Whaling may be over, but don’t be smug

Just how vulnerable and defenceless are whales? Flickr/Guarda La

There are several reasons why Australians should welcome the imminent demise of Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. But none of them relate to the triumphal claims recently expressed by the likes of ex-Prime Minister Rudd and ex-environmental minister Garrett as they try to claim credit.

The first reason to be pleased is that we will be spared the annual experience of an objectionable, sometimes racist, demonisation of Japanese whalers as they go to work in the Southern Ocean, and the similarly improper characterisation of those back in Japan who eat whale meat.

In text and in pictures, the whalers have been regularly characterized as “butchers”, “barbarians” and “murderers” who fly in the face of criticism and condemnation by the “world community”.

As for the consumers of whale meat, they have been repeatedly condemned for paying high prices in elite restaurants for this illegally obtained delicacy. We should always be wary of labels that divide in the world into two homogenous blocs: “we” who are civilized and humane versus “them”, the ill-mannered and barbaric.

We should also be pleased that we might be spared the fiction that “saving the whale” is in any sense connected with concertedly addressing environmental issues. We think of the whale as vulnerable, defenseless, incapable of survival unless by human intervention and ingenuity.

And this is also how we’ve thought about “the environment” since the 1970s onwards; at least, we have if we are educated and prosperous middle class Australians. In symbolic terms, the whale and the environment became synonymous: we felt that rescuing the whale became the most significant way of doing one’s bit for the environment.

In Australia we are particularly prone to associating the whale with the environment because of how close whales pass as they annually track western and eastern coastlines.

Consider, for instance, the substantial volume of resources poured into attempts to save beached whales, most of which have no chance of survival, and will likely suffer exceptionally as “committed environmentalists” work to keep them alive.

Alternatively, take a whale-watch trip out of Hervey Bay, and listen to the skipper explaining that by paying for this tour you are contributing to the wider cause of “saving the environment”. Or then again, review the frequency with which the “environmental” slot on the 6.00 pm commercial news is filled with “feel good” images of “our whales” returning to the safety of “Australian waters”.

The third reason is that, now the whale problem is “solved”, we might begin to discuss one of the most important environmental considerations relating to Australia - the future of domestic animal production in light of pending food shortages on a world scale.

There is a stark contrast in this country between on the one hand the veneration of wild animals and the way in which a few achieve totemic status, and on the other a studied indifference to the conditions and fate of the creatures we eat. It is by no means necessary to be an animal rights’ campaigner to consider this a major issue.

When asked whether the decision to cut short this year’s hunt meant the end of whaling in the Southern Ocean, Japan’s agriculture minister said: “We’ll examine the situation…and then come to a decision.” When set against Japan’s previous intransigence, even such a qualified response is instructive.

But it is equally important to recognize that major policy directions on whaling have always been the preserve of powerful interests inside Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, and they have frequently displayed the ability to override their minister’s judgment.

It is similarly relevant to remember that, thanks to Wikileaks, we know that public commitment by American and Australian governments to bring Japanese whaling to a conclusion was by no means as unqualified as it was made to appear. Those governments most stridently hostile considered the prospect of allowing some whaling to continue if special deals could be struck on other fronts.

Even though the end of whaling in the Southern Ocean might seem imminent, it is not assured. Vigilance needs to be the order of the day both in Australia and abroad, but not least in the ways we put words to use.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.