I’m working on a new performance project with my friend Jenny. It’s a clown piece about captive orcas for WhaleFest. I spoke to a WhaleFest organiser, who excitedly suggested we time the show to coincide with a high-profile publicity stunt, the “release” of a dummy orca into the sea at Brighton. The idea is to raise awareness of the plight of captive orcas and the campaign to liberate them.
When I imagine the dummy orca being craned into the sea I feel sad: the only whale likely to be seen in the sea near Brighton this century will be made of plastic. A cipher; an emptiness into which we will pour our longing. A toy that will be lovingly patted, cradled and wept over, as though touching it could make it real.
Historical reports of the abundance of the seas around Britain in previous centuries leave the reader incredulous, in the same way that eye-witness accounts of flocks of passenger pigeons over North America do. As Professor Callum Roberts says, ‘the seas around our islands were home to a remarkable marine megafauna’. His essay quotes from eighteenth century naturalists reporting that “porpoises abound in almost innumerable shoals”, and describing “numberless whales sporting and rising on every side”. Blue whales used to live here!
In 2014 our habitat is so changed that it is hard to imagine what it might be like to encounter animate beings on that scale. Shifting baseline theory says that each successive generation in a community assumes that the situation they encounter now is what is normal, or natural. And this survival strategy makes us fail to comprehend the truth of how much has been lost, ecologically.
We need to hear stories like those in Roberts’ report, so that we don’t forget what we have lost; so that we can hold in our hearts a sense of how things could be again. Otherwise, our rapid forgetting of facts combines with our hard-wired longing for other kinds of beings leads us down the path of absent-minded consumerism. We want animals all over our everything – which is nothing new. Animal art. Animal documentaries. Pets. Pugs. Animal print clothing. Nature photobooks. Exotic holidays – scuba diving, safari.
The phenomenon of phone cases shaped like animals is novel. There are even phone cases that look like cartoon bees: I saw them lined up on the shelves of a phone shop and it made me shudder. I felt something viscerally for a moment, and I want to explore this before shifting baseline makes me forget it. Before the consensus of consumption reassures me that it is fine.
Some research suggests that phone radiation damages bees. (The subject is poorly understood, and the voices warning about electromagnetic pollution are usually dismissed as fringe science. But that is not surprising, given our cultural dependence on wireless technology.) I get lampooned for saying things are obvious, and for talking about common sense or instinctive knowing, because it is unscientific. But nonetheless I’ll say it – I expect that wireless radiation harms insects and migratory birds, as well as humans. But even if over time our communication technologies are proved to be entirely safe, the production of the hardware that we depend on now – including our phones and laptops – is ecologically deleterious and harmful to organisms ranging from bees to whales.
We are cute, say the faux bees, Love us! And we buy them, yearning for some kind of intimacy, not thinking about colony collapse disorder, Chinese megafactories, the toxins in the plastic, the conflict-driven mining, the endocrine disruptors, the CO2, all the giant corporations. Ah, the forgetfulnesses that have led to this.
Even though I didn’t buy the bee phone case, I surrender to forgetfulness about things like that more than I thought I would when I saw the world with the clarity of a child. Stupid things like takeaway coffee, and shrink-wrapped cucumbers. And gradually – or is it rapidly? – I can’t remember – life is filling up with substitutes for real things. Sometimes I can’t breathe with it, the toxic mimics and the stupid things crowding in and overwhelming me until I don’t know what is real anymore.