Thursday, July 03, 2008
I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance
No, we’re not talking witches today; we’re talking about one of the prime industries that Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then) has ever seen, albeit fleetingly.
The years 1836 to 1841 marked the peak of the Tasmanian whaling industry, in 1836 there were nine stations in and about Hobart. By 1841, thirty-five bay whaling stations in Tasmania were manned by more than 1000 men, but by then they had managed to kill the goose that lay the golden eggs.
I have always found the rise and fall of the Tasmanian whaling industry a really useful example of what Stephen Lukes calls ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’. Putting on the political science hat for a moment, the tragedy of the commons is best understood as a kind of social trap that involves a conflict over finite resources between individual interests and the common good. Hardin concluded that free and unregulated access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately - through its very structure - dooms the resource through over-exploitation. As a self-confessed regulation kind of guy, the blubber pots above always proved handy in establishing the concept to undergraduates.
“Why such certainty!??” you might be shouting (if you’re still reading). I (and Lukes) say that over-exploitation occurs because the benefits of exploitation are accrued by individuals (or groups), who are each motivated to maximise their use of the resource to the point in which they become dependent on it. However, at the same time, the costs of the exploitation are distributed among all those to whom the resource is available (which is nearly always a far wider range of people than those actually doing the exploiting). As a consequence, demand for the resource increases, which causes the problem to escalate to the point at which the resource is exhausted.
For Hardin, "[r]uin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."
Yeah yeah too simplistic, I know, but Tasmanian whaling worked entirely along these lines.
You would be forgiven for thinking of whaling as fun and blood on the high seas; but the Tasmanian industry was mainly shore-based and focused on the Southern Right Whale as they migrated through Australian waters during the winter months giving birth. Easy (although breeding) targets.
Shore-based whaling was attractive for the very conditions that eliminated the industry: large numbers of whales, their minds on other things (babies), who kept close to the shore. Thus, small boats were suitable and overheads kept low. So, each whale station would have a number of whaleboats that could be launched as soon as whales had been sighted, harpoon as many whales as possible, towing the dead to the shore to process the blubber. Easy peasy!
The depressing thing is the impact that can be felt even today. In 1803, it was complained that there were so many whales in the Derwent that you couldn’t actually take a small boat across because it was too dangerous.
I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time that a whale ventured this far up the river, I certainly can't remember it.
[If you click to enlarge, you will be able to read about the process of extracting oil from the blubber using these pots.]