Whaling and the Tragedy of the Commons

Nora Van Horn

I. Introduction

Sperm whales are impressive creatures: they weigh around 90,000 pounds, swim at around 25 miles per hour, and live to be approximately 70 years old. They are able to produce the loudest sounds of any animal on Earth—loud enough to stun and kill the giant squids, octopuses, and sharks they frequently prey on (National Geographic Staff). Their only natural predators—killer whales, pilot whales, and false killer whales—are unable to hunt the massive, seemingly immovable, adult males of the species; instead, they are able to successfully prey only on the young calves and, in rare cases, weaker adult females. Still, the sperm whales’ natural predators must be careful, lest they be confronted by one of the aggressive sperm whale males attempting to protect their kin (Oceanwide Expeditions Staff).

A Sperm Whale, from king-animalblogspot.com
A Sperm Whale, from king-animalblogspot.com

Despite what their description may lead one to believe, these wild creatures, until recently, were some of the most sought after by the whaling industry. Over the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of these animals were caught and harvested. They were harpooned, hoisted onto massive whaling vessels, dismembered, and boiled—piece by piece. Their corpses would provide precious blubber, spermaceti, and ambergris, enabling the creation of candles, ointments, cosmetics, and, most coveted, oil. The sperm whales were not the only whales hunted; rather, they were alongside a plethora of other whale species—like minke whales, belugas, narwhals, pilot whales, and sei whales—chased and harvested for centuries (National Geographic Staff). For a while, it seemed like whales would be hunted to extinction; there was a lack of real action occurring to protect whales. Even now, with some protections and significantly lower enthusiasm about whale hunting, many species still remain on the Endangered Species list. While whales were not forced into extinction, their fate was tragic: The oceans were depleted of these creatures, substantial harm was done to individual whales, whale populations, and the ecosystems they existed within were destroyed (York). This paper explains and applies an international relations theory, the tragedy of the commons, to the plight of these creatures, enabling a more complete analysis of the international inaction, current situation, and what we may hope to learn from the misfortune of whales.

II. The Tragedy of the Commons Theory

The tragedy of the commons theory has been useful in the analysis of international inaction specifically on environmental matters such as climate change, the disappearance of the Aral Sea, and most importantly for this paper, the depletion of whale stock. This theory can be succinctly explained with a quote from its creator, Garrett Hardin, who once quipped: “freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all” (York). In his theory, Hardin focuses on common goods, which are defined using two qualifying characteristics. Firstly, the use of these resources must diminish their availability or quality for others. Secondly, an individual or state’s ability to use the resource may not be restricted after first allowed. In summation, the theory expresses resources able to be defined as common—through fitting the characteristics outlined above—will, naturally, be overused by the actors who have access to them. This overuse occurs because the benefits of doing so are private, granted to those who choose to overuse, while the cost of doing so is public, shared amongst all who have access to the common good .

This theory is not necessarily straightforward. Thus, in order to better explain this theory, an example may be outlined: Imagine cows on a public pasture (a common good). In order to sustain the quality of the pasture, each farmer (an actor) within the village neighboring the pasture may place one cow on this pasture. Consequently, each farmer has the benefit of the milk, meat, or the money a sale of the cow would bring (the private benefit). However, if there is more than one cow per farmer on the land, the land is degraded (the public cost). This type of use is unsustainable. Farmers may become greedy: They may realize they can place more than one cow on the pasture and, by doing so, their private benefit will increase substantially. A farmer that places two cows would have approximately double the amount of milk, meat, or money the sale of a cow brings to the farmer. While placing two cows on the land worsens the quality of land, the cost of the deterioration of the quality is divided amongst each farmer. Thus, the private benefit to the farmer choosing to abuse the land by taking more than their share outweighs the cost they endure. Because overuse of the pasture is advantageous to individual farmers—albeit disadvantageous to the group of farmers as a whole—the individual farmers have an incentive to do so. As a result of the nature of the commons, farmers realize the benefit of increasing the amount of cows they place on the pasture; each farmer then maximizes the amount of cows they herd on the land. As the quality of the pasture worsens, farmers who had not previously abused the commons have a heightened incentive to do so—as the commons is being depleted, they have to quickly maximize their private benefit from the pasture before it no longer exists. Ultimately, the pasture can no longer be used by any farmers. The individual farmers’ incentive to overuse the pasture enables the pasture’s tragic fate.

An Explanation of the Tragedy of the Commons, from Environmental Science, W. H. Freeman and Company, 2012
An Explanation of the Tragedy of the Commons, from Environmental Science, W. H. Freeman and Company, 2012

III. Potential Solutions

While phenomenon arises frequently in scenarios containing common goods (Hardin), fortunately, there are several solutions to avert this tragic fate: moral persuasion, privatization of the commons, and the introduction of regulators of the commons. Moral persuasion, the first solution to fend off disaster for the commons, occurs when actors—such as the farmers in the previously explained scenario—are lobbied and convinced to temper their use of the commons, simply because it’s ‘the right thing to do.’ The second proposed solution, privatization of the commons, occurs if and when the commons is divided amongst the actors. An example of this would be if fences were placed within the pasture dividing the land amongst the farmers. Thus, if an individual actor chooses to overuse their allotted share of the common good, the public cost and the cost to the individual are identical; farmers choosing to abuse the land abuse their own land—not the common land. Consequently, actors no longer have an incentive to consume more than their share of the good because the good is no longer common. The final solution proposes the introduction of coercive regulation, in which there is punishment for those who take more than their share. In the pasture case, the local village could institute a police force to punish farmers who place more than one cow on the common land. Appropriate punishment of the over-users of the commons could substantially increase the private costs to the extent that actors would no longer have an incentive to use more than their share of the commons. While these three proposals can enable the sustained use of a common good, they are not always effective: Moral persuasion alone often does not work, regulators often lack the ability to enforce the laws of the commons, and some commons cannot be privatized.

IV. Was This a Tragedy of the Commons?

In drawing parallels between Hardin’s theory and the predicament of the whales, it may appear that whales were fortunate to avoid a tragedy of the commons—after all, every species of whale continues to exist today. However, the result of the tragedy of the commons in the depletion of whales is not necessarily a scenario in which all whale are killed and harvested to extinction. In order to see why an avoidance of a tragedy is not the reality of what occurred, it is essential to define the actors, commons, overuse, and ultimate tragedy. Firstly, those who harvested the whales are the ‘actors,’ like the farmers in the previous example. Secondly, the whale stock (note: not the individual whales) is the ‘commons,’ like the pasture in the theoretical ‘cows on a pasture’ case. Thirdly, the ‘overuse’ is the removal of more whales than sustainable, like the placement of too many cows on the pasture. Lastly, widespread whaling did lead to a tragedy like the one proposed by Hardin’s tragedy of the commons: By the end of pervasive, rampant whaling, whale stocks had been driven to commercial extinction, meaning it was no longer economically viable to hunt for whales (York). This loss of whale stock, not individuals or entire species, is what we should consider to be the ‘tragedy.’

In order to sustain the natural stock of whales (the commons), every corporation, individual, and country that partook in whaling (the actors) could have removed a certain amount of whales from the ocean. In removing whales from the ocean, every actor that partook in whaling reaped the benefits of the resources the whales provided (the private benefits). However, an increasing amount of whales were removed from the ocean. Whaling corporations became greedy: The new quantity of whales removed was not sustainable. These corporations realized they could increase their profits by removing even more whales from the ocean. They did not assess the sustainability of their consumption. Rather, they placed the utmost importance on maximizing their catch—again, their private benefit. They used wasteful practices: They quickly took the most lucrative parts of the whales and the easy-to-get areas of oil, and disposed of the carcass before it had been utilized to the maximum extent. As time passed, new technology was introduced; whalers could increase their yields (and profits) even more with bigger boats, more powerful harpoons, and better storage of whale carcusses (McHugh).

With the expansion of private benefits, there was also growth in the public cost. Whales became more and more scarce in our oceans, but whalers continued to increase their consumption. Because access to whale stock has no paid barriers to entry, these corporations were free to abuse the resource without discretion. As a result, the negative consequences were shared equally amongst all countries involved in whaling (York). Some would say the decrease in amount of whale stocks available discouraged further abuse of the resource. However, hunting continued at similar rates, for two reasons. Firstly, lower competition due to a reduced economic incentive for corporations to hunt whales meant higher rates of catch for corporations that did have the economic incentives and means to do so. This specifically helped corporations with highly efficient technology who were already the worst abusers of the commons. Secondly, as talks of whale extinction and the banning of whaling began, companies that were already whaling became desperate to ‘get their share’ of the whale stock. As a result, they dramatically increased the amount they were catching so as to maximize their investment in the short run. Because of the nature of the commons, the whaling corporations were incentivised to maximize their benefit—even though they were doing a great disservice to the commons. The quantity of whales significantly decreased due to this unsustainable consumption (McHugh). Ultimately, whaling still occurs in some places, though it is nowhere near as profitable or lucrative as it once was. At this point, it is no longer economically viable to hunt whales for their oil—rather, the whales that are predominantly hunted for their meat or by indigenous cultures (National Geographic). The incentive to catch more than the sustainable amount of whales catalyzed a tragic fate for whales struggling to repopulate. Furthermore, the ecological effect of this tragedy is irreparable.

V. Failures of the Proposed Solutions

Unfortunately, proposed ‘solutions’ to the overuse of this specific commons have largely failed as they often do. The significant decline in the number of whale stocks occurred despite legitimate efforts to increase the quantity of whales within our oceans through common mitigation of common good depletion techniques (McHugh). The following analysis examines these techniques—moral persuasion, privatization, and coercive regulation—in the case of the overuse of whales, and why each individual technique failed in this situation.

A Picture of Men Whaling, from www.scienceabc.com
A Picture of Men Whaling, from www.scienceabc.com

The first proposed solution in saving the commons, moral persuasion, was attempted through conservation campaigns. Campaigns to ‘save the whales’ increased dramatically throughout the 20th century, especially immediately prior to and during the formation of the International Whaling Commision (IWC). Individual citizens felt morally compelled to advocate for whales. While it is difficult to measure how effective conservation campaigns are, it is important to note that whale stocks continued to be depleted in spite of their appearance and continued advocacy. Moral persuasion did not prevent the commons from reaching a tragic fate. This ineffectiveness can be attributed to two aspects of the whaling dilemma. Firstly, those who advocated for the whales on moral grounds, more often than not, advocated for a total ban on whaling. This proposed solution, while definitely ‘moral,’ was not a viable solution for the international community; in advocating for an infeasible solution, the conservationists may have done more harm than good. The idea that there may be an incoming ban encouraged those who were whaling to increase the amount of whales they removed from the ocean, to ensure they were ‘getting their share’ of whales. Secondly, conservation efforts failed to appeal to groups that could have legitimately restricted whaling. While these conservation efforts appealed to charities and NGOs, they were not acknowledged by governments that had a real potential to put legislation in place preventing excessive whaling within their countries. Simply put, those who listened to the voices of conservationists during the 20th century were the people and organizations who already cared and did not have the political clout to effectuate change (McHugh). Thus, attempting to enact moral persuasion to avert the tragedy of the commons was futile in the depletion of whale stock.

A Photograph of Protestors Advocating to
A Photograph of Protestors Advocating to "Save the Whales" during the 1970s, from the New Yorker (www.newyorker.com)

The second proposed solution to save the commons, the privatization of the commons, was in no way possible due to the nature of whale stock and the oceans in general. Unfortunately for the whales, whale stock cannot be divided among nations; there is no hypothetical fence that can be placed in the ocean, fairly splitting this resource amongst nations. Because this solution was unable to be enacted, this solution—like moral persuasion—was ineffective.

The third proposed solution in saving the commons, coercive regulation, was also futile. An international whaling organization, the IWC, was created in the 20th century due to efforts to reduce the amount of whaling done worldwide. However, the IWC lacked real ability to mitigate whaling. Firstly, the IWC was introduced too late to have a legitimate impact; by the 1960s, when the IWC was established, replacements for whale oil were already on the market due to the commercial extinction of many whale species. In addition, the IWC was a weak regulator; for example, the Commission implemented the New Management Procedure, which set quotas on countries’ whale hunting. However, these limits were exceptionally high—and, they compelled some nations to increase their consumption to ensure they were ‘getting their share.’ Moreover, the IWC has voluntary participation and is lax on the accuracy of whale reporting; nations can choose not to participate, or they can falsify their numbers (WWF). Japan recently decided to leave the commission (Guardian Staff). It was also revealed, during the 1970s, that the USSR had been lying on their whaling records (WWF). The IWC was unable to take real action against these countries. The inability of the IWC to legitimately impose regulations on member countries speaks to the ineffective nature of coercive regulation in regards to the commons.

The current absence of hunting enables claims that the previously explained ‘solutions’ to the tragedy of the commons were effective. However, as previously discussed, the attempts were ineffective. The current lack of whaling is a result of the tragedy that whale stocks endured—not a result of the success of the ‘solutions.’ Others acknowledge the ineffective nature of these traditional techniques to avert a tragedy of the commons, but point to fossil fuels—not the depletion of whale stocks—as the cause of the current lack of widespread whaling. They claim that because whale oil could be replaced by petroleum and other fossil fuels, corporations were incentivized to move towards these resources. They use whaling as an example of how innovation has saved us before; they point to the movement from oil derived from whales to oil derived from fossil fuels, insisting that, with current looming environmental disasters, technology will save us yet again. Still, the innovation of fossil fuels by no means saved the whales; in fact, innovation of fossil fuels enabled corporations to access better technology in their hunt for whales. It continued to enable the richest whaling corporations the private benefit of hunting whales, while increasing the public costs to the whale stock (Bardi). Furthermore, the innovation of fossil fuels did not occur because those at the top magically realized that conservationists and the IWC were right in demanding the protection of whales; rather, the use of fossil fuels occurred because it was more economically feasible than the alternatives (York).

VI. What Have We Learned?

Ironically, the replacement of whale oil with fossil fuels enables us to barrel towards another tragedy: global warming. The current continued use of fossil fuels occurs because the private benefit of doing so continues to outweigh the public cost. Although there are alternatives to fossil fuels—renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal—the continued use ensues and will likely continue until it is no longer economically feasible. Although in the whaling dilemma, moral persuasion was not effective, privatizing the commons was impossible, and implementation of a successful international regulative force did not occur, we must learn from these failures, lest they happen again. Whether it be the climate, our atmosphere, or impressive creatures like the sperm whale, we should learn from the mistakes committed in the past, ensuring a better future for us all. Overuse continues to occur, even as we barrel towards a tragedy; history seems doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps regulation of these commons is impossible across the board; perhaps the tragedy occurring with whaling will replay over and over—not the least of which will occur in our planet’s climate. Still, perhaps humanity can learn from the mistakes previously committed. While private benefits of fossil fuel use continue to outweigh the public cost, perhaps there’s more to the dilemma than economic incentives. The intrinsic value of our environment can and must be considered should we wish to consume the private good of life for us and for our children. Our Globe is on Fire, from followgreenliving.com

Our Globe is on Fire, from followgreenliving.com

VII. Works Cited

Bardi, U.. “Energy Prices and Resource Depletion: Lessons from the Case of Whaling in the Nineteenth Century.” Energy Sources, Part B, Volume 2, Issue 3, 297-304, 28 July 2007, https://doi.org/10.1080/15567240600629435.

Guardian Staff. “Japan Confirms it Will Quit IWC to Resume Commercial Whaling.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/26/japan-confirms-it-will-quit-iwc-to-resume-commercial-whaling.

Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, Vol. 162, Issue 3859, pp. 1243-1248, 13 Dec. 1968. Science, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.

McHugh, J. L.. “Rise and Fall of World Whaling: The Tragedy of the Commons Illustrated.” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1977, pp. 23-33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24359530.

National Geographic Staff. “Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/news/big-fish-history-whaling/.

National Geographic Staff. “Sperm Whale.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/s/sperm-whale/.

Oceanwide Expeditions Staff. “Sperm Whale.” Oceanwide Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, 2019, https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/to-do/wildlife/sperm-whale.

WWF. “Successes and Failures of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).” World Wildlife Fund, World Wide Fund For Nature, 2019, http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/cetaceans/cetaceans/iwc/iwc_successes_failures/.

York, Richard. “Why Petroleum Did Not Save the Whales.” Sage Journals, Vol. 3, 25 Oct. 2017. Sage Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2378023117739217.