Both culture and social structure can influence the way in which environmental issues are addressed, but a major influence on the way in which these issues are handled is the economic value of practices and customs of culture and social structure. If a certain practice is a large part of a culture or social structure, resources needed for it may be of great economic value – for example, shark fins and other meats.
Shark fins are the main ingredient in a soup that holds cultural and social value in Asian countries like China and Hong Kong.[i] Because of its economic value, its effects on the environment is overlooked by these countries; it is only those who do not hold shark fins in social or cultural value who try to minimise and reverse the environmental effects.[ii] This is similar to the livestock industry in the Western world. The livestock industry is the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses, yet little is done to address the environmental issues it causes due to meat-eating being embedded into the social structures all over the world.[iii]
Culture can drive the economy, and when the demand is strong enough, often the effect on the environment can be disregarded. Shark finning is a prime example of how the economy can be driven by culture regardless of its impacts on the environment. Shark finning is an unsustainable practice that involves the removal of only the fins of sharks, and the discarding of the rest of the shark, which is left to die as it is unable to swim without its fins.[i] Shark finning is driven by the Asian market; the main consumers and processors being Hong Kong and China where the fins are used as the main ingredient in a soup.[i]
Shark fin has been culturally significant in China since AD 960, it is considered to be both and aphrodisiac and a tonic and is served at important dinners such as weddings or corporate functions as a sign of respect for the guests and to demonstrate the wealth and social status of the entertainer.[i] While the exact extent of shark finning is not known, the shark fin trade increased to 13,614 metric tonnes globally in 2004 and this exploitation has caused global shark populations to decline. It is estimated that between 97 and 267 million sharks died in 2010 for human consumption and use, including finning.[i] In an attempt to maintain shark populations many countries have come together and banned shark finning in their national waters, including the US, EU, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina and a number of other countries. Despite this, the trading of shark fin has not been significantly. In 2007 the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) tried to prohibit finning by making it illegal to have more than 5% of the total weight of sharks on board their members fishing vessels as fins. However this did not limit the number of sharks vessels could fish – it only stopped them from finning sharks.[ii]
Shark finning and the overfishing of sharks demonstrate the negative ways in which social structure and culture can impact on the addressing of environmental issues. The demand for shark fins comes from the Asian market where the fins are used for soup but the calls for regulation of shark fishing due to dropping shark populations comes from non-Asian countries where it has no cultural or social significance.[ii] The economical, cultural and social value of shark fins is enough for countries like China and Hong Kong to disregard the impact on the environment and do only little for the conservation of shark populations. In the future, however, it could be cultural significance that causes China and Hong Kong to work harder towards maintaining shark populations and sustainable fishing practices in order to preserve their culture and social structure.
China and Hong Kong’s love of shark fins can be compared to the Western world’s love of meat. In Western culture, especially Australia, meat is a big part of the everyday diet. Many people grow up being told meat is necessary for health3 with only about 9% of the population not eating meat in 2010.[iv] It is not widely known and publicised that livestock is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses, making up a total of 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.3 In 2008, agriculture accounted for 15.6% of Australia’s emissions, which is expected to double in the next 10 years, and was the greatest contributor of methane and nitrous oxide emissions.[v]
Livestock has a massive effect on the Earth and the environment, with grazing taking up 26% of land on Earth; feed crops taking up 33% of arable land while contributing to deforestation; animal pastures accounting for between 60-70% of rainforest destruction in Brazil; and grazing land accounting for 70% of rainforest destruction in the Amazon area.3 Additionally, the industry takes up natural resources, including 8% of the world’s water. Livestock contributes to 55% of land erosion, and its by-products harm the environment with excess ammonia adding to acid rain and the acidification of ecosystems. [iii]
The consumption of meat and animal products has a profound effect on the environment, but as it is a social norm to eat meat the environmental impacts are often over looked or ignored. A number of countries have prominent vegetarian population, with India having the highest population with 40% of its inhabitants being vegetarian.[vi] This reflects the culture and social norms in India, as Hinduism is a dominant religion and regards cows as sacred beings; gods are characterised as having animal characteristics; and the doctrine of ahimsa (ethical treatment of animals) is highly revered.[vii]
The negative effects of farming livestock on the environment are obvious and enormous, but due to the social norms, the size of the meat industry, and the culture of eating meat all over the world, these environmental impacts are overlooked. It is simply not cost effective to farm “sustainably”; instead cheaper methods such as factory farming are used.[iii] Until the full effects of the livestock industry on the environment are made apparent the social structures and culture will continue to influence the action taken to reverse and reduce the negative effects of animal product consumption.
We as a society are becoming increasingly aware of our impact on the environment and the irreversible consequences of poor environmental management and care. However, taking care of the environment and addressing issues head on is still not a large part of modern cultures and social structures. Unsustainable customs and practices will continue to be part of cultural and social life as long as they hold economic value and are profitable. If this does not change it could be too late for the Earth – our environment. Social structures and cultural customs are important and should be upheld, but not only because of their economic or cultural value. Social structures and cultural customs evolve and change through time. Embracing change and environmentally sustainable ways of living is not akin to abandonment of culture and tradition. Indeed, when our environment and very means for survival as an environmentally harmonious planet is so threatened as it is now, cultural and social change is no longer an option, but a global need.
[i] Dell’Apa, A, Smith, C. M & Kaneshiro – Pineiro, M. Y 2014, ‘The influence of culture on the international management of shark finning’, Environmental Management, vol.54, no.2, pp. 151-161.
[ii] Clarke, S. C, Harley, S. J, Hoyle, S. D & Rice, J. S 2013, ‘Population trends in pacific oceanic sharks and the utility of regulations on shark finning’, Conservation Biology, vol.27, no.1, pp. 197-209.
[iii] Motavalli, J 2008, ‘The meat of the matter: our livestock industry creates more greenhouse gas than transportation does’, E, vol.19, no.4, pp. 26-33, viewed 22 September 2014.
[iv] Vegetarian Victoria 2011, Going Vegetarian, Vegetarian Victoria, viewed 22 September 2014,
[v] Biswas, W. K, Graham, J, Kelly, K, John, M. B 2010, ‘Global warming contributions from wheat, sheep meat and wool production in Victoria, Australia – a life cycle assessment’, Journal of Cleaner Production, vol.18, no.14, pp. 1386-1392.
[vi] Ljuk67 2012, Vegetarians by country, Target Map, viewed 26 September 2014, <http://www.targetmap.com/viewer.aspx?reportId=15061>
[vii] BBC 2010, Religions, BBC, viewed 26 September 2014, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/hinduethics/animal.shtml>.
“Untitled” by jai Mansson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
“Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk” by cloneofsnake is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
“Shark fin soup” by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
“Four’N Twent’s Meat Pie” by hermansaksono is licensed under CC BY 2.0.