(Almost) insurmountable odds
July 10, 2008
I have many a feminist topic to rant about. But today, I feel a bit under the weather…and that tends to put me in a sentimental mindset. During my usual a.m. news perusal, I came across the following video:
The leatherback turtle is an endangered species, according to the United States government, which recently woke up to the possibility that we’ve destroyed the habitats of polar bears. Leatherbacks can grow to weigh as much as 2000 pounds. They are threatened by extinction owing to several human behaviors. They often become entangled in fishermen’s nets and drown. They have been known to mistake plastic bags and other discarded human waste floating in the sea for jellyfish and ingest the waste, causing bowel obstruction or choking. And their eggs, which they lay on the sandy beaches of Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, are often harvested for food by predatory egg poachers, human and animal alike.
There’s a certain amount of trust that is being betrayed it seems. Mother turtles lay their eggs in the sand and return to the sea. It’s an instinctive tradition. Once the eggs hatch, the hatchlings crawl toward the ocean – some inexplicable force calls them home. Both mother and child trust the world, trust the animals of the Earth and trust themselves to make the journey safely.
As I watched the video of the wee turtles flopping helplessly toward the water and then being swept away, I wept. Their behavior was so natural, so innocent, that I couldn’t help but want for their safety. I feel sorry that the leatherback turtle leaves so much to chance when human choice would have it that these docile creatures go with the flow and yet often find their flow obstructed. We may have the power to choose how we live, but it seems to me that the turtle does not make choices. The turtle simply behaves as its instinct dictates.
So while we may choose to eat the turtle eggs as a delicacy, the little ones struggle to travel what must seem an enormous distance despite what might have been an easier choice to nestle in the warm sand.
Somehow Pixar understands this. Its new film WALL-E is the toast of the critical world. And I loved it too but not because the animation is pristine – which it is – or because the expectation that humanity will destroy itself is so transparently available to viewers – which it is; but because WALL-E is just like the turtles in a way. He has religiously compacted our waste for 700 years, without stopping to consider his own fears, his own loneliness or his own mortality. It’s not the close shot of his inquisitive eyes that draws me in; rather it is a wider look at the little robot wheeling to and fro, doing as he was intended without fail…no matter what…
The robot does develop what we perceive are feelings. Pixar has made rather a blank canvas of the character onto which we project our own emotions. But there’s still the actuality of his preceding 700 years of repetitive behavior.
We think that our ability to choose makes us better than creatures of instinct. But what we fail to consider is that we have the choices we do because others do not. We can choose to eat turtle eggs now, and until we have eaten the last of them, because the leatherback instinctively crawls from eggshell to ocean and back again. We can choose to eat cow and pig meat and treat livestock cruelly on the way to the slaughter because the livestock cannot choose to fight us back.
But someday, all the eggs and polar bears and cows and pigs and fresh air and hope for a brighter day may be gone. And all because we abused our power to choose and looked upon harmless instinct with contempt. We can be so cruel.
Perhaps we should take a lesson from the giant sea turtle at large and the giant sea turtle Crush from Pixar’s other masterpiece Finding Nemo. How does Crush know when the little baby sea turtles are ready to swim on their own? “Well, you never really know, but when they know, you know, y’know?” he said.
And without making a conscious choice, the wee ones swam safely along.