Two years ago I reported several times on the unprecedented deaths of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Twelve were found dead over the course of that summer, mostly from ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. This year is not much better. So far, six whales have been found dead, four of whom were breeding females. These losses are devastating for such an endangered population.
Again, the causes seem to be entanglements and ship strikes. Right whales have moved north in search of food as the north Atlantic Ocean waters get warmer and their cold-water prey moves north. In recent years they have appeared more often in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is heavily fished and heavily trafficked by ships moving in and out of the St. Lawrence seaway. It is not at all clear what can be done about any of this. I think many of us who love right whales and have been trying to protect them and educate others about them are feeling pretty powerless right now. Decades of protection work are falling apart because global heating is forcing the whales to leave protected areas and move into more dangerous areas.
These whales do not have decades more to wait for us to get it right. Slower ship speeds and altered shipping lanes and ropeless fishing trap technology can help, but I still maintain that the only solution is a wholesale change in human behavior and the human economy that demands limitless growth and global shipping and massive consumption of fossil fuels. But again, social change on that level would normally take generations, and the right whales do not have that kind of time. We haven’t given up, but the future of the North Atlantic right whale is looking very bleak right now.
You can follow this unfolding story in the gulf through the New England Aquarium’s right whale research team twitter feed.
If you want to understand contemplation, and therefore contemplative ecology, you have to become acquainted with emptiness. You can’t bypass emptiness and understand why contemplation has the potential to address the root causes of the ecological crisis. The encounter with emptiness is a fundamental stick in the spokes of the operations of the human mind and all it wishes for and all it projects onto the world in the myriad forms of exploitative desire, that endless grasping for more. Emptiness negates all of our attempts to affirm our independent existence. Not too many people want to go there, but contemplation cannot be understood without emptiness.
Emptiness is not to be found in its description. The thing that actually reshapes a life cannot be described. My own words do not do it justice. Emptiness unmasks all of our images and replaces them with incomprehensible reality. If it doesn’t turn a life on its ear, it hasn’t been seen, or it has been seen and dismissed. Buddhists speak of emptiness (sunyata) as the flip side of interdependence. That is, because everything is absolutely interdependent, everything is empty of independent existence. In other words, emptiness is the interdependence of absolutely everything. This is good as far as it goes, but if it remains only an intellectual formulation, it barely hints at the “turn your life on its head” effect of actually seeing the truth of emptiness, of discovering that you do not exist in the way that you imagine you do, as a separate, independent self. It is hard to accept that all of one’s life energy has been poured into the maintenance and defense of a fiction. What a waste of life energy.
Emptiness is the key. Emptiness is what makes contemplation inherently ecological. The emptiness (non-existence) of the separate self is the presence and interaction of everything. Without emptiness, contemplation might be understood as stillness or quietude or self-reflection, but not ecology. You might have an idea about wholeness or oneness or interdependence, but you don’t necessarily experience it. You don’t get the whole movement of life rushing in, where before you had a separate self, trying to make its mark on the world and trying to get the world to fulfill its desires and confirm its beliefs. Emptiness is the loss of every belief and every idea and every image of one’s self and the world. Emptiness takes away everything we think we are, and brings us into contact with the whole of everything, exactly as it is, beyond all images, all experiences, all ideas, all stories, all beliefs, all understanding. Emptiness changes everything.