Lessons from saving the whales in saving our planet; the power of identity in shaping international politics.


Today, the hunting and killing of whales for oil and food would (quite rightly) be widely reviled and condemned, especially in the West. In perhaps the most successful ideational campaign by wildlife campaigners in their history, a widely and deeply held conception of whales as a precious, intelligent and endangered species has taken root in both an overwhelming proportion of individuals, and the governments that represent them in international institutions. It has become such an institutionalised part of an international ‘civilised’ identity that it shapes the nature of state relationships; for example, Norway’s prospective application for membership of the EU in 1999 was admonished by British MP Simon Hughs in the House of Commons on account of Norway’s continued commercial whaling operations.

What is perhaps remarkable about this identity is that barely 70 years ago, such views on whaling would seem outlandish, and ‘uncivilised’ whaling states would include the United States, the UK, Canada, the USSR, Australia, New Zealand and many more. The International Whaling Commission, now the guardian of a permanent ban on whaling, was originally instituted in 1946 to enable and support whaling activities, and the permanent ban that was introduced in 1982 was formulated against the express recommendations of the organisation’s own scientists.

What is even more remarkable is that a core group of nations opposed, and still oppose, this dominant discourse, and argue instead for sovereign primacy and cultural traditions of whaling in determining their own whaling policies. This article does not wish to go into detail on the production of either of these identities (Charlotte Epstein’s book The Power of Words in International Relations goes into depth on this topic, if you were interested). What it does intend to show is how the successful creation of identities can shape international relations and policy, and how, in the case of whaling, this was more successful than economic or political moves to end its practice. It will do this by showing how these identities changed the actions of certain countries, in particular developing states, into backing the permanent ban on whaling in 1982, despite no direct involvement in whaling, and in some cases, not possessing their own coastline or access to the sea. If, as realists believe, states only act in their own (selfish) interests, why would these states expend diplomatic capital in a fight that had no direct effect whatsoever on their own countries material wellbeing? I argue it is because of the ‘civilised’ identity that was conferred by being a member of the anti-whaling alliance, and the overwhelming role charities and activists had in building this identity.

How did the permanent ban on whales (which in actuality was a temporary ban that was later extended indefinitely) come about? How did the consensus shift to such an extent as to reverse the original purpose of an entire international organisation? A large amount of the responsibility lies with non-governmental organisations and wildlife activists; perhaps the most famous activist protest that precipitated a global campaign against whaling was the disruption of Soviet whalers off the coast of California by activists aboard a ship named Greenpeace (whaling would become one of the founding issues of the environmental organisation).

Crews of Greenpeace ships MY Arctic Sunrise and the MY Esperanza crew uses their bodies to write "Help End Whaling !" on the ice of Antarctica, after completing a 2 month campaign against the whaling fleet of Japan . Southern Ocean, 20.01.2006

Activist protests such as these, as well as the take-off of wildlife filming and nature documentaries on Western television screens, helped produce that familiar conception of the whale is now near ubiquitous, and harden anti-whaling attitudes in the West and amongst Western governments. However, this was not enough to introduce a ban on whaling; motions to bring in a whaling ban were defeated on numerous occasions on the floor of the IWC in the 1960’s and 1970’s; a core of whaling states, led by Norway, Japan and Iceland, amongst others, formed a persistent and impenetrable obstacle to the goals of the anti-whalers to reach the three-quarters super-majority needed to institute a ban. Additionally, the attempts by NGOs and activists to influence public opinion in those states largely were extremely ineffective against a long and deeply held cultural and traditional attachment to whaling.

Recognising the immovability of these whaling states, NGOs and activists recognised the need to adjust their strategies in order to achieve the protection of whales that they fought for; it was not at all certain that whaling would eventually fade out of practice on its own, for example for economic reasons, especially given its prominence in the identity of the aforementioned whaling states. They determined that, if they could not convince three quarters of members of the IWC to support a ban, then the membership of the IWC had to be expanded to include states that would.

It was in this backdrop that environmental NGOs and environmental activists began pressuring states to join the IWC, including states that had recently gained their independence from former colonial powers, even if they had no commercial or political interests in whaling. Between 1980 and 1982, Oman, landlocked Switzerland, Germany, a host of Caribbean states, Senegal, Kenya, Egypt, Belize, Monaco and Uruguay joined the IWC. All would later support the permanent ban on whaling. But why? Why would these, in some cases very young, nations, pay the (not insignificant) memberships fees, and send delegates, to an obscure, technical whale management organisation?


Throughout this time, the NGOs had also been preoccupied by increasing the interest of the media in covering IWC meetings. It was hoped that this would either help build international pressure in the whaling states, by mobilising opinion against those states that consistently voted down their proposed bans. Indeed, with the successful creation of a whale sanctuary in Antarctica in 1979, interest from international media began to spur regular coverage of meetings of the IWC. It was in this context of media attention, and thereby wider public interest, that these states burnished their ‘civilised’ political credentials, by placing themselves at the forefront of an anti-whaling alliance. The power of identity in shaping these policy decisions was typified by the fact that, once the ban was established and media interest in the IWC waned, many of these countries let their membership of the organisation lapse; once the benefits of being part of the anti-whaling community, or identity, were diminished, so to the benefits of being a member of the IWC diminished.

You may ask, so what? Now that whales are protected, why is it useful to study how this came about? I think it is important, as history is generally, because it holds key lessons for our future. Perhaps the greatest challenge of our lifetimes will be dealing with climate-change, and consequently, preventing, as far as possible, the use of fossil fuels. What the example of whales tells us that is that, even when a practice has become uneconomical, it can still proliferate, especially when it becomes part of national identity. It is not hard to see similarities between the whaling states preventing action at the IWC in the 1970’s, and large oil-producing countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US in preventing global action on the production of crude oil in the future. As a result, environmental activists, and people interested in protecting our planet more generally must realise, is that simply putting up solar panels and windmills may not be enough to halt the effects of climate change. What the whales show us is that a convincing, widely accepted and powerful identity against the use of fossil fuels must proliferate in order to spur concrete international action on climate change. While the prospects of this currently look uncertain, with a man who loves coal occupying the White House, it is important to remember that, 70 years ago, whales were seen as a food and commodity source rather than an endangered and precious species. Discourses and identities can change rapidly, and with the right actions today, we can hope that 70 years hence, people will view the burning of fossil fuels in the same light as whaling is viewed today.

Edited by Yuk-Ting Hua

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Will is a second year PPE student at Durham. His research interests focus on international political economy and international economic relations and policy.

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