What ever happened to “Save the whales”?

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was the quintessential environmentalist cause, the one that anyone who cared about the earth could unequivocally rally behind. It was the topic of international negotiations and treaties, and endless campaigns from environmental groups. (“Uh-oh, that guy down the street with the long hair has a clipboard, and is that a Greenpeace T-shirt he’s wearing? Quick, act busy!”)

These days, we’ve got bigger things to worry about — climate change, mass extinction that could wipe out half of the species on the planet by mid-century, and a human population rocketing toward 9 billion.

So what happened to the whales, and all the rah-rah activist efforts to save them? Turns out: Not a whole lot. Sure, some whale species are doing much better, but overall, whaling regulation is still in the same place that it has been since 1982. Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are still fighting, and most countries have banned whaling, but a few maverick nations, including Japan and Norway, continue to kill them.

Leah Gerber thinks she has a solution. Gerber, a population ecologist at Arizona State University, was commissioned by the International Whaling Commission to review whether their current Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is working to keep whale populations up. After concluding that it isn’t, she borrowed concepts from cap-and-trade emissions trading to propose a new system for saving the blubbery beasts.

Her proposal would set a quota based on how many whales scientists believe could be killed without pushing the animals back to the brink of extinction. Countries could then either kill their ration of the quota or let their shares be traded in the global market where they could be grabbed up by whalers — or by the likes of Greenpeace.

“Instead of the conservation groups going out and tying themselves to whale ships and doing radical, extreme actions that possibly have negligible impact on the reduction of whaling,” she says, “if you want to save a whale, you could buy it.”

But when Gerber published the idea in the science journal Nature in January, not everyone was pleased. The fact that this strategy would in essence “legalize” whaling was unacceptable to many activists, including some who equate putting a price on a whale to human slavery.

In this interview, I talk with Gerber about the health of whale populations, why whaling regulation is gridlocked, and options for whaling’s future. Because, even if “save the whales” has gone stale, there may still be time to learn from the mistakes of our past.

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This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.