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The 'value' of protecting whales

As opponents of whaling agree to seek an arrangement with countries who still hunt, Richard Black at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Chile reflects on our relationship with whales and with nature in general.

Fin whale
The question of how we value nature is going to become much bigger politically over the next few years

A couple of years ago, reports of an imaginary conversation between President George Bush and a top adviser were doing the rounds on e-mail between people who, like me, love a bit of satire in their daily life.

In it, the president asks, "Who's the president of China?"

The adviser replies, "Yes, Hu's the president of China", which Hu Jintao indeed is.

The president comes back with, "That's what I'm asking you, who's the president of China?"

And the conversation goes round and round like this until the adviser suggests sending for Kofi, as in Kofi Annan, then the UN secretary general.

"Yes, let's have some coffee," the president replies.

The 'right' whale

As I was preparing for the whaling commission meeting, I found something similar on the website of a pro-whaling campaign group - yes, such organisations do exist - which imagined Mr Bush and Condoleezza Rice discussing the right whale.

North Atlantic right whale
Right whales in the northern hemisphere weigh up to 80 tonnes

These huge beasts originally got their name because they swam slowly and floated after being killed, making them the right whales to hunt.

Right whales have not been hunted for years now, but the North Atlantic species is probably heading for extinction because ships - notably US ones - keep colliding with them.

So the campaign group, the High North Alliance from northern Norway, imagines Ms Rice taking the right whale's plight to her boss:

"How can we save these critters?" asks the president.

Ms Rice replies: "Well, sir, we'll have to shut down lots of US shipping, dramatically reduce speed limits, restrict vessels to areas that are really inconvenient and spend millions of dollars in research to see how we can build up the population of these whales."

At which Mr Bush concludes: "The right whale? Sounds like the wrong whale to me, Condi. Go criticise those Japanese some more."

The 'forgotten' whale

To the High North Alliance, the US is guilty of hypocrisy. It wants to save some whales at the right price. But, once the price becomes too high, once shipping or climate change enter as threats, the right whale quickly becomes the wrong whale.

I cannot help feeling that we risk losing what nature is, if we couch its value in human terms

A similar charge is laid by some at Australia, which in recent years has gone humpback-whale-crazy.

As whale-watching has grown, this charmingly ugly acrobat of the oceans has apparently become a national totem equal in rank to Kylie Minogue, Shane Warne and ice-cold beer.

Nothing aroused Aussie anger so much as Japan's plan to add humpbacks to their annual Antarctic hunt.

"They're our humpbacks," was the cry.

Politicians raged, newspapers thundered, activists campaigned.

What was lost in the mix was that Japan had also started targeting fin whales, which are more threatened than humpbacks. But, because the fins carried no value in Australia, they were forgotten.

Question of value

I was not the only one to find this disturbing. Some conservation groups felt it too.

What was the campaign for? For whales or for whales' value to humans?

And what form does that value take?

Over the past few years, environment groups have been pushing the argument that whale-watching is much more profitable than whale hunting, and that the two are incompatible.

Now, I understand the logic of trying to make the anti-whaling argument in economic terms but where does that leave species that do not perform for tourists, like the poor fins?

Do whales become just a resource to be preserved if they are of use to us?

The question of how we value nature is going to become much bigger politically over the next few years.

Nature's balance sheet

There is a major research project under way aiming to quantify the costs and benefits of nature in human economic terms.

It is modelled on the Stern Review that finally made economic ministries wake up to the issue of climate change.

The natural world processes our waste, provides our water and gives us the root material for our farming.

If governments can see how much this is worth, perhaps they will put money into protecting these resources.

But here is a thought. What happens to a hypothetical piece of marshland that supports rare birds but also disease-carrying insects?

If we conclude that the insects' costs to society are higher than the birds' benefits, does it become legitimate to drain the marsh and send the birds to extinction?

I do not have answers to any of this. Certainly, across the world, nature is crumbling under human hands and, if expressing that in dollars and euros and pounds and yen can halt the slide, then by all means give it a try.

But, as I look out from my window at the snow-capped hills surrounding Santiago, I cannot help feeling that we risk losing what nature is if we couch its value in human terms.

Whales are about more than profits from eco-tourism or the costs of slowing down ships.

They are part of nature's balance sheet, not ours.

Valuing nature in dollar terms might result in the right whale being saved. It's unlikely to do anything for the wrong whale.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 June, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Whaling body agrees path to peace
24 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
Anger at calm in whaling waters
23 Jun 08 |  Science/Nature
At-a-glance: The Stern Review
30 Oct 06 |  Business

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