||In a democratic society, where people
like to think they are well informed and that they ought to make
rational decisions about their lives, environmental debates should
always be matched by plenty of scholarly reflection and academic
discussion. It would be somewhat simplistic to claim full independence
for the academic world, to present science as an enterprise totally
removed from the social context to which it belongs. After all,
knowledge of nature is always shaped by social context and absolute
standards of objectivity and neutrality may be difficult, if not
impossible, to define (see, for instance, Worster 1977, Merchant
1980). It would be dangerous, on the other hand, to go to the other
extreme, to deny the academy any degree of autonomy and to relegate
the quest for knowledge to an Orwellian Ministry of Environmental
Truth. We have learned too many lessons from totalitarian regimes.
||In many countries, the hunting of
sea mammals is an important political issue. Not only is it a highly
politized issue in a domestic context, internationally debates on
animals and the environment have taken dramatic turns. Indeed the
emphasis on the global context is one of the peculiar characteristics
of modern Euro-American environmental discourse (see Willis 1990).
Over the last two centuries or so, the inhabitants of the industrialized
world have often presented themselves as masters of their environments,
as godly beings removed from nature and accountable only to themselves;
we need not elaborate on the tragic consequences of this anthropocentric
and expansionist world-view. Nowadays, in contrast, people increasingly
think of themselves as very much belonging to nature (Descola and
Pálsson 1986, Ingold 2000) - along with other animals, including
sea mammals. In this latter view, humans have a particular responsibility
to meet, not only to other humans but also to members of other species,
fellow inhabitants of the animal kingdom, and the ecosystem of the
globe. Whaling, then, ceases to be merely 'economic production',
the extraction of 'resources' or lumps of energy from the sea.
||Indeed, some of the key issues of
environmental discussion in the coming years are likely to focus
around ethical questions, on human responsibility. But just as the
scientific enterprise is inevitably shaped by the society in which
it occurs, environmental discussions are necessarily rooted in their
times. It is important, therefore - and for environmentalists as
well as for academics - to step back from time to time and to evaluate
the state of the art. Such a re-evaluation raises complex issues
and difficult questions. Rather than avoid complex issues and difficult
questions, however, we should confront them with frankness.
||In this paper I shall take a critical
look at one particular issue - environmentalist notions of 'subsistence'
economies and 'commercial' production, with particular reference
to Icelandic whaling. I discuss three modes of production, distinguishing
between subsistence ('primitive') hunting, simple ('petty') commodity
production, and industrial ('capitalist') whaling. Minke whaling
in Iceland, I hold, is best described as simple commodity production,
given the social relations of the producers. I suggest that the
policy which grants 'subsistence' hunters exclusive rights to sea
mammals - the present policy of the International Whaling Commission
- reflects both an obsolete romantic image of the 'noble savage'
(as a being totally removed from culture and commerce) and an erroneaous
view of the simple commodity producer as a capitalist.