Monthly Archives: February 2016

Making Choices

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I was doing some early morning grocery shopping this morning, and I was buying avocados. Above the avocado bin were two types of produce bags: a roll of the thin plastic bags, and a stack of bags made of recycled paper.

This might seem like a tangential story to begin a post about World Pangolin Day with, but bear with me for just a moment.WorldPangolinDay2016-640x729

 

If you read this blog, you know which one I took. And I only took a paper sack because I’d forgotten to bring along the ones we save for re-use.

A man next to me reached past me and grabbed the end of the plastic roll. He pulled, and fought to separate the bag from the roll.

While I was being very picky about choosing avocados with just the right level of ripeness (we Californians are avocado snobs), he went about trying to get the bag open.

As he struggled, he glanced at me, watching me squeeze all the good avocados before he could even open his produce bag.

In a fit of unsolicited do-gooderism, I used that moment to say not only were paper bags easier, but they didn’t take months or decades or centuries to decompose (depending on the kind of plastic). It’s such a small choice to make in the produce aisle, with such a long-term impact.

Of course he went with the plastic bag. But maybe next time he won’t.

Which brings me to the pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Every year, I mark World Pangolin Day, the third Saturday of February. I’ve written on their natural history, why they are unusual, that they are the most trafficked endangered mammal in the world, and that the medicinal uses for their scales are of little more value than eating one’s own fingernails or hair.

I even invented a cocktail called the Happy Pangolin.

In the end, it comes down to making choices.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale
Photo: TRAFFIC

Legislative choices that are the underpinning for the protection of any endangered species; personal choices that cut the demand that drives the market for poached animals.

A new smartphone application, Wildlife Witness, allows tourists and locals alike to safely report wildlife crime that involves pangolins and other endangered animals, from trafficking to restaurant sales.

The good news is, choices are being made that could help the pangolin survive, provided those choices are implemented quickly enough.

The choices we make every day add up. Let’s keep making them.

Fading Indelibility

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Old habits die hard. So, it turns out, do new ones.

Back when I was living in Japan, I had a friend who was born near Tokyo in the 1950s. His family wasn’t poor, but with the scarcity of protein that Japan faced for many years after World War II, he grew up eating whale meat. He told me that while he hadn’t particularly liked it, and no longer ate it, it had a taste for him of childhood nostalgia.

Kuniyoshi print of fisherman. Source: printsofJapan

Kuniyoshi print of fishermen.
Source: printsofJapan

According to an article on the BBC web site, large-scale Japanese whaling only began after the war, at the encouragement and with the support of the U.S. military. While the Japanese whaling culture goes back hundreds of years, in contrast to the American whaling for oil, traditional Japanese whaling made use of the entire animal, and it was mostly at a subsistence level.

Whaling increased during the 1930s, but long-distance Antarctic whaling only started once the U.S. helped the Japanese convert two Navy tankers into whaling factory ships to meet food demand.

So while I was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti, kids my age in Japan were eating whale meat. Not because it was an age-old tradition across the entire country, but because it was an immediate solution to the aftermath of war, a solution created by a winning army used to doing things on an industrial scale.

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830. Via: Wikipedia

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830.
Via: Wikipedia

When I was in Japan – around 25 years ago – everyone was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti in addition to their udon and ramen and fish. Then as now, there was no need for cheap protein, especially not protein as heavily subsidized as whale meat. I saw whale meat for sale my very first day in Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market, and was shocked – but I was told that almost no one bought the stuff, it was a specialty item.

But the people, the men in particular, who grew up in the post-war era, are now the men who fill many bureaucratic and political positions across Japan. And they have an appetite for both nostalgia, and for the whale meat of their youth. And not just for its taste, but for what it does.

Even as the consumption for whale meat has been in steep decline in the country as a whole, and even as whaling is condemned internationally, the Japanese continue to hunt whales in the name of ‘scientific research’ and we often find ourselves wondering why.

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

The BBC article concludes that the reason the Japanese still hunt whale is simple: During the post-war period, a bureaucracy grew up around whale meat.

It quotes former Greenpeace researcher Junko Sakuma as stating the simple political reasons for continued whaling: “Japan’s whaling is government-run, a large bureaucracy with research budgets, annual plans, promotions and pensions.

“If the number of staff in a bureaucrat’s office decreases while they are in charge, they feel tremendous shame.

“Which means most of the bureaucrats will fight to keep the whaling section in their ministry at all costs. And that is true with the politicians as well. If the issue is closely related to their constituency, they will promise to bring back commercial whaling. It is a way of keeping their seats.”

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

This comment made me wonder: How many practices that we call conventional yet unsustainable, from pesticide use to forestry practices to livestock treatment to fossil fuel dependency, are the result of the same kind of thinking?

We know the practices don’t work in the long-term, the appetite for them is decreasing, and they don’t date back as far as we’d like to think. In fact, in almost all cases, the practices we now know are unsustainable only date back to the post-WWII era.

Like the stale bureaucracy around Japanese whaling, we’ve built an entire world economy around them, as if they are all indelibly inked into our future as well as our past.