Cartoons, sharks, and the value of beauty
Nature is free, but its destruction is costly, and maybe we will only be able to save it - and ourselves - if we learn to value its beauty, argues Raj Sekhar Aich, an expert on sharks
Bill Waterson is one of the world’s most famous cartoonists, principally known for his Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip. One reason that they resonate so much, one critic wrote, is that they offer a wormhole view of the world, as if looking up from a small position and that change of perspective makes what we take as “normal” very strange indeed.
In one cartoon Calvin tells his stuffed tiger (real in his imagination) that “butterflies are free”, and when Hobbes asks what that means, Calvin replies that you can take as many as you want and nobody will ask you to pay for them.
This is both ridiculous, and true. The genius of Waterson was in showing this ridiculous truth through the eyes of a six-year-old child.
Economists would call this an “externality”, or a cost or benefit that we cannot – or do not – account for through market transactions. The surprising thing is how much of our world is made of externalities such as these, especially the beauty that we consume or appreciate in our day-to-day existence.
These things can have some direct economic costs, of course. Bees – like Calvin’s butterflies – are also “free”, in the sense that they are not priced. But bees are the principal pollinators for plants. A set of processes, including intensive mono-crop agriculture, climate change, overuse of dangerous pesticides has led to a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” in which the majority of worker bees abandon the hive. The US was particularly badly affected, with 40% of its bee hives destroyed between October 2018 to April 2019. The economic, food security, and other costs of such a phenomenon are potentially massive, and so some people are trying to find solutions.
This, though, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things that we should value, but have no exact price tag. In 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) stated that one million species (out an estimated 8.7 million) are at the risk of extinction. This would be the sixth great extinction that the planet has seen.
The first great extinction happened 350 million years ago, the fifth happened 65 million years ago. This one is happening now, because of humans, partially as a result that we have not learned to value what is “free”.
Part of the reason is that we live cut off from much of the wild, having isolated ourselves from nature, but not isolated nature from the effects we have on it. We have little idea of the species that have disappeared, like the Javan tiger which was hunted into extinction in the 1970s, because we would never actually contemplate their existence, and what that means for us.
But tigers are at least splendid, terrestrial creatures, like rhinos or pandas. They are charismatic, and we imbue them with political meaning, so that governments and people are willing to spend substantial amounts of money to work on their preservation, and even mark of nature reserves, so that humans do not do what they do best – destroy the habitat of every other animal. It becomes more difficult with animals that are less charismatic, less political.
This ignorance becomes extreme when we look at the seas. Climate change is primarily an effect on water, and 97% of the world’s water is in the oceans – where we dump all our trash. There is even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, whose size is estimated to be around 1.6 million square kilometres (half the total area of India). If we can ignore something that size, than the creatures of the sea are invisible to us. Maybe this is why we are ignoring the fish famine in Kerala (in critical reading below).
This is why it was such a great pleasure to interview Raj Sekhar Aich, on his book “Iridescent Skin”, in which he presents us with the sea creature that we not just neglect, but often abhor – the Great White Shark – and shows us how we can approach it as a thing of beauty, and what that means for our larger struggle to save the planet – and ourselves.
Raj Sekhar Aich holds PhDs in marine anthropology, and applied psychology. He is the first scientist to conduct white shark cage diving ethnography (in New Zealand); and has written the first narrative shark book from India. He is currently a professor in transdisciplinary research and psychology at Sister Nivedita University, Kolkata, India.
Q. How did you get into sharks?
I come from a family of artists, my father is well-known painter, so that was supposed to be my “destiny”. But, like many strong-willed children, I tried to go a different path – that of education. The funny thing is that in my chosen vocation, as a transdisciplinary scientist, I circled back to art.
Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world”. That is a lovely quote, but what does it mean, and how will it happen. To me it means our sense of wonder, of being able to find something beautiful is the only way to learn to save it.
In my book, I have written about the quotidian things that pushed me there – a scholarship, a coincidence, a trip with a friend – but I think there has always been this deep obsession I have carried with me about sharks. Just as so many of us are phobic of them. For me they have become my language, the way I think about the world.
Q. Does this sense of beauty also relate to issues like climate change?
I think it does. If we do not learn to love the world, why should we be moved to preserve it? It is not just about technocratic knowledge, but something deeper.
For example, take the negative image of sharks created by the film “Jaws”. It was not misinformation or disinformation that was so powerful, but that the film was able to tap into a deep fear of the unknown, our terror of the ocean. No amount of theoretical knowledge can overcome that. You have to experience the beauty of that experience to overcome that.
For example, if you love your partner, is it just because of her physical or emotional attributes? These might be important, but there is something intangible as well, the experience of being with that person.
That is true of the world too, and we can only conserve what we learn to love.
Q. You did some work on shark attacks in the Sundarbans. I have never heard of those.
There have been sharks in the Sundarbans as long as there have been humans. But it is funny that of the three large predators – tigers, crocodiles, and sharks – you can find representations of tigers and crocodiles everywhere, including folklore and mythology, but sharks are hard to find.
There have been hundreds of cases. The last one I am aware of happened in 2013, coincidentally of an attack on a 13-year-old boy by two sharks. The body was never recovered. This was in the Matla River, just 60 kilometres from Kolkata.
Part of this is that the tiger is a keystone species. It is about politics as much as the ecology. But the other part is a sensory experience. You can see the tiger, and even the crocodile, but the shark is underwater. Even in a few inches of water a twelve-foot shark is hidden.
Both metaphorically and visually, the shark is invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.
Most of us don’t have privilege of seeing sharks in their habitat, we don’t have an actual connection. We don’t even really interact with the fish we eat in the water, forget sharks. But the ocean is most of the world. However well you manage your terrestrial environment, if we do not pay attention to the oceans, everything will be gone.
Q. How has being an Indian from Kolkata shaped you in your interaction with sharks?
I must say that it was mostly Tagore’s songs. They were always there in the background growing up. But at that age we wanted to be “citizens of the world”, whatever that means. We had so many complaints of being Indian, and were slightly ashamed of it.
It was much later I realised how strongly Rabindranath Tagore shaped how I saw the world. There is this line of his, “my vision is colouring the ruby red”. Diving off of Antarctica, in 6 metre waves, it was Tagore’s softness that helped me see the sharks as they were. In my documentary, I used cymbals, a soft instrument, as a connect. This allowed me to tap into the sense of beauty, something shaped by listening to Baul music, to Sufi songs. This was the special thing, this sense of beauty, that I could bring to my experience with sharks.
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