Monthly Archives: December 2004

32 -Australia’s position on whaling

A Perth taxi driver last week was telling me about his holidays in Albany in the days before they closed the whaling station in 1978. The shutdown was historically significant, because it was the last operating station in Australia.

My driver recounted his vivid memories of the numerous huge sharks that would take great bites out of the whale carcasses before the whalers could get them out of the water, sometimes managing to get through more than half a whale. These were massive sperm whales, so clearly the sharks were large and numerous. The whaling station employed sharpshooter shark shooters, who would take pot shots from the shore. The dead sharks would not only leave the whales alone but would become shark food themselves, distracting some of the other sharks, at least for a while. Imagine how many crazed sharks there were wandering just off the swimming beaches of Albany in those days.

These days Australia is one of the good guys in the international community when it comes to whaling. (It must be one of the few areas where we still are good guys.) One of the first public statements of new environment minister, Senator Ian Campbell, was about whaling.

“Australia is at the forefront of international moves to put a total end to commercial whaling. Our attack at the moment is to expose the fraud of commercial whaling under the guise of scientific whaling. What I want the people of the world to know is that between Japan, Norway and Iceland, they will destroy, in the next twelve months, the same number of whales that it has taken Australia 25 years to see rehabilitated, coming down the east coast.” (Senator Ian Campbell, ABC Radio National, the AM program, 22 July 2004).

Australia wasn’t always so whale-friendly. Many Australians don’t realise that the end to whaling in Australia in 1978 did not actually occur as a result of a policy decision, but rather as a result of declining economics due to over-whaling. The commercial decision to close the last whaling station was made during a national review of whaling, which ultimately led to a ban in 1979. That was hardly a courageous decision when all whaling had actually ceased by then.

Overall, the ban was politically popular. Protests against the whaling had been gaining pace. You can get a feel for them in Tim Winton’s novel “Shallows”, which is set in Albany at that time.

Interestingly, the idea of a ban was bitterly opposed by the Western Australian government led by premier Charles Court. I don’t know what he intended to achieve by opposing it, since the economics of whaling had evaporated along with the whales.

It wasn’t the first time that whaling had faded out. By about 1900 a once-thriving whaling industry had declined greatly due to over-exploitation. They waited a little while, started again after switching focus from right whales to humpbacks, exhausted stocks again and imposed a 10-year moratorium in 1939. As soon as the moratorium was over, they got going again! Here’s an edited extract from a history that describes the rapid growth of whaling in the 1950s.

Australian shore-based whaling was revived in July 1949, when the Nor’-West Whaling Company reopened the old “Norwegian Bay” station at Point Cloates (WA). The Commonwealth Government had meanwhile become interested in whaling, and constituted the Australian Whaling Commission, which built a new shore station on Babbage Island, near Carnarvon, in Western Australia, and commenced whaling in September 1950. In 1952 the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company commenced operations at Albany. Post-war whaling also developed on the east coast of Australia, a new shore station built on Moreton Island, Queensland, opened in June 1952, while another at Byron Bay, New South Wales, opened in July 1954. Whaling was also revived at Norfolk Island in August 1956.

So, not many generations of whales ago, we were killing them like there was no tomorrow (which was sort of true for the whales). We are complaining about the fraudulent “scientific” whaling of a few hundred relatively common Minke whales by Japan, but not so long ago we were killing vast numbers of the much rarer humpback whales. In the west, 12,000 were killed between 1936 and 1938 and another 18,000 between 1949 and 1963. The population in the west was reduced to about 800 whales. The station at Albany actually had to switch to hunting sperm whales to continue in business.
Similarly, along the east coast between 1950 and 1962 nearly 12,500 humpbacks were killed and processed. It was estimated that there were between 200 and 500 humpbacks left there in 1962. The stations had to stop yet again because there was nothing left to catch!

It isn’t all that hard to see whales in Australian waters these days, but imagine what it must have been like in pre-colonial times.

I’m glad we did ban whaling. We might look like hypocrites, with the zeal of recently reformed smokers, but it was still the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the way it happened reflects the weakness of governments in taking concerted conservation action in the face of economic interests, even when those economic interests are in the process of destroying the natural resource that sustains them.

And of course nothing much has really changed. In conservation policies today, the short-term, populist approach still dominates a more effective long-term policy. I met with some Commonwealth government agency people the other day and was told (again) that the Ministers require the bulk of money from the national salinity policy to be spent on on-ground works, even though we know that many of the expensive works being planned around the country will achieve little or nothing against salinity. It’s so much more politically appealing to spend money on something tangible that involves giving handouts to many voters than to make more selective or longer-term but less direct investments that could ultimately make a real difference.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Dakin, W.J. (1962). Whalemen Adventurers, http://www.whales.org.au/published/whalemen/forward.html

Pannell, D.J. (2005). Politics and dryland salinity, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45: 1471-1480. Full paper (63K) Summary version (19K)

31 – A Christmas recipe

Going to Nana’s for Christmas in the 1960s was always a terrific treat. She was a good present buyer, and a good food provider. The only down side I remember was that I hated the cheesie biscuit thingies that would always be provided at Christmas. But tastes change. I’ve had them since at Dad’s, and now I think they’re excellent. They are simple to prepare, so here as a special treat for Christmas is the recipe. Perhaps don’t offer them to the kids.

4 ozs grated cheese

6 ozs plain flour

4 ozs butter or marg.

Pinch of paprika or cayenne

Mix all together well by hand, into a large ball

Then take small pieces and roll into small balls, about the size of a large marble.

Dip in coconut and/or paprika

Press down with a fork

Put on a greased tray and bake in a slow to moderate oven until pale yellow.

 

Happy Christmas.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

30 – Thinking like an economist 8: Putting a value on the environment

Now and then I get involved in discussions with non-economists about the potential contribution of economics to improved environmental management. I find that the first thing many of them think of (either positively or negatively) is the capacity to put dollar values on intangible environmental benefits, such as the satisfaction one gets from knowledge that a species has been protected from extinction. Economists refer to these benefits as “non-market” benefits, as they cannot be bought or sold in the same way that more tangible goods can be.

I think some people hope that valuing non-market values will help the environment hold its own in the struggle for public resources. Personally, I suspect this is often not true, either because policy makers are skeptical about the idea of assigning dollar values to these intangible benefits, or because they would support the protection of environmental assets just as strongly on the basis of biological or physical information alone.

Some non-economists hold a contrasting view of non-market valuation: almost a horror at the very idea. It’s as if any attempt at valuing non-market benefits is an act of profanity

The diversity of attitudes to non-market valuation among non-economists is mirrored within the economics discipline, although the points of disagreement are different. There has been a spirited academic debate about the validity and usefulness of non-market valuation methods, particularly the survey-based method called contingent valuation (CV), which is the most widely used technique. Arguments put forward by advocates of CV have included:

(a) When done well, the technique gives plausible and realistic results; and

(b) Even though the techniques are not perfect, it is important to attempt to measure non-market values using the best available methods because it assists in having environmental values fully and properly considered in public planning and policy making.

On the other hand, some economists reject argument (a). For example, a famous American economist, Charlie Plott, summarized the findings of a major workshop on the subject as follows:

“The basic conclusion of all the papers is that CV should be discarded as a public-policy tool for determining economic damages to the environment [because] (1) The numbers are too variable to be reliable. (2) The numbers do not measure what they are supposed to measure. (3) In fact, the object to be measured by the methods might not be measurable at all. (4) The appropriateness of CV for assessing damages, as opposed to more procedural methods, is challenged.”

Much of the critique is technical (mostly based on arguments that results from actual CV studies are illogical in a variety of ways). A different survey-based technique, Choice Modelling (CM) avoids some of the problems associated with CV, and its advocates make reasonable claims that it is a superior technique. However there are some more general concerns about CV that would also affect CM.

The first relates to the reliability and validity of survey-based techniques in general. To investigate this, survey specialists have set out to check the answers people give to simple, factual questions asked in surveys, such as “Do you have a driving license?” or “What is your age?” Typically, error rates in responses to such simple questions are between 5 and 17 per cent. This can’t help but raise doubts about the capacity of surveys to probe more subtle or complex questions, such as non-market environmental values.

Secondly, the great majority of people surveyed have low levels of knowledge of the complex issues about which they are being surveyed. They obtain some knowledge from the survey’s introductory material, but realistically this knowledge would not be deep. One study found that survey respondents themselves were concerned about this issue. On this theme, Diamond and Hausman argued that

“It makes no more sense to rely directly on ill-informed members of the public to evaluate the dollar value of such environmental damage than it would be to rely on an ill-informed public to choose between alternative designs for airplanes or nuclear power plants.”

With sufficient investment of time, effort and interest, most people would, no doubt, be able to express meaningful opinions on the specific environmental issues being examined, but they are not given this opportunity in a survey.

Argument (b) (that we need to measure non-market values so that they are given due weight in policy and planning) may perhaps have some merit. One potential concern is whether the improvement in decision making is sufficient to justify the considerable expense of conducting valid and reliable surveys, estimated by Dumsday to be “anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000”. In a compromise approach that moderates the expense, work is underway to develop a process of “benefit transfer” in which a database of past non-market valuation studies is used to provide indicative valuations that are relevant to new issues.

Despite argument (b), some continue to believe that it is adequate to quantify environmental outcomes in terms that are biologically meaningful, such as the number of species affected, or the area of habitat affected, or the increased probability of preventing extinction of a species. This does not avoid the fact that somebody still has to weigh up the information and make a choice between the management or policy options, and that this choice implicitly values the environmental assets at some monetary value. But it does not follow from this observation that a non-market valuation survey is mandated.

Finally, regardless of the process and the techniques used, the quality of the outcomes is limited by our ability to answer basic (non-monetary) questions such as:

  • What would be the effects of different management options on environmental outcomes?
  • In what ways are the environmental outcomes significant (e.g. in ecological terms) and why?

My own view is that research to improve the quality of answers to these question is often a more pressing need than research to value the results in monetary terms.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2003). Heathens in the chapel? Economics and the conservation of native biodiversity, Presented at a workshop of the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, “Biodiversity Values in Agricultural Landscapes”, Rutherglen, Victoria, 14-15 October 2003. Forthcoming in Pacific Conservation Biology. full paper (109K)

29 – Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Kings Park, Perth, Western Australia, 5 December 2004

Elvis Costello is perhaps music’s greatest and boldest adventurer. From his home base in lyrically brilliant rock music, he makes forays into classical, jazz, country, folk, orchestral pop, soul, dance and all points between. He has worked with the most extraordinary list of collaborators, including Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, the London Symphony Orchestra, Tricky, Brian Eno, Johnny Cash, George Jones, the Mingus Big Band, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley’s backing band, and so on and on.

In between, he periodically returns to home base, playing short pop/rock songs with his awesome band the Imposters (formerly the Attractions, plus or minus a bass player). That is where we found him on this tour – in a sense confounding expectations of being unpredictable by playing pretty well all of his early hits.

It was an intense show at a pace I haven’t seen since his 1978 tour. Songs tumbled out at machine-gun pace, with less-than-zero gaps between them for most of the show. The set list was also reminiscent of those early days, with almost half of the songs hailing from 1977 to 1981.

On his last trip to Perth in 1999, Elvis was garrulous and relaxed on stage. This time there were few words, and most of them related to his annoyance at being so far from the audience. The stage was set up over the back half of a small lake, with a pleasingly large crowd covering the gently rising slopes above. It was an idyllic scene, almost at odds with the intensity spilling from the stage.

“We came all this way to see your smashing faces”. He was clearly dissatisfied, but that’s not terribly unusual for Elvis.

At one point a couple from the audience almost stole the limelight, dancing in the lake, inevitably falling over, and bravely holding Security at bay with some well directed splashes. They provoked Elvis to say, “The least you could do is get naked!” and then to play “Pouring water on a drowning man”, during which the girl did appear to be drowning.

The Imposters were wonderful, as expected. Keyboard player Steve Nieve was understandably less prominent than in the duo shows of 1999, but he still shone. I do miss the incredible playing of Elvis’s former bass player Bruce Thomas, but there is no denying that “new” boy Davey Faragher is more than able, and his harmony singing is wonderful, adding a dimension that Elvis’s previous bands have lacked. Pete Thomas on drums was just perfect.

Naturally, the show featured a swag of songs from the new album, The Delivery Man. These went down very well, and did not sound second rate among a set list crowded with classics.

At times Elvis’s voice showed signs of being mid-tour but overall it was in fine shape, backing up after the louder songs to deliver wonderful renditions of the ballads.

The set included the usual showstopper, “Pump it Up”, but unusually not as the last song. It seemed like it was going to be last, when Elvis held up a finger to indicate “one more” before crashing into everyone’s favourite rant about inflation. But afterwards came three more songs, including the two quietest of the evening. The band version of Oscar-nominated “The Scarlet Tide” was particularly gorgeous. A highlight from a fabulous show.

Thus ended Elvis’s sixth concert in Perth (who’s counting?). Surely he can’t keep doing shows of this energy for much longer – he recently turned 50 – but I’m not making any predictions of when he’ll stop. Whatever he does next, we can only be certain that it will be different.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Set list

Accidents will happen

Tear off your own head (it’s a doll revolution)

Radio radio

Beyond belief

45

Bedlam

Country darkness

Blame it on Cain

Pouring water on a drowning man

(I don’t want to go to) Chelsea

Good year for the roses

Tonight the bottle let me down

Deep dark truthful mirror/You’ve really got a hold on me

13 steps lead down

Complicated shadows

Encore

 

The delivery man

Monkey to man

I can’t stand up for falling down

High fidelity

Uncomplicated

Alison/Suspicious minds

Watching the detectives

There’s a story in your voice

Oliver’s army

(What’s so funny ‘bout) Peace, love and understanding?

Pump it up

The monkey

Scarlet tide

Sweet dreams

Further reading

Review by The Age of Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Melbourne show, 23 Nov 2004.

Review by The ABC of Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Melbourne show, 23 Nov 2004.

Review by The Sydney Morning Herald of Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Sydney show, 26 Nov 2004.

Costello Specs by Dave Pannell