The economic value of whales

A report from Australia was released in time for the International Whaling Conference in Portugal. The report argues that whale-watching, as a tourist industry, outstrips the economic value of dead whales sold for food and other products.

While I haven’t looked at the report, it strikes me that this is a pretty obvious result on the valuation, for a variety of reasons. We have with whales the resource-city conflict that comes from years of traditional resource use bumping up against a newly urbanized and rapidly urbanizing global population. The former means a dwindling group of people for whom the direct slaughter of animals is a common practice and necessity, and a growing population for whom resource extraction and use is removed from their daily lives. This leads to governance conflicts in which neither one really recognizes the validity of the others’ claims. The one group decries the destruction of important natural resources, significant for their aesthetic and ecological value. The other group denigrates the former’s valuation as so much yuppified playspace creation.

I’ve never found either of these arguments to be particularly compelling as a means for constructing a rule about just practices in resource use. Justice here, like in many governance contexts, depends on a lot of factors. We need to know a lot more about the particular history of the people and the places engaged in the debate. Inuit claims of cultural importance and subsistence use? Those pass a believability test. The clubbing of baby seals to clothe your own kids? While I don’t like it and I don’t want to watch it, yeah, fine, it seems to hold together for somebody living life on an ice sheet. However, if you are clubbing seals to sell to a global fur trade so you can pay for your internet service provider and power boat?

This gets us into the muddy water of authenticity, but I think the debate belongs there. If you are going engage in global trade, then it seems unlikely that you will be able to reject–nor should you be able to reject–the cosmopolitan mores which that engagement suggests. Which means, in turn, the eyes of the world are on, with some level of regulatory judgment in turn.

And this means the Japanese and Norwegians can not equate their claims about culture and whaling with those of indigenous people. These are modernized economies–wealthy economies–where whalers use modern equipment. At some point, their claims that it’s unfair for the US to lobby for access to a small take of whales for its indigenous groups in Alaska have to fall on deaf ears in the global discussion.

Here’s a more articulate discussion from BBC News.