The Politics of Extinction


Just over six years ago I reviewed “The Cove”, a documentary by Louie Psihoyos that exposed the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. The local authorities had been warding off photographers and activists ever since the coastal waters became a killing ground. Local fishermen discovered that they could stampede dolphins into a cove and kill thousands at a time, saving just a few animals for export to seaquariums around the world, including Seaworld, at $150,000 per head. As CounterPunchers might be aware, Jason Hribal wrote a book titled “Fear of the Animal Planet” that took up the cause of such sea-going mammals, including the orca that was so driven to distraction by living in confinement that it killed a trainer by holding her underwater.

Those dolphins that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

To his everlasting credit, Louie Psihoyos joined Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and subject of his film, in guerrilla raids on the dolphin killers using hidden cameras rather than AK-47s. “The Cove” can be seen on Youtube  for just $1.99 and is must viewing for anybody concerned about the massive threat industrial-fishing poses not only to the whales but to humanity as well. If the ocean becomes empty of sea-life, the earth itself is threatened since there is a delicate balance between the two biospheres.

This is essentially the theme of “Racing Extinction”, a film that Psihoyos has been working on for the past six years. I saw it on Wednesday night at a press screening introduced by Susan Sarandon and the director. He warned the audience that the film was a bearer of bleak tidings but that it was not too late to avert a Sixth Extinction, the subject not only of the documentary but one omnipresent in print and electronic media.

The film begins by providing a context for the threat we face today in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene era, one marked by the dominant footprint of homo sapiens and more particularly its use of fossil fuels to sustain an increasingly unsustainable “good life”.

The film begins with a reprise of the sort of activism that Psihoyos is still engaged with. He has a couple of his comrades go undercover with cameras at a sushi restaurant called the Hump in Santa Monica where a typical meal for two costs over six hundred dollars. It is the sort of place that gets rave reviews in the New York Times.

As they engage in banter with the waiter, they finally get around to the business at hand. They wanted whale sushi, a prospect that frankly struck me as more grizzly than anything Hannibal Lecter ever cooked up. After Psihoyos released film footage and press releases about the illegal dishes, the shit hit the fan. The chef was sentenced to two years probation, fined $5,000 and ordered to complete 200 hours of community service for importing and serving whale meat. In my view a more appropriate sentence would have been to turn him over to the orca at Seaworld.

Notwithstanding the grimness of the subject matter, the film is largely a luminously beautiful tour through the oceans as Psihoyos and his crew go underwater to film creatures large and small that fill their waters. At the top of the food chain is the shark, another animal that faces extinction in the face of wanton consumption habits, particularly the popularity of shark fin soup in China and other Asian countries. As is frequently the case, the shark is thrown back into the water without its fins, helpless to navigate the ocean’s waters as depicted in one of Psihoyos’s voyages below.

Once again using guerrilla-filming techniques, he and his confederates gain access to a Hong Kong company that is the largest purveyor of shark meat to restaurants. As they stroll through the bloody warehouse with tons of flesh being carved up for export, you become disgusted. As a sign that activism and government regulation can work, China has now banned such businesses—a measure made possible to some extent by former basketball player Yao Ming’s advocacy.

Somewhere along the line, Psihoyos discovers that manta rays are also decreasing in to an alarming extent. At first it seemed like a mystery since its flesh has a pungent character that would make it the last thing to be on sushi restaurant’s menu or the basis of a soup. Eventually he learns that its gills are prized as a cure-all in Chinese folk medicine. The stingrays are slaughtered so that people can thwart anything from high blood pressure to cancer.

Psihoyos’s detective work leads him to Lamakera, a fishing village in Indonesia that is totally dependent on manta ray fishing to survive. A village elder tells him that there is no other way to sustain themselves. Farming is impossible and like most small islands in Indonesia, there is little likelihood that industry will ever take off in such a remote area with poor transportation facilities. The answer for such villages is in ecotourism as more and more people decide that they would rather see a manta ray swimming in the water than relying on its gills to cure disease.

Although the film is upbeat about the possibilities of ecotourism, a National Geographic article (Psihoyos has been a staff photographer there for many years) indicates that the transition has been slow at Lamakera since the villagers’ sense of identity is largely based on manta ray hunts. In a way, this is the same kind of dilemma that faced the Makah tribe in Washington State that sought to hunt whales as a way of overcoming the malaise of reservation life. This led Sea Shepherd activists to confront the Makah in a fashion that was probably counterproductive. Given the oppression that American Indians and Indonesian villages endure, it is no surprise that tradition can sustain a peoples’ spirit even it becomes enmeshed with the capitalist market.

While much of the film is devoted to depicting the kind of activism that can produce results such as shutting down a sleazy sushi restaurant or curtailing industrial shark fishing, another dimension of the film takes up more problematic matters that are far more resistant to guerrilla film interventions. As the film makes clear, past extinctions were marked by enormous production of carbon emissions. Will the Anthropocene epoch come to an end because of greenhouse gases? That is a view that is shared by many of the world’s leading scientists.

Unfortunately the film has little to say about climate change except to recommend in the closing credits that we change our consumption patterns. For example, it urges us to eat less meat since the methane that cows produce is far more conducive to climate change than auto emissions apparently.

Advice about changing consumption patterns is expressed in terms of what “the people” or “our generation” must do. Since it is doubtful that Psihoyos or any of the experts interviewed in the film have much of a background in Marxism, this is to be expected. However, as long as the environmentalist movement fails to see the threat of a Sixth Extinction in class terms, it is doubtful that the threat can overcome.

I was reminded of that by a NY Times article on the looming environmental crisis in China that is based to a large extent on how economic “development” (ie., producing cheap goods for Walmart) threatens what they call ecological security. A large part of the despoliation is related to the destruction of coastal wetlands—in other words the same thing that threatens much of the American south from Florida to Louisiana. But what amazed me was the NY Times’s citation of someone supposedly committed to sustainable development in China:

Henry M. Paulson Jr., chairman of the Paulson Institute and a former United States Treasury secretary, said in a written statement that “it is time to rethink the economic development model of the past and take decisive actions toward a more sustainable economic transition.”

Paulson was the former CEO of Goldman-Sachs, a symbol of the kind of economic development that is rushing us toward extinction. It is no surprise that the Paulson Institute is ensconced at the University of Chicago, where free market ideology has spread around the world wreaking havoc from Chile to China.

Staff members at the Institute include Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, former United States Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman and Randall Kroszner, a U. of Chicago business professor. Like Al Gore, Rudd made lots of speeches and wrote lots of articles about the threat of global warming but in terms of combatting it could only come up with a cap and trade scheme that would use the market to reduce emissions, something CounterPunchers Heather Williams and Paul Baker described  as creating “perverse incentives for the worst polluters and the shrewdest offset dealers to increase emissions in the short run and to game the trading schemes in the long run.”

Moving on to Daniel Poneman, it turns out that he is the CEO of Centrus Energy Corporation that describes itself as “a trusted supplier of enriched uranium fuel for a growing fleet of international and domestic commercial nuclear power plants.” Enough said.

Kroszner, as you might suspect, is a Milton Friedman acolyte who is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In 2003, when he was a member of the Bush administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, he proposed a mercury cap and trade scheme that the Public Interest Research Group referred to as an “air pollution plan would allow three times more mercury pollution from power plants than the existing Clean Air Act.”

So if the liberal NY Times is calling upon Henry M. Paulson Jr. for input on sustainable development, can we avoid ending up like the dinosaurs that were destroyed by an asteroid rather than the capitalist system?

Late at night when I brood about the future of life on earth, I can come to no other conclusion that people like Paulson, Al Gore, China’s Xi Jinping and all his pals in the BRICS have little concern about what will be happening a hundred years from now. Like the rest of the capitalist ruling class in its dotage, these are people who have no problem sawing off the limb that they are sitting on. As long as they enjoy the privileges of ruling over the planet, the future can be damned. Ultimately, the real answer to avoiding the fate described in “Racing Extinction” is to remove the saw from their hand and move toward a world based on production based on a rational use of resources and one geared to human need rather than private profit. That system is called socialism and is the only real alternative to a Sixth Extinction.

“Racing Extinction” showed in movie theaters in September and still may be playing in certain venues. However, the Discovery Channel will be airing it on December 2nd. Put it on your calendar since it is something to be engaged with politically as well as a feast for the eyes.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.