A little while ago Caitlin Moran wrote about Greta Thunberg. The article, laced with Moran’s characteristic humour, was respectful and admiring, but a line towards the end snagged me. Moran, discussing predictions that humans will soon be able to communicate meaningfully with whales, asked Greta what she thought whales would have to say about humankind. Greta replied saying that she thought that would depend on the particular whale – which prompted Moran to comment that Greta has a trenchant sense of humour. But I don’t think Greta was being humorous. She was showing respect – respect for our planet, respect for nature, respect for the species that live upon it and an understanding that each living thing is marked both by what binds it to other living things and what makes it distinct. But what comes naturally to Greta Thunberg does not, perhaps, come naturally to us all. We have a tendency to generalise when we should think of the particular. Why on earth would whales all think the same thing about humans, any more than every human thinks the same thing about whales?
This got me thinking about the role of respect – and disrespect – in what XR and others are fighting for in the climate emergency. What we are trying to do, above all, is to ask our fellow humans to respect our planet and to respect the array of life upon it. The great majority of people, if recent polls are to be believed, now agree with the cause. Everyone – or almost everyone – agrees that the climate emergency is upon us, that it is man-made, and that urgent changes are needed if we are to avoid the worst effects of the coming climate catastrophe. But the same polls also suggest that most people find climate change so overwhelming that they feel unable to take action. Part of the problem is how to make the general – fossil fuel extraction, forest depredation, micro-plastics in our oceans, loss of species – into the particular: a coal mine; a tree; a plastic bottle on a beach; a whale.
When and if a human is able to ask a whale what she thinks of the human race, that whale might tell that person that there is much to admire about humans: medicine, books, art, curiosity. She might also say that war, nuclear weapons, slavery, racism, misogyny and, no doubt, whaling, are horrifying and baffling. But most of all she would say: ‘what we whales really can’t understand is why you humans seem hell bent on destroying the very planet we all live on’.
On the other hand, she might not. It would depend on the particular whale.
Sean Lusk’s debut novel The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley was published in 2022 by Doubleday and shortlisted for Scottish Debut of the Year in the Scottish National Book awards. He is an award-winning short story writer and has lived in Greece, Pakistan and Egypt, working variously as a gardener, speechwriter and diplomatic official. He now lives near Forres on the Moray Firth, where he is an active member of XR Scotland. You can find him at www.seanlusk.com or on twitter @seanlusk1
Call to action:
Stories make dreams, but they can tell truths, too. Let us write the stories that will awaken the world, that will give our beautiful planet new chapters, and a story that ends not in tragedy but in forgiveness.