Publication Details

Barwell, G, 'Uses of the albatross: threatened species and sustainability', in Yeatman, H (eds), The SInet 2010 eBook (Proceedings of the SInet 2009 Conference), Social Innovation Network (SInet), University of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2010, p 203-215.


Since first encounters with albatrosses in the early modern period, western cultures have reacted with amazement and wonder at the birds’ flight, while taking a more pragmatic attitude towards them as creatures whose worth can be measured in their use value. In 19th and early 20th century western discourse the birds featured as objects of sport, as saviours of various kinds – whether as food for hungry sailors or victims of shipwreck in the southern oceans, as messengers, or as lifebuoys – as well as predators, and as objects to be collected for scientific inquiry. In non-western traditions, such as the Maori of New Zealand, albatrosses also had a use value, but it was of a different nature. As human societies have changed – in terms of the view of what constitutes use value, or in terms of advances in material culture, or extensions of practices of harvesting ocean resources – so too have attitudes towards the birds, although these are still based on use value. Today albatrosses have become icons of conservation movements, and are protected by legislation and international treaties. While this may appease those concerned about our relationship with the oceanic environment and our responsibilities towards it, and hence provide a form of comfort and personal well-being, a more fundamental rethink of our relationship with the natural world represented by these birds is required. Their iconic status is part of the reason for increased tourism in the southern oceans, which brings new threats to their existence. A way of engaging with them that moves away from seeing them in terms of use value will help to achieve a more sustainable relationship between humans and the environment with valuable consequences for the well-being of both humans and birds.