Monday, June 21, 2010

Big week for whales

As the big IWC meeting gets underway this week, people are getting nervous about what will happen - and may not even be sure what they want to happen. The moratorium on commercial whaling was one of the great conservation successes of the 20th century. It was widely supported by all but a few - several nations even gave up whaling. But years of continued whaling and increasing contention over remaining whaling have led many people to conclude that we need to be open to a resumption in commercial whaling. It must be a mark of the singular intelligence of the human race that just a few decades after we stopped slaughtering creatures that reproduce slowly (because we had so thoroughly depleted their populations) it is decided that we are now going to manage them sustainably using catch limits decided on the basis of, oh, well, who knows? And this will lead to a reduction in whales killed, even though other countries that used to kill whales are now saying that if everybody's ok with whaling again that they want to jump in too.

We can barely manage anything sustainably. Ask the recovered populations of Newfoundland cod. Oh wait! You can't - fishing stopped years ago but the population never bounced back. A while ago, the conservative writer Rich Lowry wrote in favor of saving the whales. Surprisingly, the main thrust of his argument is that whales are special and deserve special protection. A lot of whaling proponents will blast the hypocrisy of those with this "whales are exceptional" outlook. If you eat one animal you can't criticize anyone else for eating another species as long as the population is managed well, so the argument goes. Lowry doesn't address this issue much, merely noting the senselessness of whaling in the 21st century:

Why protect whales? They should be preserved as befits anything else that evokes wonder; they are the mammalian equivalent of the Grand Canyon or of the giant redwoods. They are also incredibly long-lived creatures with a sophisticated social structure, closer to chimpanzees than to cattle.

It's about time we all collectively realized the truth of this argument. Humans are not calculators. There's no point in having the cognitive abilities to appreciate the wonders of nature, and at the same time pretending that killing a domesticated farm animal is the same as killing the largest animal ever known to have existed. We all know that deep down it isn't. It isn't 100% logical, and there's emotion involved, but so what? The vast majority of people aren't going to want to eat penguin meat unless the little waddlers start invading our shores and trying to peck us to death. No one's going to approve the building of a shopping complex in the Grand Canyon regardless of how many jobs it would create. Because part of having a large brain is evaluating emotional factors and practical factors when considering an issue. Even IF this new IWC plan adds back in some scientific protections for the whales, it will still be incredibly senseless to support it. The essential message will be that nothing in nature is exceptional - it's all just widgets, a resource to extract, and we just have to figure out the right way to do it.

You don't have to spend your every free minute hiking or looking at pictures of baby animals on the Internet to realize what an utterly horrifying and soulless point of view that is.


Daniel Bassett said...

Im not sure if I agree. I think that whaling is wrong because it is unsustainable. I think that whaling is wrong because they are long lived animals that won't recover. But this is the same reason I think fishing tuna or orange roughy is wrong. Just because something appeals to us, like a cute feathery bird or a big cuddly whale, does not (I think) make them better than a scaly fish that no one has ever seen from the deep sea. Surly as rational humans we can come up with better arguments than 'we shouldn't cause I don't like it'. Clearly, Japan doesn't hold that same belief and so we must produce better arguments.

Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition said...
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Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition said...

Hi Daniel,

Whaling IS unsustainable, and I've pointed out the economic arguments against whaling (whale watching is more profitable) and the poor scientific basis for it in the past. And there are other reasons for not supporting the proposed plan - among them that it's unfair to reward these countries for misbehaving. But I thought Lowry had a point worth mentioning that the human response to nature isn't purely rational. None of these arguments, scientific or otherwise, have done anything to convince the whaling countries, but I did want to point out that it's not unreasonable to consider the irrational, emotional way that many humans respond to nature. We do make conservation decisions based partly on irrational feelings and I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting that.

I am concerned in general that the term "sustainability" is being misused and that it can make conservation more difficult because people will be convinced that as long as we have some research backing it up we can and should take as much as we can from nature. I find this to be a chilling way to view the environment. As I mentioned with my Grand Canyon example, there would be no rational reason not to erect a shopping mall there if local people needed the jobs, but can you imagine how Americans would react if one of their great natural wonders was altered in that way? Would they be wrong to do so? When we talk about conservation, I think it's fair to acknowledge that our decisions are (and probably should be) often a blend of emotion and science. Whaling is one such area. Both sides are acting from positions based partly on emotion, and we may as well acknowledge it.

Daniel Bassett said...

I do see your point. I have no arguments against it as such. I have no reason to say I want the grand canyon left alone other than I do. But what annoys me about this thinking is it can be so damn biased. I mean no one would care about the Antarctic Toothfish because they look ugly. But surly they deserve as much protection as a whale if they are been wiped out too. So in that sense you only have one option - offer the rational unsustainability argument. I thing that what annoys me about these emotional based arguments is they are just so biased towards mammals and birds. It becomes a case of whoever has the most people saying don't do it, or do it, wins. It takes the rational argument out of the picture. But hey Im acting emotionally now so I do see your point.

I remember watching a pro whaling Japanese advocate argue that westerners are hypocrites because they are happy to fish other keystone species, but for some reason they don't want us (the Japanese) whaling. This is a terrible argument of course because that doesn't make it an excuse to go and wipe out whales just because another country is mismanaging another species. But its an argument that perhaps gives them a sense of why do you pick on us. That emotional argument can sometimes be destructive too.

Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition said...

I definitely agree with you on the destructive part. I think that's the other side of the argument - those who want to preserve whales have to realize that no matter how much science or economics we have on our side, the whaling countries will still want to whale. Because they're not making their decision to whale based on rational calculations - we've all heard that whaling is not really profitable, even in Japan. The best we can hope for is to try to understand the root of their point of view and come up with a solution that will work around it - the arguments about sustainability and the profitability of whale watching are good to have but not sufficient to convince the whalers.

I agree with you that we shouldn't just protect cute things or species that humans enjoy, but at the same time it's good to recognize the power that charismatic species have and use it to our advantage. For example, many people don't have an emotional connection to krill but they will want to protect them if they know that penguins, whales and seals need krill to survive. And as much as I would love to think that if you present the solid scientific arguments for precautionary management of fisheries that people will accept them, we both know that's rarely been the case. By recognizing that people are motivated by a mix of biases and logic we can hopefully be more successful at coming up with workable solutions.