Palm Oil vs. Whaling: When Any Action is Not Enough

Clearing for palm oil forests in Borneo. Norway recently made headlines with a government mandated reduction in palm oil imports, but there were of course those who found a negative here (Image Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Clearing for palm oil forests in Borneo. Norway recently made headlines with a government mandated reduction in palm oil imports, but there were of course those who found a negative here (Image Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Around 7-8 months ago, Norway made the news when the government decided to place restrictions on the import of palm oil. Over the last few months, reports have shown that the move has made quite a difference, dramatically reducing the amount of palm oil brought into the country. I figured it would be hard to see this in a negative light.

But of course I was stupid enough to look at Facebook comments.

I’ve dedicated posts before to a particular argument I’ve come across online, usually one that I find prevalent outside of that sphere. But the responses to this move by Norway were so in sync with each other and so ubiquitous across social media that I felt it deserved a mention.

The majority of the responses followed the same basic premise. That who cared about this step because Norway was still involved in whaling.

SO, before we get into this, a little background. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re already in the know on these two very disparate issues.

Palm oil production contributes to the exacerbation of the largest threat to the planet’s biodiversity, and the largest threat to the planet’s future welfare. The former comes in the form of deforestation. Human land use, including land clearing, is devastating to wildlife, especially in the species-rich tropics, where there are species we still haven’t discovered or named. The latter is a result of the lack of carbon that an oil palm plantation is capable of storing compared to a rainforest.

Whaling on the other hand is a very different issue. The Norwegian whaling practice uses very carefully defined targets to ensure that whale populations remain sustainable. Whilst it’s true that due to the long lifespans of these creatures, any miscalculation here can have severe negative ramifications, it’s hard to argue that the industry in Norway isn’t taking all precautions possible to avoid population declines. The problem that people have with whaling isn’t generally related to biodiversity or climate change. Whaling deals with very few species. There are arguably few effects on overall marine biodiversity. People’s reaction here has more to do with the fact that these large, charismatic animals are very publicly butchered on deck. It’s visceral. There’s no hiding a whale in an abattoir.


Norway has a long history of whaling, and some people seem to think this voids any other efforts they make towards sustainability (Image Credit: Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane, Public Domain)

So I don’t see why the fact that a country continues to support a whaling industry makes tangible action on a very different issue any less valid. Reducing palm oil consumption, whilst not the be-all and end-all of reducing deforestation, is a healthy step forward towards it (much like reducing plastic use is a good step towards reducing overconsumption). I can’t help but feel people’s indignation at Norway’s continued whaling practices in the face of a palm oil ban are misdirected. When the US legalised gay marriage in 2015, no-one started complaining about America’s poor healthcare. It’s an absurd argument.

To be clear, I don’t think people should stop protesting against whaling (though if you do, PLEASE take a close look at your home country’s treatment of livestock). I am simply asking why we shouldn’t view steps towards a more sustainable world as a positive, even when there are other steps that need to be taken? Especially when the two issues are so far removed from each other.

Moreover, I disagree with the premise that a society’s lack of progress on one front invalidates any progress they make on others. Norway has FAR bigger problems environmentally than their whaling industry*, yet I don’t see why this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t strive to make other sectors of their society more sustainable. I’ve written before that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in sustainable living. The same applies here.

*Seriously, the largest part of Norway’s economy is based on oil exportation and you’re telling them off for whaling?

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