Blue Ocean Institute

Jul 21st
2009

Learning from “The Cove”

Mandy AscendingThis blog was written by Justin Adams, our M.B.A. intern from the University of Michigan, Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

“The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those that cannot read or write,” says my favorite futurist Alvin Toffler, “but those that cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” The process of learning, unlearning and relearning involves neuroplasticity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity), the ability of our brains to make and unmake connections between neurons, to alter the strength of those connections, and even to grow new neurons to support new kinds of connections.

A few days ago I saw a screening of The Cove (http://www.thecovemovie.com/), a documentary film about the terrible secret of one small fishing village in Japan. Well, the secret is out – and in a dramatic way. What you discover through the course of the movie is that from September to May each year a group of about 30 fishermen herd migrating dolphins into a secluded bay, select the dolphins they want to sell into captivity (for one of the many aquatic theme parks around the world), and then kill the rest of the dolphins. Meat from the dolphins is often intentionally mislabeled as coming from whales and sold to unsuspecting Japanese consumers.

It’s a powerful film. The next morning I woke up to different scenes from the movie replaying in my head.

The most haunting image for me was not of the actual slaughter – recorded on hidden cameras by the Oceans Eleven-like film crew – but of a baby dolphin jumping about wildly, plaintively, as its parents were being killed out of view, inside the infamous cove.

Brain research has shown that animals removed from their mothers during early childhood let out desperate cries and release stress hormones that kill the cells in the hippocampus that make learning and long term memory formation possible. “These early stresses,” says author Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself (http://www.amazon.com/Brain-That-Changes-Itself-Frontiers/dp/0143113100/), “predispose these motherless animals to stress-related illness for the rest of their lives.”

In the movie, “Flipper” trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry says that stress is one of the biggest causes of death forRic O'Barry dolphins in captivity.

There are many things to learn from The Cove, but I want to focus on three.

The first is that human beings need to unlearn the idea that we have dominion over all other forms of life on the planet. The colonial drive to tame, manipulate, and exploit nature is short sighted. Removing dolphins from the wild for our short term entertainment has long term costs that we don’t fully understand and don’t properly calculate. As Carl Sagan so passionately argued, our fate on this pale blue dot is intimately connected to the fate of all other living things. It’s just good business to find win-win solutions that provide a healthy way of life for us while preserving the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems for our descendents.

The second lesson is that, for all intents and purposes, there are no environmental problems. There are only people problems. The television show Flipper help to create the demand that creates the supply of captured dolphins from places like Taiji. Industrial pollution has released so much mercury into the environment that a dolphin washed up on shore is technically a form of toxic waste. The mercury ingested by pregnant mothers leads to birth defects that create public health problems. And so on. We have met the enemy and he is us.

The third lesson is that sunlight is the best disinfectant. By exposing this issue in such a dramatic, captivating, and emotionally devastating way, the filmmakers are hopefully going to catalyze (http://www.takepart.com/thecove/) a movement to shut down the dolphin slaughter in Japan. But just as importantly, the film serves to raise the ecological intelligence (http://www.amazon.com/Ecological-Intelligence-Knowing-Impacts-Everything/dp/0385527829/) of all of us. The strategy of bringing hidden information to the surface is a powerful way to address forces, such as climate change and overfishing, that operate on spatial and time scales that elude our built-in perceptual alarms.

Filling in these missing information feedback loops can alter the behavior of people and move markets. (Similar to how Blue Ocean’s Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood (http://www.blueocean.org/seafood) works.)

The movie comes out on July 31st and is more than worth your time, attention, and support.

The Cove

Comments:  9

Posted in:   Art/Poetry/Media, Op-Ed

9 Comments

  • Justin, your article gave me chills. Very well written (I loved how you used learning and unlearning to give a theoretical structure to your piece), and ultimately compelling. Thank you!

    • Ryan, there is also a lesson about relearning that didn’t quite fit the narrative flow. It’s that we are in the process of relearning some of the things that earlier human societies took for granted. The green building movement is, in part, about relearning the ways in which buildings can make use of the rising and setting of the sun. The local and organic food movements are about relearning where our food comes from. Renewable energy is about learning to live once again off current solar income instead of depleting the earth’s fossil energy reserves. Indigenous cultures offer centuries of wisdom that we can adapt in ways that will help us forward.

  • Jul 21st 2009 at 10:31pm
    carl safina wrote:

    Personally I thought the most important general point of the film was not fully brought out (because the main point was the dolphin slaughter): Japan undermines the democratic processes like CITES and the Whaling Commission by which the world is groping toward a civilized approach to a consensus on nature. That makes it a dangerous country, not just for dolphins.

    C

    • Carl, definitely another important lesson from the film.

  • Jul 21st 2009 at 10:31pm
    carl safina wrote:

    Personally I thought the most important general point of the film was not fully brought out (because the main point was the dolphin slaughter): Japan undermines the democratic processes like CITES and the Whaling Commission by which the world is groping toward a civilized approach to a consensus on nature. That makes it a dangerous country, not just for dolphins.

    C

  • I saw a screening of this film as well and the image of that baby dolphin jumping out of the blood stained water was such a sad image.

    What I also found striking was that the Japanese government allows this slaughter because they sincerely believe that killing dolphins and whales is a form of “pest control” – they have “scientifically” linked the decline in fish populations to whales and dolphins….they are our “competition” for food.

    Here is another review someone at my company’s blog wrote if interested: http://sandshack.com/the-cove-help-save-dolphins-in-japan/

    • Thanks for the link Brian. I like what you said about writing the blog not to make people feel bad, but so that they can make educated decision.

  • Aug 5th 2009 at 8:29pm
    martiniak wrote:

    Thank you. You just shed light on the subject for me and now I will do the same for others.

    All thanks to facebook, for what it’s worth.

    Chris

  • Thanks Chris! Keep spreading the message.

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