Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Japan sets out for the Antarctic - again

The continuing Japanese whaling saga is ultimately a tale of subsidies.  As reported in The Guardian, the money-losing Japanese whaling fleet got a nice boost this year - from the earthquake/tsunami recovery fund.  Soon it will return to the Antarctic to kill some more whales whose meat will sit indefinitely in a freezer.  The reason is that one of the towns affected by the tsunami was a whaling port.  The article does not specify if the port was involved in Antarctic whaling or local coastal whaling.  The whaling program received an additional $30 million in US dollars from the recovery fund.  Without this money, the unprofitability of whaling would likely doom it to a quick end.

In fact, subsidies are behind a lot of environmental problems.  While most conservationists aren't eager to let the free market completely take over, many will agree that ending subsidies would be a quick way to solve a lot of problems.  For an example, destructive high-seas bottom trawling fishing vessels often receive fuel subsidies that keep their operations profitable.  If new WTO rules were imposed on fisheries subsidies, we could possibly avoid arguing about how much of the seafloor it's ok to destroy and just sit back and watch deep-sea trawlers slink on home.

It would seem like a no-brainer that subsidies to industries that are causing environmental damage and aren't really making any money are a waste of government resources and should be ended.  On the other hand, a case can be made that judicious government investments can help promising industries get off the ground, and I'd be unwilling to condemn all subsidies for this reason.  Unfortunately, thanks to the deeply entrenched influence of many lobby groups - farmers, fishers, whalers, oil companies - most subsidies are not designed to help new, environmentally responsible businesses get off the ground.  So next time you see that your government is subsidizing something that's not benefiting the public as a whole, let them know how angry you are.  Don't let industry do all the talking.

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