The Most Prescient Portrait of Our Ultimate Fate as a Species

Scott Deshefy


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There are many disturbing accounts of human cannibalism after high seas shipwrecks or during food deprivation in colder climes. The Donner Party, five months snowbound on the eastern side of the Sierras in 1846, comes immediately to mind. The first such incident, with which I became familiar, was nautical however. It was a graphic depiction catching my attention when I was 5-years old flipping through my grandfather’s Lowell Thomas Adventures. The books, given me when my grandfather died in 1957, comprise a P. F. Collier & Son collection I still own. Chronicling human desperation takes a certain symbiotic, self-promotional relationship between interviewer and subject, I suppose, to recount such horrors and then publish them. I often wonder, had Thomas interviewed him after T. E. Lawrence’s exploits were publicized, if another volume could have been coaxed from my grandfather’s experiences as an oft-decorated Yonkers, NY firefighter and ambulance driver during the First World War. I doubt it. My grandmother insisted, despite repeated inquiries, he flatly refused to discuss unintended immolations from dry-cleaning with naphtha, seen as a fireman, much less WWI battlefield carnages. Lowell Thomas’ lean, highly descriptive prose posed challenges to a kid just getting acquainted with Puff the cat and Spot the dog, delighting in their ancillary behaviors in first grade readers. By comparison, Dick’s and Jane’s interactions were uninteresting, perhaps betraying my budding misanthropy. Nevertheless, I managed to sound-out captions beneath photographs and illustrations, several nightmarish and lurid enough to get the gist of the book until I read its entirety years later. It was The Wreck of the Dumaru.

The SS Dumaru was one of hundreds of ships built badly to replace the enormous tonnage sunk by WWI German U-boats. Like many other 270-foot Hough-type wooden vessels of its class, it was constructed of Oregon fir at Portland and launched in the Willamette River. The name Dumaru was Multnomah Native American and assigned the vessel by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson as were Kasota and Capouka to its heavily armed, equally slow sister merchant craft. Built with green timber taken right out of forests and assigned to tropical runs, all had leaky seams and bilge pumps going continuously to rid them of seawater. At launch, the Dumaru slid too fast and smashed into a series of houseboats on the opposite side of the river, a sign of bad luck which older crew considered a curse and omen of disaster. On October 16, 1918, six months after launch on her maiden voyage, Dumaru was struck by lightning off the coast of Guam, igniting her munitions cargo and destroying the ship. All hands successfully evacuated into two lifeboats and a raft before the sinking. Captain Ole Berrensen and four other crewmen on the raft were rescued nine days later near the site of the boat’s fire and explosions. The two lifeboats, one undermanned with only 9 of 20 seats filled, drifted for over three weeks between Guam and the Philippines. The other, severely overcrowded with 32 sailors aboard, quickly exhausted its freshwater and food supplies, forcing the crew to improvise a crude and inadequate desalination device and resort to cannibalism when comrades died from exposure. At least, that’s what 14 survivors reported, initially keeping their cannibalism secret when reaching the Island of Samar. When Lowell Thomas published his “story of cannibalism in an open boat” in 1930, speculation still persisted about several alleged suicides and grisly, unsubstantiated rumors of casting lots before an unlucky chief engineer and Hawaiian mess boy were killed, cooked and eaten.

Another incident, which inspired Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece Moby Dick, was the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex, rammed by a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and sunk November 20, 1820, more than a year after the ship left Nantucket moorings. Already, by 1820, sperm whales had been hunted and nearly eradicated from the Atlantic. So the Essex planned a two-and-a-half year voyage to the South Pacific, where whale populations had not yet been so radically destroyed. Sperm whales especially were sought not only for their blubber, but also spermaceti, a waxy oil particular to their enormous heads (hence the species name macrocephalus). Studies suggest spermaceti may help sperm whales control buoyancy and echolocate. Secondarily, spermaceti may also protect the animals from impact forces and blunt traumas to the head sustained during collisions and deep sea water pressures. However critical to their general well-being and survival, killing sperm whales for their blubber and spermaceti was unfortunately a lucrative business. Both oils were refined for industrial uses such as fuel oil for lamps and making candles, cosmetics, textiles and lubricants.

Stopping at the Galápagos archipelago to repair storm damage and re-provision, during which 360 giant tortoises were captured, starved to death or otherwise killed on-board, the crew of the Essex hunted on Charles (aka Floreana) Island. Before pulling anchor, the hunting expedition set fire to the island as a “prank,” destroying islanders’ settlements and denuding the equatorial habitat (more subtropical really due to climatic affects of the cold Humboldt and 2 other convergent currents). A day later, after the Essex set sail, the massive wildfire was still visible on the horizon, contributing to near-extinctions of the Floreana Is. tortoise and Floreana mockingbird, neither of which re-inhabited the charred terrain, even after foliage re-grew. Still intent on filling its cargo holds with whale oil, the ship headed to the “offshore ground” located in the South Pacific, much farther west of the South American coast.

On arriving and encountering a pod November 20th, the crew lowered the Essex’ whaleboats and refocused their slaughter. Seeing one individual harpooned and tethered to its attackers’ whaleboat; pulling it desperately through the water, another sperm whale, an enormous bull, separated from the pod. According to eyewitness accounts, the bull “lay motionless on the surface, watching, seemingly studying” the Essex before picking up speed by shallow diving, then purposefully and forcefully ramming the ship. The head-on starboard collision rocked the vessel from side to side. Then, seemingly stunned, the whale recovered, swam several hundred yards forward of the ship and turned to face the Essex’ bow. Coming at the ship with what First Mate Owen Chase called “twice a normal speed…tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect,” the defending (perhaps avenging) whale stove-in the Essex bow timbers. The mother ship sank quickly, leaving 21 survivors in three leaky whaleboats inadequately supplied. With little food or freshwater to sustain them and more than 1,200 miles to the nearest land mass (the Marquesas Islands), the boats became separated and sailors resorted to cannibalism before rescue occurred months later. Only eight survived. When natural attritions from exposure, starvation and thirst weren’t enough to supply food, survivors admitted that lots were drawn to determine who would be killed to feed the remainder. Seven in total were unluckily dispatched and devoured, with rank and race factoring in the selection process.

Last year, former NY Times foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, while discussing imminent mass extinction, brilliantly opened his remarks by drawing analogies to Herman Melville’s pervasive use of symbolism in Moby Dick (1851). Calling Melville our “foremost oracle” and his greatest novel “the most prescient portrait…of our ultimate fate as a species,” Hedges explained how our “murderous obsessions, violent impulses and moral cowardice” are visible therein. America is represented by the doomed whaling vessel, the Pequod, its name derived (as Connecticut residents should know) from the indigenous Pequot tribe, massacred and all but exterminated in 1637 by Puritans and Native American allies near Mystic. The Pequod’s multi-racial, ethnically and religiously diverse crew totals 30, the same number of states comprising the union at the time Melville penned his story for London publication. Were Melville to rewrite the novel today he’d increase the crew size to 50 and have Exxon-Mobil or Chevron embossed on the Pequod’s sails, denoting corporate approval of its profit-driven, reprehensible killing spree, destroying cetaceans for oil until a backlash annihilates them. In degrees of wantonness, the Pequod’s fictional mission actually pales in comparison to what the actual crew of the Essex left in its wake in 1820. In both cases, consequences of those actions brought poetically justified ends, not that avoiding environmental retribution for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., floods, droughts, famines and violent storms) shouldn’t be our top priority. Ultimately, failing to amend our carbon-emitting ways will stave-in the biosphere’s bow.

What saved the sperm whale from probable 19th century extinction when the first successful oil well was drilled in Titusville, PA August 27, 1859 now puts every marine and terrestrial ecosystem at risk. Capt. Ahab’s all-consuming pursuit of the albino leviathan, defying reason, ethics and regard for safety of his crew, thusly remains a valid metaphor for America’s self-destructive tendencies today. Parallels can be drawn between Moby Dick and our continuing dependencies on fossil fuels, fanatical attachments to personalities, and maniacal obsessions with firearms daily bloodying our streets. Melville’s novel and the actual plight of the Essex are also analogs for continued assaults on ecosystems by corporate capitalism and global financial speculation, despite obvious dangers to the planet and American society they pose. Among radicalized elements of the population, our nation’s increasingly warped sense of reality and social responsibilities risks altering Earth’s life supports, putting us into ill-provisioned, overcrowded skiffs where capitalism forces us to draw lots. Two-party political and economic tumults have produced a sociologic, ideological, electronic age cannibalism threatening to destroy democracy itself. Only captains and high-ranking officers remain exempt from the larder, and the more those demagogic warlords isolate their followers from science and reality the more our country stays adrift in doldrums of crises.

While chains of violence and cataclysm daily connect us to climate change and global warming, wildlife and habitat destruction and neighborhoods awash in guns, congress and state legislatures feel little sense of urgency. Yet viscerally, at some level, we all know the biosphere cannot continue to survive our assaults. Accelerated rates of mass extinction are undeniably linked to corporate capitalism’s unprecedented extractions of coal, gas and oil. But small, Internet-emboldened pockets of malcontents ignore science and moral imperatives even to the point of covering-up suspicions from themselves. Kept passive by deft manipulation of social and rightwing media, they’re fed disinformation that both manufactures doubt while inflating childish feelings of hope about a future now bleak. Seeking illusory confirmations, fanatics coalesce there, slaking their thirsts for agreement like stranded sailors gulping seawater, worsening dehydration. To obliterate false hope and truly meet the challenges we face requires intellectual and emotional maturity. Most of all it takes courage from which all virtues ultimately stem. And until we begin to choose nature, natural laws and preservation of life as leadership and guiding principles, there’ll be too little compunction to buck pathways materialists pursue.

The Gulf of Mexico is nearly 2ºC warmer than in the 1980s. In Iowa, almost 5 tons of farmland per acre is washed away each year due to wind erosion and runoff because rainfall, due to global warming, is 40 percent higher than in the 1950s. Thousands of miles of canals dug for access to offshore oil wells have destroyed sections of Louisiana’s coastline the size of Delaware, erasing ecologically productive marshlands and making the region more vulnerable to storm surge. As a species, we move more soil than all our planet’s rivers combined, making the terrain less habitable for wildlife. Scientists estimate we now use more energy each year than is released annually as heat from the Earth’s core, much of it from burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases. We’re about to default on the federal debt, and “wokism” is what used to be common decency.

SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 showed just how rapidly infection can spread among 8 billion people. Now that global temperatures are expected to climb by 1.5ºC by the 2030s studies suggest concentrations of deadly bacteria that live in warmer seawaters could be on the rise. Vibrio vulnificus is a culprit of immediate concern and flourishes in salt and brackish waters over 68ºF. Long limited to the Gulf Coast, 30 years of data suggest the bacterium has moved and multiplied along warming Northern coasts. Anyone can get a Vibrio vulnificus infection from eating raw shellfish or a cut exposed to bacteria suspended in the surf. It kills roughly 20% of the healthy people infected; 50% of those with weakened immune systems. Evidence that existing antibiotics effectively control V. vulnificus doesn’t appear strong.

Every bit as disturbing as biological infestation is America’s epidemic of political fanaticism, where cults of voters choose personalities over substance and qualifications, supporting bluster instead of intelligence, moral courage, and depth and breadth of knowledge. Too many unscrupulous candidates have arisen who fight for causes that are demonstrably wrong, slander and farm anger, lie compulsively, and cast doubt on democratic institutions. Do they make their followers feel smarter than they are? Canards and conspiracy myths too handily fill gaps in understanding when you hear “he or she is a dope and a cad, and unfit for office, but I’m voting for them anyway.” As long as some Americans won’t accept facts of science and medicine, deny anthropogenic climate change, refuse adherence to public safety measures and object to controlling guns, we’re all shipmates on a leaky cargo vessel loaded with explosives in a lightning storm. It needn’t be that way. Under typical conditions rock is solid, water is liquid; air is gas, but even rock can melt and boil away, if the temperature‘s high enough,

Scott Deshefy is a biologist and ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.