I’m reading Science and Revolution, an interview with Ardea Skybreak. The interviewer asks Skybreak what impelled her to abandon her career as a natural scientist to wholeheartedly dedicate her life to protesting socio-political systems that take advantage of people through uneven power dynamics. Skybreak responds, “... realizing that I knew too much at that point to turn away from what I understood [of social injustices and human suffering].”

At this point, my chest tightens, and I break into a cold sweat. I had spent the prior weekend with a family friend, who also happens to have been my high school English teacher, in his apartment in New York City near Columbia University. We had a heartfelt conversation about “planting one’s flag” in those social justice causes that one feels particularly inspired to take up. His social justice causes of choice are women’s rights, criminal justice reform, civil rights and counteracting or reversing climate change, while I am resolute to take a firm yet refined shot at global environmental problems (mostly pertaining to the oceans).

At the point of the impending panic attack brought on by Skybreak’s unblinking look at one’s obligation to social and civil rights on the whole, I began to wonder if I had committed some heinous crime against humanity by devoting my life to saving the whales (I’m not just repeating a slogan: I literally want to save the whales). Somewhere between my desperation at not wanting to be a bad person and facing the ways I benefit from exploitation of resources, I realized that if I’m an environmentalist, I am also a civil rights activist. Advocating for conservation science means dismantling a system that threatens other beings’ right to self-sovereignty. It’s this fight that is at the core of many socio-political revolutions—and is at the heart of many environmental causes as well.

Put another way, my self-sovereignty and yours intersect with the self-sovereignty of others. Therefore, empathy lives in tension with the fact that the life of no individual can survive apart from the web of relations that support that life. At the heart of this tension is a paradox. And this empathy extends beyond humans. The one cause in which I will always plant my flag is that of the intrinsic value of nature and all the living forms it comprises. Embedded in this notion is the idea that nature and animals are equal to human beings, in both an existential way and a pragmatic one. Let me give you an example.

To be a marine mammal trainer, applicants are encouraged to have a background in psychology and/or animal behavior, to implement effective cognitive training. Let’s stop and think critically about this for a second. By using psychological techniques developed for humans to train marine mammals, the fundamental assumption is that marine mammals are receptive to and operate at a cognitive level responsive to these techniques—meaning that we assume the intelligence of marine mammals overlaps with human intelligence. If this is the case, how can we in good conscience capture and train these socially and cognitively aware beings for our own amusement?

Now, there may be frameworks in place to keep the training marine mammals “ethical.” In fact, many marine amusement parks have an ethics board aimed at ensuring “fair” treatment of the animals in their facilities. However, this should not make us feel better about what we are doing. It’s akin to having a committee on hand to evaluate quality-of-life standards for human slaves. When it comes to the captivity of marine mammals, we risk threatening the right of all sentient beings to self-sovereignty. 

Do these intelligent beings have a right to the natural life they were born to live out in the wild? Of course they do! So, what made us think as a society that they were there for our taking and exploitation? It all comes down to the idea that sacrificing another being’s inherent right to self-sovereignty in the name of advancing our own is excusable.

With that said, all hope is not lost. We still have the opportunity to do the right thing: restoring a cognitively advanced species’ self-sovereignty. You may ask: How do we do this? I think a good start would be to release the marine mammals at marine amusement parks who were previously taken from the wild (like Lolita!), create marine sanctuaries for the remaining captive-bred marine mammals, and cancel future plans for marine mammal shows. 

 This course of action would also benefit ocean conservation. Killer whales, the primary cash cow of marine amusement parks, are an endangered species. Many populations of killer whales around the world are not doing well. By releasing reproductively viable individuals into the environment (and not kidnapping and enslaving them in the first place), we are effectively increasing the likelihood of the species’ survival. If these whales reproduce, they will contribute to a recovering population of endangered species. Not only would populations of killer whales benefit, but so would the ecosystem at large.

Marine mammals, killer whales especially, are top predators of food webs. Often these top predators, through biological interactions, inspire stability in changing marine environments, which, by the way, humans also depend on for food.

Because our very existence depends everywhere on the well-being of nature, I would like to end on a different yet related note. The effort to free marine mammals from entertainment parks extends beyond morals and ethics; it extends as well to aesthetics. Where do we get off being so entertained by the egregious exploitation of other beings? It’s no different than being “entertained” by minstrel shows. A healthy relationship to nature not only supports our physical well-being and survival but also our emotional well-being. Our self-sovereignty should always seek to honor and uplift the self-sovereignty of others.