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Modes of production and minke whaling: The case of Iceland
by Gísli Pálsson
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  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.
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Modes of production and minke whaling: The case of Iceland, by Gísli Pálsson.
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