Singleton, B.E. 2016. Clumsiness and elegance in environmental management: applying cultural theory to the history of whaling. Environmental Politics.
The global whaling debate is one of the most well-known environmental conflicts of the past 100 years. It involves two sides seemingly trapped in a never ending conflict, with a certain amount of whaling continuing despite the continuation of the 1982 moratorium. This endless discord has been criticised as deleterious to whale conservation and as imperialistic towards whaling communities. This blog post summarises a recent paper in Environmental Politics, which reconstructs the history of whaling using cultural theory: tracking how different actors have come to prominence, altering the nature of the policy landscape through their actions. Since the onset of modern whaling, whales and whaling practice have been conceived in narrow terms, depending on the dominance of particular actors on either side of the debate. Proposed solutions to the impasse are assessed according to the maxims of cultural theory.
Whales remain important symbols within the environmental movement. Each year, in Brighton, England, ‘Whalefest’ takes place to draw attention to ocean and marine life environmental issues (Source: Author).
Cultural theory (as I’ve described elsewhere), asserts that the complex diversity of views on any given issue can be understood within a fourfold typology, with people moving between different positions in a dynamic context. Each of these four ‘social solidarities’ (individualism, egalitarianism, hierarchy and fatalism) will generate its own narrative that is irreducible to that of the others and, crucially, will contain an aspect of the ‘truth’ that the others miss. “[S]ince each provides a clear expression of the way in which a significant portion of the populace feels we should live with one another and with nature, it is important that they all be taken some sort of account of in the policy process. (Thompson 2003, p.5108). Cultural theorists contrast ‘elegant’ situations, where the narrative of only one social solidarity is prominent, with ‘clumsy’ situations, where there is respectful interaction between advocates of multiple social solidarities. Clumsy situations are depicted as better able to deal with challenges that may arise. With this in mind it becomes possible to assess the history of whaling from the late nineteenth century to the present with regard to the apparent levels of clumsiness.
The early years of modern whaling were characterised by an individualist perspective on what was then as now an important strategic resource, oil. Nature was considered able to ‘bounce back’ and fundamentally independent of human action. The course was thus set for continued expansion into new whaling grounds as improving technology allowed it. Voices began to be raised against this as declines in whale stocks became increasingly apparent. Actors voicing a hierarchical understanding of whaling – as something that can be sustainable provided it is appropriately managed and policed – became increasingly prominent and influential as new forums for whaling management, notably the International Whaling Commission (IWC), were created. It was to take around 25 years before hierarchical management methods (such as catch quotas determined by the IWC’s Scientific Committee) were respected by individualist whaling companies, too late to prevent the devastation of many whale species. The policy landscape was thus a largely elegant situation dominated by individualist actors, with members of the hierarchical solidarity becoming increasingly prominent and influential.
With the decline in whale numbers increasingly apparent, anti-whaling became one of the first major issues of the nascent green movement in many Western countries. Environmental NGOs articulating a largely egalitarian view of nature (as intricately connected and fragile) became increasingly prominent through anti-whaling campaigns. At the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment endangered species protection was one of the few areas of agreement and the first calls for a moratorium of whaling were heard. This pressure significantly altered the whaling policy landscape, enacting the clumsiest era. For the first time, within the IWC, representatives of each of the three social solidarities were present, with hierarchical approaches to whale management largely accepted by both egalitarian and individualist actors. However continued societal shifts within many Western countries coterminous with the decline of the whaling industry rendered egalitarian actors increasingly powerful and unwilling to listen to the position of others. This dominance is epitomised by the institution of the moratorium against the advice of the majority of the IWC’s Scientific Committee and in the face of protests by pro-whaling nations.
The post-moratorium situation retained a certain clumsiness – the dominance of egalitarian actors ensured greater adherence to the principles of sustainable management by pro-whalers (Bailey 2008). However, since the early 1990s the positions of the two sides have become increasingly ossified (bar the occasional small movement) with a small number of nations and peoples continuing to hunt whales despite the vitriolic protests of the anti-whaling movement. This has led to a status quo seemingly neither good for whalers nor whale conservation. The situation within the IWC is largely elegant: the egalitarian logic is dominant, hierarchical proposals for limited whaling are hugely controversial and individualist views of nature are largely unvoiced.
Typically, modern pro-whalers articulate a hierarchical view of nature: whaling is rendered ‘sustainable’ through management by appropriate expert bodies. (Source: Author).
Several solutions to the stalemate have been proposed and may be assessed using cultural theory. One suggests ‘fixing’ the IWC by reorienting it around the only concept all can agree on: the concept of ‘sustainability’ (Friedheim 2001). This would in effect be a return to the 1970s, when hierarchical approaches to whaling were respected by both individualist and egalitarian actors. Whilst clearly clumsier than the current situation it requires egalitarian actors to relinquish their current strong position and to accept that many of their primary concerns about the relationship between nature and society be bracketed off. A second potential solution would be to move towards regional management institutions, were the reduction of the stakes at play would potentially allow for a more constructive debate to take place. This however would rest on actors from all solidarities being willing to respect one another in the new setting. Regional institutions are not automatically clumsy.
Whatever future steps are made, the history of whaling demonstrates the challenges bringing in voices from different social solidarities entails. Through history there has been, reminiscent of Melville’s Captain Ahab, a tendency for a fixed, obsessive perspective to dominate, to the exclusion of alternative points of view. Clumsiness will need to be actively sought in changing situations; a more relativistic approach to whales and whaling more like that of Ahab’s shipmate Ishmael is to be desired. Others have called for a new ‘parliament of whales’ which would seek to construct a new whaling and whale conservation landscape free from the baggage many current actors bring through long histories of conflict (Blok 2008). This article suggests that it will need to be clumsy whatever form it takes.
- Benedict Singleton
BAILEY, J.L., 2008. Arrested development: the fight to end commercial whaling as a case of failed norm change. European Journal of International Relations, 14(2), pp. 289-318.
BLOK, A., 2008. Contesting Global Norms: Politics of Identity in Japanese Pro-Whaling Countermobilization. Global Environmental Politics, 8(2), pp. 39-66.
FRIEDHEIM, R.L., 2001. Fixing the Whaling Regime. In: R.L. FRIEDHEIM, ed, Toward a Sustainable Whaling Regime. Edmonton: University of Washington Press/Canadian Circumpolar Institute, pp. 311-335.
MELVILLE, H., 2003. Moby-Dick; or, the whale. London: Penguin Books.
THOMPSON, M., 2003. Cultural Theory, Climate Change and Clumsiness. Economic and Political Weekly, 38(48), pp. 5107-5112.
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