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Save the Ships!
How does a culture decide that pigs may be eaten, dolphins may not?

(Dreamstime)

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A lot of living things die to produce vegetarian food. Even ignoring bacteria and the plants themselves, insects, rodents, sometimes birds are killed to protect a harvest. Presumably the conscientious vegetarian believes these animals to be inferior to the animals he won’t eat. That is, the animals whose deaths he isn’t complicit in — chickens, cows, sheep, and so forth. Possibly he’s never thought about it.

But non-vegetarians have, at least unconsciously. Chickens, cows, and sheep are edible; dogs, parrots, and orangutans are not (at least not in the West). Fish are fair game; dolphins are protected. By dint of being intelligent, or lovable, certain animals have avoided appearing on American menus. Not so the pig.

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Pigs are very intelligent and reasonably benign. Though I’ve never owned one, I hear they make good pets. And though I’ve never eaten one, I hear they’re delicious. What’s the difference between eating a pig and eating, say, a whale?

Let me change subjects. Large wooden sailing ships are beautiful. I mean the sort of ships one uses to fight wars against Napoleon. Ships that were the consequence, and the pinnacle, of 5,000 years’ work on wind-harnessing. They helped invent the modern world and the global economy, and they had an ineffable grace and beauty. They were much, much more elegant than the combustion-powered ships that followed. They died off because steamboats were faster and less capricious.

Let me change subjects one more time. This year, Canada removed humpback whales from its threatened-species list. In 1994, gray whales were removed from the U.S. endangered-species list. Whales in general have made a good comeback since whaling died.

The last Yankee whaler sailed in 1927; 1846 was the high point, with 736 ships in the American whaling fleet. It was a romantic time, ocean-wise. In the 1840s, Pacific wonders were storied, and young men like Herman Melville were seeing the world from whaling ships. According to Melville, it was whaling men — not merchantmen or navy men — who were the true masters of the sea, sailing on their beautiful, square-rigged wooden ships.

In deference to the whales themselves, whaling is now illegal — except for aboriginal whaling, which is preserved to preserve indigenous cultures. Yankee whaling, of course, was a culture all its own, and an important part of America’s culture. So were the ships the whalers whaled from. An important part of American culture and world culture.

Returning to animals in a decorous diet: Killing a pig gets you nothing but meat. Killing a whale — in a very limited, carefully regulated, quota-based whaling system — could get you a lot more. Whale meat is worth a lot more than pork, because of its scarcity. I imagine something similar is true of whale oil. Maybe a financial incentive would be enough to get a few hundred stout souls to man a couple of whaling ships out of Nantucket or New Bedford — with the proviso that the ships have to be wooden and beautiful. And if the capitalist side isn’t enough, there’s still the romance. A slice of human culture — the art of large-scale sailing — could be recovered. The cost would be some whales killed — perhaps two or three dozen a year, from a worldwide population of between one and a half and two and a half million.

Whales, it must be said, are very smart. Almost as smart as pigs are. As a rule, I am against killing sea mammals. I’ve never eaten whale, and I’ve never eaten pork, so I think I can be objective about this. Bring back whaling, or give up bacon.

― Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.

 



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