A Cautionary Whale of a Future-Building Tale

Exploding Whale Memorial Park (City of Florence). Source: City of Florence

On November 9th 1970, a 45 foot long dead sperm whale washed up on the Oregon coast, and found its way into modern American mythology.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the story of Oregon’s “exploding whale” as an amusing anecdote of naively heroic failure. It was certainly one that found a welcome home in the national psyche, and even inspired an episode of The Simpsons!

Yet beyond the blundering attempts to solve what rapidly became an increasingly pungent challenge fifty years ago, it’s also a cautionary tale about the perils of human hubris as we strive to build a better future.

50 years ago, local ABC affiliate KATU covered Oregon’s now-infamous exploding whale. To mark the anniversary, a remastered version of the original newscast has been released.

A Whale of a Connection

Whales have long played a important role in challenging how we understand our connections with the planet we live on, from the complex and often-ambivalent environmental narrative in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, to the highly visible Greenpeace Save the Whales campaign of the 1970’s and ’80’s.

As some of the largest and most intriguing creatures inhabiting the Earth, they continue to act as a touchstone for revealing what we truly believe about our collective relationship with the environment.

Yet these connections often pivot on the sanctity of living whales, and the moral perils of threatening this sanctity–whether through hunting them for meat or sport, justifying their slaughter on scientific or cultural grounds, or robbing them of the environments and ecosystems they depend on.

What they rarely do is focus on the very practical challenges of how to dispose of eight tons of dead whale which has been swept up on a beach and into a community with no idea what to do next!

A Burst that ‘Blasted Blubber beyond all Believable Bounds’

When it became apparent back in November 1970 that the local community of Florence, Oregon had an eight ton problem on their hands, they looked for an easy solution. And they found it–seemingly–in a bunch of State highway engineers.

To these young engineers, the way to fix the problem was simple–pack half a ton of dynamite around the carcass, and blow it to smithereens. The idea–so the thinking went–was that scavengers would quickly mop up anything that was left after the blast.

Unfortunately, as the restored news coverage shows, what actually happened was that the eager engineers ended up blasting whale blubber over quarter mile from the site, showering onlookers with lumps of putrefying material.

In cruel a twist of irony, the car of an explosives expert who was in the area, and who had allegedly just purchased a new vehicle in a “Get a Whale of a Deal” promotion in a nearby city, even had his car crushed by a chunk of flying blubber.

In the end, scavengers didn’t clear the remains of the carcass, and it had to be cleared by Oregon Highway Division workers.

It’s an amusing story, and one that has spun its way into American media folklore. Yet at its core, it’s a cautionary tale about how simple solutions to complex problems–in this case, blowing things up–rarely work out as expected.

With hindsight, it’s easy to roll our eyes and ask why on earth the problem of handling the whale carcass was given to highway engineers, and why they were so confident in their own ideas that they didn’t stop to think about the consequences.

Yet, how often do we do exactly the same today with planetary scale challenges?

Of course, the problems are bigger–global warming, stressed ecosystems, planetary tipping points, and more–and instead of “highway engineers” we have a whole army of scientists, engineers, and technologists.

And not surprisingly, our modern-day equivalent of the  “box of dynamite” is a little more sophisticated, and a lot more powerful.

But how often, when faced with big, messy planetary problems, do we assume we can simply science or engineer our way out of them, using the brute-force tools at our disposal?

Complex Problems Require Integrated Approaches

Just as with the Oregon whale carcass, simple solutions to complex problems often lead to yet more challenges. And much as we’d like to believe otherwise, an abundance of enthusiasm and a large box of metaphorical dynamite are rarely sufficient for getting us to where we’d like to be.

Yet while many of the planetary problems we face are way larger and more complex than a beached whale carcass, there is all too often the same naive optimism that, with enough science and engineering, we can solve them.

The reality is that if we are to avoid complex problems becoming even messier, we need integrated approaches to addressing them that transcend the bounds of conventional disciplines and areas of expertise.

Simply assuming we can science our way out of problems does not work.

Worse, we know that in complex systems–and we live in an exceedingly complex ecosystem of intersecting complex systems–pulling the wrong “lever” or pushing the wrong “button,” just because we feel we have to do something, can all too easily make things worse.

Action without understanding may feel good at the time. But as those highway engineers discovered 50 years ago, that doesn’t stop things getting even messier.

Sometimes, big problems need more than optimistic hubris and a large box of dynamite. From The Simpsons, 2010.

Rather, we need to learn how to step back from hubristic assumptions that we have the solutions to the problems in front of us, and get better at learning how to integrate our understanding with that of others.

And while the temptation is to assume that this just means talking with other scientists and engineers, it also means engaging with people from the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and those whose expertise doesn’t fit into neat buckets but is valuable nevertheless–not just as add-ons, or as consultants, but as equal partners in forging pathways through complex challenges.

Only by taking such integrated approaches to the challenges we face in today’s world can we hope to build a better future.

Problem-Solving with Humility

To a young highway engineer, and one who was presumably used to removing large obstacles from the path of progress in a very hands-on way, the solution to a beached whale carcass probably seemed straight forward. He had his tools and his training, and I’m guessing that it was a pretty easy step to imagine the whale as a lump of rock or mound of earth to be cleared out of the way.

Naive as this seems with hindsight, it’s a process that is mirrored in how planetary-scale problems are so often approached, as experts with narrow training and specific tools set out to fix the world with what they know and what they believe they can do.

The trouble is, not only do such “pretend it’s a nail” approaches to planetary challenges risk creating more problems than they solve, but they also overlook the harsh reality that clear-cut, durable solutions to most problems, rarely exist.

This is in part a product of living in a universe governed by the laws of time and thermodynamics. It’s also a result of the deeply complex interconnections between society, technology and the environment. The upshot though is that solutions to many challenges are, at best, local and temporary.

Of course, if we are to create a better future, we need to be able to identify challenges, and to develop ways of addressing and navigating them. And here, finding solutions is a critically important part of the process. Without our ability to solve problems, none of us would be able to get through the day, never mind contribute to building a better future.

And yet, assuming we can find the solution to a problem, and assuming that this solution will be durable, and that it won’t come with unintended consequences–or worse, not caring if it does–verges on the delusional.

Rather, navigating complex problems requires the humility to realize that we may not have the most appropriate answer; that our solution may, in fact, be someone else’s problem; and there will almost definitely be unintended consequences.

Sadly, the Oregon State highway engineers failed to tick any of these boxes. But they’re not alone.

All too often, today’s planetary challenges are tackled by people and groups who believe they have the best solution to the problem, without realizing that they too, are perilously close to blasting metaphorical blubber beyond all believable bounds.

Thankfully, there is a growing realization that cross-disciplinary and cross-sector dialogue and collaboration, together with a good dose of humility, are critical if we are successfully navigate toward a better, albeit a constantly shifting, future.

But there’s still a long way to go if we’re to avoid future generations looking back and rolling their eyes at our enthusiastically naive attempts to build a better future by doing the equivalent of blasting them out of the way!