Moby Dick And Asian Typhoons
"Climate change will intensify droughts, floods and other natural disasters. The scarcity of water will affect hundreds of millions of people. Malnutrition is going to lay waste to a large part of the developing countries."
-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
"The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in the coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say." -NY Times, August 9, 2009
During early and mid August typhoon Morakot killed unknown numbers of Chinese, Taiwanese and Filipinos, dislocating millions, provoking landslides and hampering rescue efforts. The rising waters destroyed homes, public buildings and bridges; buried entire villages. Asia suffers from its worst weather in half a century.
TV cameras in helicopters showed rooftops still visible through onslaughts of mud, that gray slime of ocean and land mixing. Authorities ordered more than a million people evacuated from threatened provinces. In western Japan rivers washed away houses and drowned people in their cars. (London Times, August 11)
By August 15, at least 500 people had died in Taiwan. Property damage far exceeded that of Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times gave the story a few inches. The weather page reported Hurricane Bill about to attack in the Atlantic.
Far away, I watched tugs pull huge cargo ships loaded with "China Shipping" containers under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the robotic unloading docks in Oakland, California. From the upper deck at ATT Park where the San Francisco Giants play baseball, I witnessed enormous floating sea haulers slide by against the Oakland hills -- almost two centuries from Herman Melville's Pequod.
Moby Dick and China Shipping? How does a book read in university lit classes relate to contemporary typhoons? How could Captain Ahab, who had to "be all he could be" in whale killing, relate to our times?
Like the weapons carried by the modern US military, Ahab's harpoon chuckers used the sharpest spears to bag great beasts. But Moby Dick, the professor lectured, represented God's inscrutable will, the area even the relentless Puritans claimed as off limits from human scrutiny. Indeed, the novel still serves as a metaphorical declaration of God's boundaries, separating His world from one humans can explore for their Divine commerce. Overstepping the forbidden frontier, the book teaches, results in terrible punishment.
The Pequod's mates, like lots of current corporate executives, lacked the messianic vision of their leader, Ahab. First mate Starbuck, a restrained faith-based Christian, used scripture to guide him and analyze events. The gregarious and gutsy Stubb, who got adrenalin rushes from whale hunting, resembles the soldier addicted to danger and death-from whaling then, and war now. Flask adores excitement, the chase and ritual of whale killing, bereft of poetic feelings for the great animal.
Ahab, a powerful and wicked biblical king, built an altar to Baal (1 Kings 16:30-33) and "did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him." (1 Kings 16:31)
Ahab's pathological fascination with a whale distances him from the "normal" human spectrum of personalities. He sees himself as a man who must prove himself in action, to find and defeat a great white whale, guardian of the ocean, God's realm.
In a first encounter, the giant creature chewed off his leg. A warning? By relentlessly pursuing him again, God's white (symbolic of purity) instrument delivered a harsher lesson. After destroying the whaling ship and all but one of its crew, Ishmael, He returns to his depths. Ishmael becomes the messenger for God's eternal warning against obsessed crusaders with domination fantasies.
Transform the epic to modern times. The old ship owners and their captains pursued profits from blubber. Today's monster-sized barges haul millions of tons of Chinese made electronic gizmos. They use the sea for profit as did the religious owners of The Pequod. That is their role in the economic order while Ahab sought revenge, proof he could control a creature, proof of manhood - like chasing bulls and drunk in Pamplona?
Ahab's harpooners failed to subdue the whale as his contemporaries (with guns and drones) fail in Afghanistan. Science has yet to create technology to avert "natural disasters" caused by centuries of hostile emissions from its creations.
Production and consumption paths have challenged environment laws and have apparently unleashed metaphoric Mobys: hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes and tsunamis. Global warming, rising ocean temperatures amidst perpetual wars!
From the ball park's serene upper deck, I see ships from China as runners circle bases. In nearby San Francisco office buildings, the lights remain on. Some brokers, accountants, lawyers and advertisers make money - buildings need heating and cooling like those in most cities - while modern Ahabs pursue great white beasts of profit, oblivious to the typhoons' wreckage.
Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and filmmaker (dvds available from firstname.lastname@example.org) and authyor of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch A/K)