Thursday, June 10, 2010

Holy Cows Of Today Or A Food Source?

The world has come off balance to such an extent today that our survival is threatened. We have good reasons to fear the consequences if mankind goes on using nature’s resources the way we do now. Many people have this feeling that our world has become more and more artificial and that we are destroying all that is natural and pure, which in the end destroys ourselves also.

Whales have somehow become the primary symbol of natural purity and wonder. Many people feel a close emotional relationship to whales. They are such impressive grandiose creatures – the largest mammals ever to inhabit the planet. They are very likeable because they are social and relatively intelligent animals – and also mysterious because they live in an environment, which is alien to us humans. We admire them and fear their extinction. If the whales were gone it would somehow mean that the world is coming to an end.

It is as if people have come to identify with the whales and their struggle for survival so much so that the whales have become the ‘holy cows’ of the 21. century, worshipped by many people in the world. The practice of killing such magnificent creatures is so alien to whale worshippers that it is very difficult for them to understand – and even harder to accept – that some people in the world still see the same animals first and foremost as a food source.

A statement
Let me state right away, before i go further: I think that restoration and maintenance of the world’s ecological balance is of utmost importance – it’s absolutely crucial if mankind wants to survive in the future. I’m for protection of wildlife. I’m against killing of any animal species near extinction. I find whales to be wonderful, fascinating creatures that we should protect as best possible. I’m against commercial whaling. I’m against animal suffering – whether it is cruel treatment of livestock or the practice of killing whales in an unnecessary cruel fashion.

I wish people would be less dependent on farm factory meat production, because most of this industry is far from sustainable; it creates an unnatural, artificial and inhumane environment for it’s livestock, it decreases natural diversity and it pollutes and damages the environment all humans and animals inhabit, which, consequently, might kill us all.

That said, let me also state that I’m from the Faroe Islands where people still regard pilot whales as a food source. The Faroese have for a long time been killing pilot whales in a way that quite a lot of people outside the Faroes find disturbing. Personally, I don’t find this practice – locally called the Grindadráp – as appalling as people outside the Faroes do. You might ask: How can I say that, if I really mean what I said first? Well, this is exactly what I will try to explain in this blog.

What kind of 'tradition' is that?
I understand perfectly why people outside the Faroes find pilot whaling quite disturbing – even shocking, if it has been presented to them only in form of very graphic pictures, perhaps followed by often quite exaggerated, angry claims accompanied by dramatic music. There are a whole lot of rumors and hoaxes wandering around the net about Grindadráp. People outside the Faroes have this misconception of the Grindadráp that it is a “tradition” in the sense that the Faroese uphold it only because it is kind of a traditional ritual – like some kind of a “carnival” or a celebration of the coming of age of young men or a worshipping of killing and inflicting pain for it’s own sake – not because it is a necessity to these people.  People also believe that pilot whales are near extinction. That is not true. Pilot whales are some of the most common whale species in all the oceans of the world.

Of course, the Grindadráp must seem absolutely insensitive and meaningless to people, if they have this conception of the practice. If it was a ‘tradition’ in this sense – and the whales were near extinction, it could never justify this practice – or the violence and the bloodiness of the kill. And because of this misunderstanding people tend to judge it as mere cruelty and barbarism and as an absurdity that should not be allowed to take place in a modern society today.

In other parts of the world it is normal – or in other words: a ‘tradition’ – to kill turkeys, for instance, so people can have them for a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner (even though they have the option of choosing a vegetarian meal instead, if the wanted to). To the Faroese, their whaling practice is just as ‘normal’ and just as much a ‘tradition’ in this sense. The practice of Grindadráp is regarded by the Faroese not only as an important part of their inherited skills, their history and culture, but indeed also as a necessity – an important way of supplying food and a key to their survival, also today.

Livelihood in arctic regions
There are a few things many people outside the Faroes don't realize. Just like people in many other scarcely populated arctic regions, where natural resources in form of plants are very scarce, the Faroese have developed a hunting tradition in order to survive. You can’t grow vegetables in the Faroe Islands because of the harsh climate, not in a scale that could bread feed the whole population. To the Faroese – as for most people in arctic regions – it has therefore always been necessary to utilize the few natural resources at hand on land and in the sea to be able to provide food enough.

Since the Faroese came to these islands more than 1200 years ago, they have had to live off their livestock – like sheep and a smaller amount of cattle – that could feed on the grass and the few plants that can grow there - only edible for animals. But this was not enough to get essential proteins and vitamins. Fishing and hunting wild animals was also necessary – also cute and perhaps intelligent animals. And sometimes it had to be in a violent way, because it could not be done otherwise.

The Faroese feel that there is no question that they still have the ‘natural right’ to use pilot whales as a food supply (as long as the pilot whales are not an endangered species), because they have had this practice for at least more than a thousand years. Just like other people feel they have the ‘natural right’ to kill turkeys, chicken, pigs or cattle because the have done so traditionally for God knows how long.

The only difference is that in most other places they have taken the step further than the Faroese and have made their food supply into an industry – the animals they want to eat are bred in enormous amounts for the sole purpose to kill them for food.

Which tradition is better?
One can always argue which tradition is better than the other – and people do. People discuss, for instance, which tradition is crueler. People discuss whether one method is more or less sustainable than the other. And people discuss whether it is more right to breed the animals first and keep them captive for their whole lives feeding them edible but unnatural altered substances to make them grow unnaturally fast, before you kill them and eat them rather than let them live a free and healthy life as wild animals before you kill them and eat them.

Many believe that the pilot whales are killed in an unnecessary cruel and inhumane way, but the Faroese say that the killing looks more violent than it actually is; that it is not crueler than what goes on in most farm factories and slaughterhouses, and that there is no faster way to do it.

There’s no doubt that the Grindadráp practice evokes strong feelings on both sides.  So how can people in the Faroes and outside the Faroes reach a common understanding? Is it possible?

How can people, living in metropolitan areas surrounded by areas with highly developed agricultures, understand the conditions of people living in poorly populated arctic places with harsh climate – like the Faroes. While many people outside the Faroes claim, that it is not necessary to use ancient hunting methods any more to get your food supply, because you can import industrially produced food, the Faroese argue that if they are not able to use the natural resources they have access to, they will be much more dependent on expensive imports, which creates other problems. They need to be able to hunt in order to be less dependent. I will get back to this issue and discuss it in my next blog.

Cruelty or pragmatism?
The truth of the matter is, that in the eyes of the Faroese, you still have to have a pragmatic, fatalistic view on life – at least in places high up north like the Faroes. Not least in these times of crisis and climate change where you’ll never know when you suddenly might have to take personal responsibility for providing your own food. Most people in the modern world’s metropolitan areas have never experienced this: not to have any other option than to kill an animal in order to survive – cruel in the eyes of others, but necessary. But with an increasing worldwide food crisis already taking place these harsh living conditions, which have been normal to arctic people, might soon become very real to all of us.

The Faroese have never chosen to kill pilot whales because they had intentions of being cruel. Of course not. They just didn’t have any other option in the past. They have just kept doing what they’ve always done for food. They still live in a relatively vulnerable area. They still build their livelihood on very few natural resources. They're always under the threat of being struck by new crises. Which means that they might very soon be left with not many other options again than to hunt for food.

They don’t consider themselves any crueler than any butcher, working in a slaughterhouse providing food for people, which is considered a normal job in most countries. To the Faroese it is just as normal that some people provide pilot whale meat to their community, as it is normal for butchers in other countries to kill and slaughter cattle so others can eat the meat.

A philosophy of sharing versus self enrichment
I won’t go into the discussion whether one or the other way is right or wrong – or which method is better or crueler. I just want to say that people who eat meat because they’ve done so traditionally ‘for ever’ should probably hesitate and think about it before they judge the Faroese.

What I’m trying to say is that basically the Faroese are not more barbarians than any meat eater is. They have been living peacefully in these islands for more than a thousand years and they have maintained nature’s balance all this time out of respect for nature and each other – obviously because they were utterly dependent on both to be able to survive in this arctic area.

After a whale kill they share the whale meat for free in the community as they’ve always done. They have never turned the whaling into an industry or a commercial, unsustainable practice to gain profit to them selves. To them it was a question of helping each other to survive. So this is not – and has never been – an act of cruelty, but an act of solidarity and a necessity to secure survival.

In my next blog I will discuss, which options are left for the Faroese – if they stop killing pilot whales.

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