Tread lightly on the Earth
Captain Paul Watson
Everyone should read the following
article by Captain Paul Watson:
The Laws of Nemo
"I am not what you
call a civilized man! I have done with society entirely, for
reasons which I alone have the right of... appreciating. I do
not therefore obey its laws, and I desire you never to allude to
them before me again!"
---CAPTAIN NEMO, 20,000 leagues under the sea, Jules Verne
Captain Nemo was the one great fictional hero
of my childhood. I envied the freedom he had, not just to roam
the submarine realm, but his complete detachment from the
insanity of his species. He had the freedom to choose between
siding with people and siding with the beast, and he understood
that the world of the free and honest wilderness was preferable
to the contradictions and deceptions of the homo corpus iuris
civilis or that anthropocentric body of law as written by human
Nemo understood that the one great attribute
that has allowed humankind to rise to dominance over nature is
the same attribute that will someday destroy us: our remarkable
ability to adapt to changing environments. It is a skill that
has allowed us to survive the last great ice age. By virtue of
our adaptive abilities, we have peopled all of the continents of
the earth. We have exterminated any species that has gotten in
our way and reformed the very landscape itself, where it has not
conformed to our desires.
In our quest for territorial conquest we have
anthropocentrized the planet and brought it into accordance with
the unilateral laws of humankind. We have stolen the homes of a
hundred million species and we have taken it all for ourselves.
There is no spot too deep, too dry, too low, too wet, too high,
too forsaken, for us not to invade, and no place we have not
sought to develop for our profit and our pleasure.
We have long forgotten that humans without
the animals and humans without the plants are humans without
anything at all. It is the interdependence of all species, plant
and animal that allows us to participate in the mystery of life.
Every extinction, every extirpation, every loss of habitat
loosens our hold on the eco-reality of survival and brings us
closer to the day of our own demise.
There are certain skills that we possess as a
species that allow us to adapt easily -- perhaps too easily.
Because of these skills we have weathered wars, famines,
plagues, natural disasters, and personal tragedy. We survive.
The first skill is our ability to forget
easily. Being able to forget makes it easier to get on with a
new life. The second skill is being able to live in the present
without giving too much thought to long-term consequences. This
allows us to take what we need now, when and where we need it.
These skills stood us in good stead when we lived in a world
where our numbers were limited, and when resources were
bountiful. If we killed all the animals in one area, or ate all
the plants, we could simply move on to the next hunting and
gathering ground. Eventually the habitat that we had plundered
would rejuvenate itself.
A third skill was one that we shared with
wolves and hyenas: The ability to hunt and cooperate in packs.
For us, the packs became tribes, and today these tribes have
evolved into nations. The problem is that tribalism does not
work when there are no more frontiers. There no longer exists
the possibility of moving on to greener pastures. The pastures
are all occupied. Yet although we have encompassed the globe
with our numbers, we have retained a belief in the separateness
of our cultures. This separateness is the breeding ground of
continuing conflict and prejudice. We do not see one species of
Homo sapiens; we see hundreds of competing subspecies of the
On planet Earth today, we have divided
ourselves by coloured flags, and we have drawn ludicrous
geometric lines upon our lands and seas that impose barriers
between people. We require passes to cross these lines, and to
add insult to injury, we must purchase these passes from the
government to enable us to travel across lines that do not exist
within the natural world. When we cross one imaginary line, we
enter another large prison where we must conform to the
peculiarities of law imposed by another group of humans who wish
to exercise control over us.
This is why I love being at sea. Only upon
the briny deep, beyond the stench of land and man, is there any
remnant of freedom remaining. On land we can only exist, and we
have little choice but to conform to the rules imposed for
Forced to stay in a confined habitat, we
begin to adapt to its diminishment. We begin to accept that the
impoverishment of our environment is, well, just the way it is,
and because we so easily forget, we begin to believe that this
is the way it always has been. In perpetuating this evolving
myth, we make ourselves believe that our lives are richer and
more secure than those of our ancestors, and we also project a
richer, more comfortable life for our children's children.
An example: If this were the year 1965 and I
were to address a group of people from that era with a
prediction that in thirty years they would be buying water in
bottles, they would have thought I was nuts. If I were to
further tell them that the water would cost more than the
equivalent amount of gasoline, they would have laughed me from
the room. Yet we have come to accept that this is so. Water is
purchased in bottles and jugs in an industry that realizes
billions of dollars in profits each year. It has become more
valuable than gasoline. We adapted to it, without any conscious
awareness of doing so. At the same time, we have forgotten the
era of clear water, water that could be consumed straight from
the tap, from a well, or a mountain stream.
There was once a time when we did not have to
think about what poisons were in the meat and fish we ate, or
what kind of pesticides, herbicides and radiation our vegetables
were exposed to. We have forgotten that era also.
And so we continue, accepting less and less,
and believing it to be more and more. We have replaced quality
with quantity. At the same time, the very quantity of human
lives on this planet has cheapened the quality of them.
For those who can't accept this and can see
no escape from it, the only path left open is frustration,
anger, or insanity. We dismiss each incident as an aberration
forgetting that the aberrations are becoming more and more the
norm. The daily violence to nonhuman life, to animals,
vegetation, and to habitats, is so widespread and so common that
we have accepted it as part of the environment that we have
adapted ourselves to. We have forgotten the myriad of living
things that our one species has destroyed and vanquished from
the planet Earth forever.
We have forgotten that beluga whales dwelt in
Long Island Sound a mere 300 years ago? Today a few hundred
beluga cling to life in a tributary of the St. Lawrence river,
the remainder confined to the high Arctic where they continue to
be hunted. We have forgotten that walrus once hauled out and
mated upon the shores of Nova Scotia and Maine? Today not a
single walrus survives in the Atlantic. We have forgotten that
the polar bear came by that name recently? Two hundred years ago
it was simply the white bear and commonly found throughout
eastern Canada and down into New England. Now it survives in the
northern polar region only, hence the name.
We all know of the extermination of the tens
of millions of bison on the Western Plains, but how many
remember the eastern bison that migrated in vast herds between
the Great Lakes and Georgia? It was bigger than its western
cousin, a rich and beautiful coal-black in color. The last great
herd was slaughtered in the White Mountains of Union County in
Pennsylvania during the fierce winter of 1799-1800 as they
huddled helplessly in the deep snow. The following year, a bull,
cow and calf were seen in the same county. A farmer promptly
shot the bull. It was the last sighting ever in that state. The
last one seen in West Virginia was killed in 1815. A cow and
calf were seen in 1825. They were both shot and that was the
very last sighting. The once mighty herds of Bison bison
pennylsvanicus were declared extinct.
We have forgotten that there was a species
called the Oregon bison? It was a larger animal than the plains
bison, with wider, straighter horns. In 1850 the Bison bison
oreganus was declared extinct. Yet today in the State of Oregon
there are very few people even aware that the Oregon buffalo
In our oceans, the animals fared just as
poorly. The most amazing sea cow of them all, the Goliath of
manatees, the leviathan of dugongs, the Steller's sea cow, was
slaughtered within a few years of its discovery by the Russians.
Gone in 1767, and today all but forgotten.
Few people have heard of the sea mink? This
once-plentiful resident of the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia
was a full twenty-five centimeters longer than the common mink.
The pelt was thicker, and that was its death sentence. The last
pelt of Mustela macrodon was sold to a fur-buyer in Jonesport,
Maine, in 1880. It was never seen again.
The Atlantic gray whale, once called the
scrag whale, was exterminated so efficiently and so
thoughtlessly that for many years afterward, the whale was
considered a myth: the slaughter had been forgotten. Before the
gray disappeared, the Basques had obliterated the last of the
Biscayan right whales. The Atlantic, once called the Sea of
Whales, has witnessed the decimation of the gentle giants during
the last few centuries. Yet the killing continues as the
Norwegians slaughter Minke whales, the Faeroese slaughter pilot
whales, and the Icelanders kill hundreds of endangered fin
And lest we forget the fish, it should be
noted that humans have eradicated hundreds of species during the
last century alone. Most people have never heard of them. Long
forgotten are the the names, Parras pupfish, Utah Lake sculpin,
Lake Titicaca orestias, harelip sucker, thicktail chub, or New
Zealand grayling. None if us will ever see one. Yet even when
fish we consider commercially valuable hover on the brink of
extinction, we fret about and look for scapegoats. Tomorrow will
most likely see the complete disappearance of the Bluefin tuna,
the orange roughy, the Coho salmon, and so many more. We'll
blame it on seals, on birds, on the weather, on changing
climatic conditions, on anything but ourselves.
We go toward our demise like innocents,
absolved of guilt, comforted with the belief that either God or
technology will be our salvation. If we don't slay directly, we
destroy indirectly with toxic pollution. The much-beloved orca,
so belatedly adored after years of persecution, is not safe from
the human befouling of our oceans. The entire population of orca
whales in the Pacific Northwest is now threatened by pollution
and the numbers are falling rapidly. And what do we do? We sit
on the beach and count them, learning to recognize every dorsal
fin, scribbling notes of their behavior into a pad and
beseeching the government to do something to protect them. Yet
very few people actually lift a finger to stop the destruction.
The great, late, misanthropic writer Edward
Abbey once wrote: ``It is not enough to understand the natural
world: The point is to defend and preserve it." And yet we who
do not hesitate to slaughter tens of thousands of people in
defense of oil wells will do nothing at all to defend the wild.
Why? Because it is an abstraction to us.
Nature is not part of our system of values. If it were, we would
fight for it; in fact, we would not hesitate to kill to defend
Don't be shocked. For thousands of years the
species Homo sapiens has killed, or to be more accurate, has
conducted massive wholesale slaughter in the name of our
beliefs, all of which encompass anthropocentric values. We have
slaughtered millions in the name of the Prince of Peace, and
justified it by writing in a book that our various Gods saw as
It was this world that Nemo sought to escape,
and the anthropocentric values of his world have been magnified
a thousand-fold in our present-day world. Verne wrote his
classic many years before the last century, a hundred years of
the most bloody and cruel wars in history, when hundreds of
millions of normal human beings were butchered by other ”normal"
human beings. He wrote it at a time when the human population
numbered under two billion, when the most ruthless serial killer
of his century, Jack the Ripper, butchered a mere six.
Six billion now, and yet there were only
three billion of us in 1950. Shall we make that twelve billion
in 2050 and twenty-four billion in 2100? The laws of ecology
dictate that we will not. The Law of Finite Growth states that
there are limits to growth. These limits for us are the carrying
capacities of the ecosystems that support us. Presently, as our
numbers increase, we literally steal carrying capacity from
other species, thus the escalating rates of species extinction.
Which leads us to the Law of Biodiversity: the strength of an
ecosystem is dependent upon the diversity of species within it.
And this law ties into a third law, the Law of Interdependence,
which states that we are completely and utterly dependent upon
the existence of other species for our own survival.
Throughout the entire history of life on this
planet, no species, and I mean absolutely no species, has ever
survived unless these three basic laws of ecology have been
adhered to. Overpopulation leads to loss of diversity and
diminished habitat which leads to fewer and fewer species and
functional ecosystems to support us, and all of this leads to a
And what is a crash? Just another abstraction
perhaps, but one with frightening ramifications. It means
starvation, brutal competition for resources, pandemics, thirst
and the brutalization of humanity inward upon itself instead of
the present outward display that we think little about because
the victims are from that abstract biocentric realm where all
the other species dwell.
The poet Leonard Cohen once wrote, ``We are
lost among our suffering and our pleasures are the seal." We
have created a whole industry to divert our attention away from
our real threats. Keep us entertained, keep us amused, but don't
let us face the reality that in the end our greatest enemy will
prove to be ourselves. Even the reality of the internet will
collapse into irrelevancy when the very capacity of the Earth to
support us is vanquished.
This was where Nemo was going. He was
returning to the world where the laws of ecology still held
meaning, and he was doing what Ed Abbey has advised, he was
defending nature against humanity. In the end, he failed, and
perhaps those of us who follow in the wake of the Nautilus will
also fail, but if we do, at least we will not go the way of T.
S. Eliot's straw men: we will go with a bang and not a whimper.
As a biocentric conservationist, I am not as
much concerned with what the world will be like a hundred years
from now as I am concerned what it will be like a thousand, and
a million years from now. What is a millennium to the Earth, a
mere blink of time? One thing I am certain of is that the Earth,
her lands and oceans, will abide long after the memory of
humankind has been removed without trace. Our stone edifices
will crumble, our iron structures will rust into dust, our great
works of art will rot and decay, and our music will fade.
The only legacy that will last is not in what
we can create but in what we do not destroy. And thus, like Nemo,
I share the belief that the most noble endeavour that one can
pursue is the preservation of species and biodiversity. A
species of bird or insect saved from ourselves in the present
may survive to evolve into a continuum of life tomorrow. That is
an achievement that will last eons.
Captain Nemo knew that his alliance was with
the creatures of the sea and the laws of ecology. And thus he
rejected the law of human beings, that lex scripta of nonsense
that puts profit and property before life, and places the values
of nations over nature. That was Nemo's law, and perhaps, just
perhaps, he was right. And all the rest of us, all seven and a
half billion of us, are wrong. It's worth thinking about,
I wrote this article originally for the
Winter 2000 issue of Ocean Realm magazine when Earth’s
population was six billion. It now grows by a billion every