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Faroe Islands diary: an informed debate on the whaling issue

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Whaling: rugged Scandinavian men with spears and harpoons chasing poor, defenceless whales out of their natural habitat, before slaughtering and eating them. It’s fair to say I headed to the Faroe Islands with a few preconceptions of the controversial practice.

Whaling in the Faroe Islands is almost as old as the country itself. The first settlers are said to have reached the island somewhere between 400-800 AD, and there is evidence to suggest these early inhabitants took to the Faroese waters in search of food, and came back with pilot whales for dinner. The issue was the elephant in the room for my recent visit to the country.

During research before my trip, I had watched a rather harrowing animated video from the 80s, narrated by Sir Anthony Hopkins, that detailed alleged atrocities taking place in the Faroes. “The more the whales scream, the more the crowd seem to enjoy it”, Hopkins says, almost as if killing these magnificent animals is a sport for the locals.

Whatever it is, it’s certainly not pretty. A quick Google search of ‘whaling in the Faroe Islands’ brings up hundreds, if not thousands, of images of whale hunts, known locally as the grindadráp, with villagers seen struggling with bloodied whales in crimson-coloured water.

But many Faroese people take a very different view and I wanted to hear what they had to say. After all, the role of a journalist is to give readers the information they need to make their own informed decisions.

However, I would advise people of a squeamish disposition to stop reading now.

In Tórshavn, the country’s capital, I met Bjarni Mikkelsen from the Faroese Museum of Natural History. Bjarni told me that once upon a time, whales were a staple part of the Faroese diet. It remains a traditional dish today, but is eaten less frequently, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

Pilot whales – specifically the long-finned pilot whale – which the Faroese hunt actually belong to the dolphin family. They are black or dark grey, have rounded foreheads and can grow to 25ft long and over 2,200 kilograms in weight. They are formidable creatures and have been known to attack and destroy boats that get into their territory, especially if protecting their young.

Historically, whaling in the Faroe Islands was a free-for-all with little or no regulation, meaning villagers could realistically use whatever they liked to capture and kill the animals. While the industry is perhaps not as brutal as it once was (spears and harpoons were used until the mid-80s; now the creatures are driven to shore and killed quickly with a special whaling knife, known as a grindaknívur) the arguments against the practice remain as strong as ever.

Bjarni explained the process of the grindadráp in detail. There are six sheriffs across the Faroe Islands who, when notified that a group of whales (known as a pod) had been spotted nearby, tell one of the local foremen to gather their team and prepare for the hunt. Pilot boats then come together, and drive the pod towards a cove, where they are forced into shallow waters.

They are then pulled onto the beach using a blásturongul – a blunt hook with a long pole – in their blowhole. Regulation states that villagers cannot kill the whales from their boats, so they must wait until the creatures are beached to use the grindaknívur to cut through their spinal cord, killing them. Bjarni assured me the whales die almost instantaneously (many say otherwise), but their last few moments are certainly not comfortable.

The meat and blubber that comes from the dead whales is distributed for free among the people who helped kill them. It’s a free source of meat that can last a family a few years if stored properly.

Whaling is definitely not a pretty process. Even as I write this, I’m grimacing at the phrases “cut through their spinal cord” and “blunt hook in their blowhole”. For these social and communicative creatures to be killed explains the natural revulsion and outrage among many people, not just environmentalists – especially given the creatures’ pursuit and graphic deaths.

The hunt may have played an important part in Faroese history, but that is no reason for it to continue”, a spokesperson for global charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) told me upon my return to the UK. “Today the brutal slaughter of these intelligent, sentient creatures is unnecessary, inhumane and a danger to humans as well as the whales.”

We clearly should not be hypocritical. In the UK, the sheep, cows and chickens we rear in our farms in the UK are often killed in equally horrible ways. Are we just desensitised to the killing of these animals because they happen behind closed doors?

The spokesperson added, “Unlike cattle or other animals slaughtered in the UK or elsewhere, whales and dolphins are wild animals living in distinct populations and in many cases little research has been carried out on their status or how these hunts may affect their survival.

They also have complicated social structures and in some instances specific cultures. It is not known what effects the hunting or capture and removal of individuals from these populations has on the welfare and conservation status of the remaining animals. Also, unlike domestic animals which in most countries are subject to protection from inhumane slaughter methods and treatment, whales and dolphins have no such protection from international regulations and laws regarding killing techniques that are cruel and painful.”

I asked Bjarni about the sustainability of the industry. He came back with an interesting answer, saying, “If the grindadráp is not sustainable anymore, we’ll stop. Nobody wants to drive pilot whales to extinction.”

Many suggest, as in the video mentioned at the beginning, that the Faroe Islanders enjoy the grindadráp. Those who take part are often portrayed as bloodthirsty and evil, and whaling is spoke of in the same light as bullfighting and fox hunting. I struggle with this particular description, as most of the Faroe Islanders I met were humble and kind. But what drives these people to gather five to 10 times a year and slaughter hundreds of these creatures? The answer: over a thousand years of tradition.

While tradition certainly isn’t a justification for the killing of the whales, it at least allows onlookers to understand why the practice happens. But slavery was once a tradition, and eventually the atrociousness of that industry prevailed the dominant culture.

Not all traditions need to maintained in their entirety”, the WDC spokesperson said. “Look to the islands of the Azores, where whaling played an important historical role, and whose contribution is still celebrated today without actually having to kill the whales themselves.”

Elsewhere, New Zealand and South Africa have found another way to make profit from whales by using them as a draw for tourists and for scientific research. While this activity has many vocal critics, it has also done a lot to compensate former whaling communities, to see whales as an asset worth preserving, rather than just as meat.

But just as people invest unsustainably in mining and fossil fuels and people power their homes using dirty energy, it is culturally difficult for the Faroe Islanders to shift away from traditional ways of thinking. These transitions take time.

Bjarni’s comments about sustainability are encouraging as to the future of whaling. They suggest that the country is aware of at least some of the issues surrounding their highly controversial hunting. Of course, not everyone takes part in the grindadráp. The general consensus among the Faroese people is that whaling should continue, though a large number (particularly younger people) are apathetic and choose not to take part.

The tale contains a twist, however, for the eventual end of whaling in the Faroes may not be because of public pressure. In 2008, Faroese chief medical officers Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen said that whale meat was no longer fit for human consumption, because of the amount of toxic chemicals – including mercury, DDT and PCBs – that had been found in many samples, derived from manmade pollution of the oceans.

It is with great sadness that this recommendation is provided”, they said at the time. “The pilot whale has kept many Faroese alive through the centuries.”

Whale meat is generally eaten fresh or hung dried. It’s usually served with potatoes and has been described as tasting very similar to reindeer or moose. However, the Faroese government now recommends that islanders only eat whale meat once a month – and even less frequently for women and children.

To many – the vast majority even – killing whales is unforgivable, evil and often cruel. Meanwhile, for a significant and growing minority, all meat is murder, and they are right. We do need to eat far less meat in the developed world; ideally none. It’s very bad for us, the animals themselves and the planet as a whole.

But it would be intellectually dishonest and hypocritical to condemn those who hunt for food, if you consume meat yourself. In large economies, we find it as hard to shift from meat in our diet. To developing economies it’s a symbol of growing wealth. To many Faroese people, whales are simply a source of meat.

However, the WDC spokesperson has the last, thoughtful word. “Fifty years ago we did not know what we now know about these remarkable creatures. In years to come, the Faroese may look back at their continued slaughter of the whales in the 21st century as a sad, unnecessary attempt to singularly define their cultural identity as whalers when there is so much more to the Faroese people than just the grind.”

I couldn’t agree more with the last line.

This is the last of four diary entries from Alex Blackburne’s recent trip to the Faroe Islands

Further reading:

Faroe Islands diary: a first glance at the Land of Maybe

Faroe Islands diary: salvation through sustainable tourism

Faroe Islands diary: wind turbines and people power

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Environment

Road Trip! How to Choose the Greenest Vehicle for Your Growing Family

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Greenest Vehicle
Licensed Image by Shutterstock - By Mascha Tace -- https://www.shutterstock.com/g/maschatace

When you have a growing family, it often feels like you’re in this weird bubble that exists outside of mainstream society. Whereas everyone else seemingly has stability, your family dynamic is continuously in flux. Having said that, is it even possible to buy an eco-friendly vehicle that’s also practical?

What to Look for in a Green, Family-Friendly Vehicle?

As a single person or young couple without kids, it’s pretty easy to buy a green vehicle. Almost every leading car brand has eco-friendly options these days and you can pick from any number of options. The only problem is that most of these models don’t work if you have kids.

Whether it’s a Prius or Smart car, most green vehicles are impractical for large families. You need to look for options that are spacious, reliable, and comfortable – both for passengers and the driver.

5 Good Options

As you do your research and look for different opportunities, it’s good to have an open mind. Here are some of the greenest options for growing families:

1. 2014 Chrysler Town and Country

Vans are not only popular for the room and comfort they offer growing families, but they’re also becoming known for their fuel efficiency. For example, the 2014 Chrysler Town and Country – which was one of CarMax’s most popular minivans of 2017 – has Flex Fuel compatibility and front wheel drive. With standard features like these, you can’t do much better at this price point.

2. 2017 Chrysler Pacifica

If you’re looking for a newer van and are willing to spend a bit more, you can go with Chrysler’s other model, the Pacifica. One of the coolest features of the 2017 model is the hybrid drivetrain. It allows you to go up to 30 miles on electric, before the vehicle automatically switches over to the V6 gasoline engine. For short trips and errands, there’s nothing more eco-friendly in the minivan category.

3. 2018 Volkswagen Atlas

Who says you have to buy a minivan when you have a family? Sure, the sliding doors are nice, but there are plenty of other options that are both green and spacious. The new Volkswagen Atlas is a great choice. It’s one of the most fuel-efficient third-row vehicles on the market. The four-cylinder model gets an estimated 26 mpg highway.

4. 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

While a minivan or SUV is ideal – and necessary if you have more than two kids – you can get away with a roomy sedan when you still have a small family. And while there are plenty of eco-friendly options in this category, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is arguably the biggest bang for your buck. It gets 38 mpg on the highway and is incredibly affordable.

5. 2017 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Diesel

If money isn’t an object and you’re able to spend any amount to get a good vehicle that’s both comfortable and eco-friendly, the 2017 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Diesel is your car. Not only does it get 28 mpg highway, but it can also be equipped with a third row of seats and a diesel engine. And did we mention that this car looks sleek?

Putting it All Together

You have a variety of options. Whether you want something new or used, would prefer an SUV or minivan, or want something cheap or luxurious, there are plenty of choices on the market. The key is to do your research, remain patient, and take your time. Don’t get too married to a particular transaction, or you’ll lose your leverage.

You’ll know when the right deal comes along, and you can make a smart choice that’s functional, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.

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