and whales, along with other marine mammals, are more than “stocks” of resources, as some governments would have us believe. They are living beings with systems of communications and social relations to whom we are connected. Recognition of such connection puts us in touch with the fact that, in Berry’s words, “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Can someone please tell the Navy?