Whale-sized challenges hold opportunity

Sometimes metaphors present themselves in the oddest and most unlikely of places. As the people of Pine Bluff cautiously hope for a brighter future, we remain cognizant of the missteps that led us to our current state. Affluent people acting out of avaricious selfishness, poorer people coping through drugs and crime, the middle class fleeing in desperation, and other equally poisonous variations of each group’s depleting acts — all combine to the make us less than we could be.

History is rich with stories of towns having suffered worse calamities and reemerging stronger than they were. Atlanta comes to mind. The city’s seal features a phoenix — the mythological bird reborn and rising from the ashes. This is exactly what the cinders of post-bellum Atlanta had to do. People fanned the faint embers of hope into one of the largest cities in the United States.

This then begs the question of what provides the best metaphor for Pine Bluff. We know how we got here — misdirected and unchecked self-interest. We are a shadow of the prosperous and vital community that once was. Can we be that town again? No, nor should we want to be. That relegate of history was borne out of oppression and forced servitude. Slaves and then sharecroppers provided the labor, which begat the capital for many of our county’s grandest economic engines. Recognizing as we now do that economies built on forced or deeply imbalanced labor are immoral, that mode of production is no longer tenable.

Still, we must find something with which we can work … something that will not simply bring a renaissance of the old feudal order, but will honor the dignity of labor and reward it. What then?

The answer brings us back to the quest for a fitting metaphor. One creature, a real flesh-and-blood being, suggests itself: the Blue Whale. The Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever roamed the Earth. It’s bigger than the largest dinosaur. Its tongue alone can weigh more than an adult elephant. A full-sized adult is longer than three school buses.

The sheer size of this noble beast provides a fitting metaphor in two ways: first, its mass is reminiscent of the bad habits we must labor to shed; second, just as the Blue Whale is the largest animal, Pine Bluff was once the largest and most prosperous city in Southeast Arkansas.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, describes the Blue Whales descent from king of the seas to a species on the brink of extinction: “Blue whale hunting started in the North Atlantic in 1868 and spread to other regions around 1900 after the northeastern Atlantic populations had been severely reduced… populations were probably depleted to the low hundreds by the time whaling ceased.”

In a word, the whale almost ceased to exist because of greed. No one noticed or seemed to care that bad habits were poised to exterminate the whales and end the gravy train.

The killing of Blue Whales was banned in 1966. Now the greatest threats they face are the decline of global sea ice and ship strikes.

These facts mirror our own situation: Over reliance on one or two resources is a sure path to self-destruction. Moreover, even if you fix one problem, you have to be vigilant because others always lurk in the wings.

There are a few other aspects of Blue Whales we should note. They often live to be 100 years old. They are persistent. They have the fortitude to make the long journey, year after year. They survive in climates where others would die. At long last, their numbers have begun to increase. Their journey back to vitality is a work in progress, but it can be done — just like ours.

If we are to shine again, we must summon the whale’s persistence, its endurance and its nobility. Then and only then, will we realize our potential.