Academic journal article Human Organization

Revisiting the Tragedy of the Commons: Ecological Dilemmas of Whale Watching in the Azores

Academic journal article Human Organization

Revisiting the Tragedy of the Commons: Ecological Dilemmas of Whale Watching in the Azores

Article excerpt

This paper explores a possible theoretical framework for studying issues in common-pool resource that emerge from tensions between place-specific notions of common rights and state regulation of access to commons. While the former is historically informed by "traditional ecological knowledge," the latter is based on abstract international environmental law and on capitalistoriented development goals. This paper analyzes the regulation of whale watching in the archipelago of the Azores, Portugal, to show how variously situated social actors conceptualized the rights of access to marine commons. It also reveals how these distinct views came into conflict, not only in the context of finding ways to regulate whale watching but also through actual practices of this commercial activity. The Azorean example suggests that a successful process of communication among these different views can lead to ecological learning and improved ecological wisdom of those involved, and, thus, a more sustainable use of marine commons.

Key words: common-resource access, ecotourism, globalization, whale watching, Azores

Ecological Dilemmas of Watching Whales as a Common-Access Resource in the Azores

The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.... This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.

Garrett Hardin quoting Alfred N. Whitehead


And so, adding that "the tragedy of the commons develops this way," Hardin (1968) initiated an academic debate that has encompassed a wide range of disciplines over the past three decades. Hardin contended that-because in the absence of restrictions people acting on the basis of self-interest tend to extract as much as possible from resources-the tragedy of the commons resides in the inevitableness of their destruction under conditions of populational pressure. Contributors from various social sciences have critiqued Hardin's argument for being excessively simplistic as well as for being deterministic. Anthropologists, for example, have demonstrated that in most places of the world there are social and cultural factors that preclude the onset of the tragedy of the commons and that, therefore, any discussion of common-pool resources must begin by clarifying how access is conceptualized, ruled, and practiced.

Oceanic resources are one context where Hardin's hypothesis has seemingly come to fruition, but where one can also observe that human-environmental relations do not necessarily lead to the depletion of ecosystems. The history of human uses of whales for economic purposes is a case in point. While most species of whales have been hunted to the brink of extinction, coming to symbolize for environmental activists the effective occurrence of Hardin's pessimistic predictions, whale watching has become an allegory for conceptualizing a truly écologie commercial practice. As with most human-environmental phenomena, reality is far more complex.

Many whale-hunting communities faced constraints that limited the number of whales they killed. These ranged from technological limitations to sociocultural restrictions to ecological and demographic factors. For instance, even though access to sperm whales was mostly open during the 100 years that men hunted whales in Lajes do Pico (Azores, Portugal), the number of whales killed in Lajes was never large enough to threaten the sustainability of these cetaceans in the Azorean archipelago. This common-pool resource was not overexploited due to a sociocultural preference for artisan methods of hunting whales as well as a finite capacity to process and export whale-derived products. There was a time, however, between World War I and the Korean War, when the ratio of whaling canoes or boats to whales increased, and whale hunters began to compete for this resource. …

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