Home / General / Book Review: Kurkpatrick Dorsey: Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas

Book Review: Kurkpatrick Dorsey: Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas



The greatest environmental issue of the twenty-first century is climate change. The science is nearly unanimous that humans are causing the climate to warm rapidly because of emissions of greenhouse gases. If anything, scientists are wrong about the impacts by underestimating them and as such, we have seen slowly more dire predictions of what this planet will look like in a century. Yet virtually nothing gets done to stop it. Entrenched economic interests use strategies ranging from sophisticated greenwashing campaigns to blunt purchasing of politicians through campaign donations to muddy the waters for the general public. With scientists not trained to make definitive statements about their work and because of the nature of scientific exploration itself harboring uncertainty, the public is easily confused and the impetus for doing nothing remains strong. On the international front, individual nations may take action but each nation ultimately wants to look out for its own industrial base and economic well-being, hoping others take the lead instead. You have developing economies like Brazil, India, and China demanding exceptions to carbon regulations in order to even the playing field with developed nations. In the end, the science barely matters. It’s all about power and entrenched interests. Unless some external force comes along to change the playing field, it’s unlikely any of this changes substantively. Meanwhile, humanity’s ability to soften the impact declines daily.

I was considering this scenario while reading Kurkpatrick’s Dorsey’s 2013 book on whaling diplomacy, for the story is quite similar. When we think of whaling, we probably have two images in mind. The first is the 19th century whaling industry popularly personified in Moby Dick. The second is Japan in the present, including the famed direct action protests against it. But Dorsey wants us to focus on whaling in the twentieth century, long after the decline of the famed 19th century industry and leading up to the modern demonization of Japan for its insistence on harvesting whales. In Whales and Nations, he demonstrates that many of the dynamics of the current climate debate were also part of the whaling debates. It is not commonly known that the 20th century saw a whaling revival based primarily in waters off Antarctica where large number of whales had survived the 19th century onslaught. New technologies made harvesting these profitable and realistic. First, the development of the modern harpoon, which set off an explosive charge inside the whale upon impact, allowed for their efficient slaughter. Machines to pump compressed air into dead whales allowed them to remain floating after their death, ensuring their preservation for the market. New shipping technologies made the processing of the whales on board ships easier and safer. Large ships became floating whale factories. New whale products also developed, especially margarine and industrial lubricants. Norway and Britain led this new whaling charge, with other nations, including Japan, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union later becoming major players.

Of course there were only so many whales. And everyone knew what had happened to most of the world’s whales in the 19th century. So almost immediately, the issue of conservation arose. The problem was that each nation had entrenched interests and while they might theoretically want to conserve the whales for the future, they ultimately wanted others to do that first and prioritized short-term returns on investment instead of long-term conservation efforts. Complicating this was the fact that there was almost no scientific knowledge of whales, so whaling nations could claim there was no evidence of over-harvesting the resource. A weak international regulatory system slowly developed but there was little political effort to really harvest whales sustainably, even as the scientific knowledge of them grew. Inspectors were placed on the ships, but those inspectors had to live under a captain’s authority and that led to a predictable form of regulatory capture and cheating the system. Eventually, the International Whaling Commission was created in 1946 to regulate postwar whaling as the fleets again returned to the harvest. It had limited success but continued to face the problem of nations threatening to drop out if their whaling is limited too much. On top of this was the widespread over-harvesting by gigantic Soviet ships that really threatened the whales’ continued existence. Harvesting remained at unsustainable rates and growing science demonstrating this proved insufficient to make much of a difference, but at least the IWC maintained a functional organization that could later be used as a lever of change.

What changed this scenario had very little to do with science, conventional politics, or diplomacy. It was widespread environmental protest that convinced nations that banning whaling entirely was the best move. Dorsey argues that the key moment was the recording of whale sounds. Marketed as “songs,” these recordings tapped into people’s emotions at the same time that millions of Americans and people around the world were showing unprecedented concern over the exploitation of nature. Almost immediately, a grassroots effort sprung up to protect whales that were now no longer seen as just some giant fish but rather sentient beings not dissimilar from humans. Never mind that no one knew what these sounds even mean to whales. It was pure emotionalism. I certainly don’t see this as a problem. After all, there is a ton of evidence that science is never enough to protect species or ecosystems. Even in the case of the northern spotted owl, where science was necessary to lock up the remaining ancient forests in the Northwest, this wouldn’t have happened without massive grassroots protest and lawsuits. Dorsey is more ambivalent about this emotionalism; such an impetus for policy changes after all is unlikely to protect the krill whales rely upon since they aren’t charismatic megafauna. But what are you going to do. One never knows how change is going to occur or what is going to move people to action. But putting the impact of whaling in the sight of American and global citizens certainly helped. Groups like Greenpeace began directly confronting the whalers, filming the slaughter of whales and sending those images around the world. That only contributed to the growing outrage. Between 1976 and 1982, the whaling states lost their power to fend off attacks on the practice and in the latter year a moratorium passed that banned most whaling throughout the world, a huge victory for environmentalists.

Today, with less attention paid to whaling, the Japanese have been able to push back to some extent within the IWC, primarily by granting economic aid to poor IWC members in exchange for votes. That doesn’t mean it is going to overturn the larger whaling bans, but it does mean that new ones are unlikely to be enacted.

Ultimately, I think the broader lesson Dorsey offers for the general reader and the environmentalist is that it is going to take the same kind of outside force to move international players on climate change toward a real fight against it. How that happens, I don’t know. But it won’t be because the science finally convinces people or because a few nations suddenly take leadership on their own because it’s the right thing to do. Like most environmental issues, it is almost certainly going to require something that spurs the public to massive direct action confronting polluters and the nations that refuse to take climate change seriously. When (or if) that ever happens, the international frameworks already set up to regulate emissions, however weak currently, will likely be the agencies that these activists and the governments responding to those protests use as the mechanisms of change. Dorsey’s story isn’t exactly a happy one because of the relative unlikelihood of conventional politics or scientific knowledge being enough to solve problems, but at least we know it has happened in the past and can happen again in the future.

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