Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Of Politics, Pauses and Penguins

Yesterday, one of my "All Politics All the Time" students at Florida International University emailed me a link to a New York Times article by Lesley Alderman entitled "Talking to Your Therapist About Election Anxiety." In her piece, Ms. Alderman who, in addition to being a journalist is a practicing social worker, reported onthe unprecedented amount of mental and emotional angst the presidential election is causing.  Ms. Alderman noted that "Therapists say that some of the issues that have emerged in this election — national security, terrorism, hacking threats, gun rights and sexual assault — play into some of our deepest fears and anxieties. Issues of secrecy — Mrs. Clinton’s emails and Mr. Trump’s tax returns — and allegations of conspiracies and a rigged election, have compounded some patients’ feelings of distrust." One of the therapists she interviewed, noting an alarming a growth in what he termed "hypervigilance," (checking polls every hour; staying glued to MSNBC or Fox) prescribed a sort of emotional "time-out," suggesting that people confine their campaign obsessions to, say,  an hour a day.  Many suggested watching comedies, reading novels or taking a walk as ways of minimizing the anger, the pressure and the fear . . .

And so, heeding their advice, I will take a brief pause and write about something else . . . a wonderful bit of feel-good news which has received scarcely a whisper in the media.  And, come to think about it, this story does have two political aspects to it: 

  1. The good that politicians and diplomats can do when they keep their eyes on the big picture and,
  2. How devilishly difficult it is to keep politics out of anything these days.

And so, without further ado, a pause in the politics . . . sort of:

This past Friday, New Zealand and the United States pulled off a major diplomatic coup by securing the support of 25 countries - including an initially reluctant Russia and China - to create the world's largest marine sanctuary. This Marine Protected Area (MPA), located in the Ross Sea, north of Antarctica, will cover 1.55 million square kilometers (600,000 square miles) of prized ocean.  More than twice the size of France or Texas, it will now become the world's largest marine reserve. Long a pet project of President Obama and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, the two, working in tandem along with their top-ranking foreign diplomats (Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry and Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully), it took more than six years of political and diplomatic wrangling to get all 25 countries that share governance of Antarctica to agree to the proposal.  In today's world of constant crisis and gridlock, this isa truly exceptional accomplishment; one, as mentioned above, which has gone virtually unnoticed.

Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the agreement as "extraordinary progress that did not come about overnight."  In explaining the pact, he stated, "It happened thanks to many years of persistent scientific and policy review, intense negotiations, and principled diplomacy. It happened because our nations understood the responsibility we share to protect this unique place for future generations."

So what is so all-fire important about the MPA? Well, to begin with, the Ross Sea is considered the last pristine ecosystem on the planet.  Indeed, it has variously been referred to by ecologists as both "The Last Ocean" and "The Polar Garden of Eden."  It is home to a vast majority of the planet's penguins, whales, seals and countless other marine creatures.  In size, the new MPA surpasses the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) off the coast of Hawaii, which President Obama expanded to cover more than 582,000 square miles (1.5 million square km) earlier this year.  These two preserves will guarantee that hundreds - if not thousands - of unique marine creatures and water birds will no longer face extinction.  The MPA will also go a long way towards helping with global warming.  For if the creatures who live in, on, under and over the Ross Sea can survive and even prosper, it will help that fundamental ecosystem maintain its precious balance. 

It is regrettable that the politics of anger, fear, sex and conspiracy theories has pretty much pushed this major development off the pages of our newspapers and evening news.  In an era of extraordinary cynicism and distrust, such a "feel-good" story - regardless of how historic and truly meaningful it is - simply doesn't sell; to the peddlers of news and views, it is as outdated and saccharin as a Frank Capra movie.  

And yes, there are those who are against both the MPA and PMNM, and largely for the same reason: economics.  There certainly are companies and individuals who make their living out of fishing, trawling and exploiting the marine life of both the Southern Ocean and the Hawaiian coast - as well as disrupting the Arctic biome in the pursuit of oil.  To them, the expansion and preservation of these vast tracts represent a clear and present danger to their ability to make money and keep people employed. And, to be sure, there are those who persist in arguing that the "world's "eco-terrorists" care far more about what happens to Spheniscidae (penguins), Cetaceans (whales), Pagodroma nivea  (Snow Petrals - pictured on left) andPleuragramma antarcticum (Antarctic silverfish) than homo sapiens (human beings).  In reality, this is a false dichotomy; for if the thousands of species inhabiting the MPA face extinction, it will eventually and inevitably lead to the debasing of the planet.  And no amount of wealth or position will save humanity from a planet whose ecosystems are on a steady downward spiral.  Put in simple terms, a planet without whales and seals, penguins and krill will eventually become a planet without people.

Ironically, the day after the MPA agreement was announced, Jews all over the world read, studied or heard the opening chapters of the Biblical book of Genesis.  Why ironic?  Because within this reading is a verse (1:28) which contains God's first commandment to humanity:

פְר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:


(Pronounced P'ruur'vu  u'meelu  et  ha-aretzv'khivshua;  ur'dubigdaht  hayamu'vofeha-shamyimu'vkhol  khyaha-romesetahlha aretz).

In translation, this first of all Divine Commandments orders humanity to ". . . be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and exercise stewardship over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the sky, and over all the beasts that walk upon the earth."  Now, there has long been a debate over how to translate two words: v'khivshua and ur'du.  The first, generally speaking means "and subdue"; the second either "and conquer" or, as I understand it "and exercise stewardship."  When you stop and think about it, here, in a mere two words is the eternal debate over the value of human life versus that of non-human creatures.  Are we permitted to do whatever we damn well please because we are the "Crown of Creation" (yes, I can hear folks of a certain age thinking about the Jefferson Airplane), or are we commanded to be stewards - benevolent caretakers - of all that God has created before our arrival on Planet Earth?  I firmly believe it is the latter; that agreements like MPA and PNMN are religiously mandated acts designed to preserve, protect and defend life on this planet.

Which inevitably brings us back to politics, that highly charged confluence of commonweal and self-interest.

But before we return to the hurly-burly of politics, why not pause for a few more hours or even minutes, smell the roses and appreciate the penguins.

 Copyright ©2016 Kurt F. Stone