Of whale meat and carbon

Of whale meat and carbon

I read that a Japanese whaling fleet is heading toward Antarctica to kill humpback whales, a species “protected" since the 1960s. This took me back to when as a grad student at Indiana University nearly 40 years ago, I met the ecologist Garrett Hardin. He had recently written “The Tragedy of the Commons". This article published in Science became a classic; reprinted probably thousands of times. It explained the logic of overexploiting common pool resources— things of value that are available to all who have the will and means to exploit them. Hardin became a friend and we produced a book, Managing the Commons, which remained in print for 20 years.

We employed the logic of economics to deal with the ecological problems he anticipated. We are all familiar with such examples as the bison on the plains and beaver in the Rockies during the early and mid 1800s. The logic of the tragedy of the commons also accounts for the problems of “open range" grazing. With neither regulations nor owners to protect these valuable resources, folks hunted them to near extinction or grazed them beyond carrying capacity. An identical fate befell whales in the 1800s. These species were saved by the discovery and development of petroleum as a substitute for whale oil.

The logic was formalized by H. Scott Gordon of Indiana University in his 1954 article “The Economic Theory of a Common-Property Resource: The Fishery." He used an open access fishery to illustrate the logic of over harvest. The lesson is simple: commercial fishing will increase until search and harvest costs equal the value of the harvest to the fisherman. He has little or no incentive to take into account the effects of his effort on the catch of others or, indeed, the breeding population. As fish get scarce, their price rises and there is more incentive to fish beyond sustainable levels. This is occurring in ocean fisheries where 90% of the commercial species are in deep trouble.

This exemplifies the tragedy towards which we are relentlessly heading. Our problem of excessive production of carbon dioxide (CO2) due to human activity is logically identical. It (presumptively) overwhelms the earth’s capacity to absorb CO2 without massive disruptions. Fortunately, people are smart and see overexploitation as an institutional failure; the incentives governing behaviour are perverse. It is commonly, indeed normally, fixed when dealing with terrestrial critters. That’s why traditional peoples developed culturally enforced rules to control harvests and why we have state fish and game commissions.

The Japanese fleet embarked on the largest whaling expedition targeting protected humpbacks since the 1960s. In a farewell ceremony, officials told a crowd that Japan should preserve “its whale-eating culture". This, in spite of strong international objections. It demonstrates the weakness of moral sanctions when dealing with environmental problems that transcend national borders.

Prohibiting the harvest of whales in international waters is a remarkably simple problem compared with that of limiting CO2 emissions. In both cases the problem involves self-interest versus the interest of all. Japan is one of the world’s richest nations. Eating whale meat is a choice made by culture rather than out of necessity. Yet, moral sanctions and international prohibitions failed to make them stop.

This is suggestive of the problems of limiting CO2 emissions. While Japan may have the remnants of a whale meat culture, we surely have a hi-tech, big-house, driving culture. I see but two feasible, enforceable responses: technological breakthroughs and a high carbon tax to encourage their adoption. The logic of the commons leads to this. I’m open to other suggestions.

Edited excerpts from TCSDaily.com. This was written before Japan responded to international outrage. John A. Baden is founder and chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com