RADIO / A whale of a good time: Robert Hanks worries on behalf of endangered species beneath the waves and beyond the stars

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the most irritating ploys that crops up in debates over animal rights is the one that goes: Sure, you can enjoy your bacon sandwich - but you wouldn't want to watch the pig being slaughtered, would you?

The premiss is that it is cowardly, even wicked, to avoid the unpleasant aspects of something you go along with. This line is particularly annoying to the moderate, sceptical and apathetic types who sit in the middle of all this, because it comes from both ends. On one side, there are the animal-lovers trying to make you confront your hypocrisy and help to end the trade in slaughter; on the other, there are the fox-hunters, pig- stickers and badger-baiters who want us to accept that cruelty is part of the natural order, so we may as well try to enjoy it.

Either way, it's a pretty stupid argument. Why should enjoying an end-product make us want to have anything to do with the process? Most of us are pretty happy to have been conceived, but we'd be pretty revolted if we were forced to watch how it happened - half of Freud is based on the idea that seeing your parents having sex drives you crazy.

Still, the argument keeps on cropping up: this week it was the turn of the hunters, in a special edition of the environmental magazine Costing the Earth (Radio 4, Saturday) devoted to the plight of the whale - in particular, the pilot whale, a popular source of fun and food in the Faeroes, and the minke whale, which the Norwegians plan to start killing again, having laid off for long enough to show that they can kick the habit whenever they want to. Whaling fans from Norway and the Faeroes kept on insisting: factory farming is what's really cruel - putting an exploding harpoon in a whale's head is practically doing them a favour.

In his introduction, Roger Harrabin said that the programme would be trying to separate fact from emotion: in fact, the two seemed to be fused together like Siamese twins. If anything was distinguishable, it was your fact and my fact: your fact is that minke whales aren't endangered; my fact is that the International Whaling Commission has recognised that their stocks are depleted. What was really interesting was the determination of the Norwegians to get their whales, against all the advice and pleading of practically every other nation in the world. What is it with them, you wondered. Do they crave opprobrium? First the Eurovision Song Contest, now they want to go around murdering some of the planet's most popular species.

The only possible explanation you could reach was that killing whales must be damn good fun. A spokeswoman for the Faeroese government confirmed this: 'There's an element of excitement involved, but I don't see why that should be wrong. It's a community thing and that . . . helps keep people together.'

In the end, what emerged was that there is a large amount of confusion about our duty to the natural world. Some of this infected One Step Beyond (Radio 4, Thursday), a new science feature that this week looked at the infant science of terraforming - the transformation of other planets into suitable homes for man. Terraforming is, in fact, every environmental truism turned on its head. Mars is considered the most suitable candidate for terraforming, because there is evidence that it once had free-flowing water - but that is now all frozen; so the first thing to do is to start a greenhouse effect, by releasing gases into the atmosphere.

Once this has been going on for a couple of centuries, says the conventional terraformer, and you've got a warm, moist atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, then you can start thinking about micro-organisms and plant-life that churn out oxygen: and within 100,000 years or so, voila, you have your Earth] But, say some more adventurous thinkers, why hang around? You can speed it up: by selective nuclear bombing; by putting bombs down volcanoes; by building giant factories designed to churn out CFCs.

Jez Nelson, a sparky presenter, suggested that there were ethical problems with bombing volcanoes, although it wasn't quite clear what these might be. More problematic was the question of what to do if there turns out to be life on Mars after all: the Americans seemed to think, on the whole, that we would have a responsibility to cultivate it - to nurture life in any form. A member of the British Interplanetary Society had a more pragmatic, Tebbitesque view: 'If a microbe has been sitting on Mars for four and a half billion years and has not had enough get up and go to do something, I'm not going to provide it with a lunch table if I can help it,' he said, with the air of one whose primeval ancestors got on their phytocells and looked for evolution. Still, he did at least concede that he wouldn't kill it. If I were a primitive Martian life form, I'd be praying the Norwegians didn't get there first.