Captain Watson's savage kingdom
It's easy to lose your bearings wandering through radical activist's wacky and wondrous headspace

Even during years of devout veganhood, my feelings on animal rights were never clear. On the one paw, thinking of all creatures as having inherent worth separate from any human measure is a commendable thing. On the other paw, many vegans are batshit insane. But the talk given by Paul Watson, founder of conservation group Sea Shepherd and captain of the Farley Mowat, was more gutsy than nutsy. "[Animals] are our connection to the real world, the world we have replaced with fantasies," said Watson to 150 spellbound people gathered in the Medical Sciences building at U of T September 19.

Watson is a controversial figure. He either resigned or was ejected from Greenpeace over a disagreement on tactics. His group has rammed illegal whaling ships at sea and even scuttled them at dock. He once took flak for teaming up with a right-wing senator against native hunters.

Recently, Sea Shepherd filmed the Canadian seal hunt, which resulted in arrests thanks to a court order prohibiting people (especially people with cameras, it seems) from approaching within half a nautical mile of seal harvesters at work.

"I'm not a radical," says the world-weary yet irrepressible Watson. "I'm a conservative. I'm trying to conserve the planet. Paul Martin and George Bush are radicals."

At the seal hunt protest that preceded the talk, I found myself cringing every time the speaker intoned, "Stop. Eating. Canadian. Seafood!" I wonder how they chose that slogan over the more colourful "Stop giving Newfies money." The logic is that sealers are all Canadian fisher folk. But not all Canadian fisherfolk are sealers. Collateral damage?

Perhaps I'm being glib. If it's collateral damage you want, look to the governments. "We are annihilating animals so we can make weapons to annihilate humans," says Watson, stating that many whales are killed to make lubricants for ballistic missiles. "If [you] shot and killed a bank robber, you would be given a medal... because he threatened something sacred. You'd think that if we could care so much about bags of paper or hunks of rock or sacred walls, we could rise up to protect that cathedral [of the wild]."

As people gasped at a video showing seals being killed and oozing blood from their noses against a soundtrack of cloying classical music, part of me shrugged. Welcome to the ecosystem. A polar bear would have been more violent, and, given the (rather grim) choice, I would take spike-though-the skull over eaten-by-a bear any day.

My stomach, however, did turn at the scenario of dozens of bloodied bodies littering the ice, beyond the scale of any imaginable need. Activists insist many are simply left behind. (Government data says seal "struck and loss" numbers generally amount to "less than 5 per cent," but with a yearly overall quota of 350,000, that could be over 17,000 seals killed for no reason.)

But far from seeing the monsters everyone else was apparently seeing on that screen, I saw tired men slipping pathetically on the ice, shouting, bewildered, with the same sad look in their eyes that no one had any trouble seeing in the seals' eyes.

Tragic heroes? Certainly not. But some of them must be tired of doing a disgusting, thankless job and being hounded by people dressed like snow pirates. I'm sorry, Paul I can hate what these men do, but I can't hate them.

I can, however, connect with Watson's insistence that we start valuing other life forms and, thankfully, he moved away from the safe territory of cuddly things.

"Imagine a world without earthworms," he said. "Imagine a world without bacteria. You wouldn't be sitting here right now. Imagine that just one family of plants the grass family went extinct. The human population would dwindle to 10s of millions within a few years. It would make all our wars combined look like a picnic. That is ecological collapse."

But there's a hair's breadth between environmental passion and misanthropy. "I won't give one penny for Katrina relief," he said, slightly digressing. This comment brought into sharp relief the fact that I could count on two flippers the number of attendees who weren't as white as the seals. "I'll give for the animals but not for relief efforts until the oil companies pony up millions for the destruction caused by global warming."

Couldn't I just as easily say I won't help factory-farmed chickens until the factory farms do? Isn't the whole point that they're not going to do that?

Activists say the sealers are barbaric and cruel. Rural fishers say the activists are privileged and arrogant. Government-paid scientists say the activists are uneducated, while activists say the scientists are corrupt. The government seems to think everyone is stupid while most everyone thinks the government has abandoned them to the corporations.

In the end, they're all right. And they're all wrong. Except for that last part. That would appear to be spot on.

I leave the talk feeling no more resolved, but inspired to get back on track to find that resolution. What is clear is that anything without a human voice has been stripped of its voice entirely, and humanity has been left talking ever more neurotically to itself. So, what then?

Chipmunks aren't driving cars. Can we really save the earth without saving ourselves? Can we save ourselves without saving the earth? Anyone who hasn't dipped into misanthropy at one point or another is probably insane; the same could probably be said of those who don't resurface.