Whither the Western Grey Whales? You want them, you pay for them!

This is part seven of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “This is just red tape dyed green, strangling legitimate business. If you want to keep the grey whales then you pay for it!” At the time of writing this is the only option to have received no votes, which I think is a real shame for I think it encapsulates a reality that many Western environmentalists fail to grasp.

It is nice to be able to assert that wildlife has intrinsic value and should be protected for its own sake. But such moral values are more often than not the preserve of the relatively well off, a category into which only a minority of the world’s people fall today. For the rest, jam today nearly always beats jam tomorrow. If cutting down a forest may lead to devastating soil erosion then it is possible to convince even the poorest farmers that conservation is in their own bests interests. But when arguments get more esoteric, such as bemoaning lost opportunities to find possible anti-cancer drugs, it is not so much a case of jam tomorrow, as somewhat hypothetical and probably irrelevant jam in twenty years time. Poor peoples’ priorities, quite simply, are elsewhere.

So, goes the argument, if you want conservation so badly then you pay for it! And, indeed, a lot of modern conservation practice is all about trying to monetise good environmental stewardship, whether it be through ecotourism or payments for ecosystem services (including REDD). Indeed the Ecuadorian government is already doing just that: being paid not to drill for oil in the Yasuni National Park (part of the Amazon rainforest). Researchers Costello et al. have suggested a similar possible solution to whaling: auction permits to harvest whales, and anti-whaling groups could simply outbid whalers and eaters of whale meat (see ungated commentary by the Economist here).

All this may offend the purists who will contend that the natural world is priceless, and/or that whaling is morally wrong, but such cris du coeur will only ever motivate a minority. Putting your money where your mouth is, on the other hand, will always get somebody’s attention. A more important concern is that of a small minority of richer people paying for public goods that everyone enjoys, including those filthy rich rapists and pillagers of our natural patrimony whose business interests have created the opportunity cost in the first place. That, however, is how much of the world goes much of the time, and in the meantime you could at least achieve something useful with your money.

ps. If you made it this far, congratulations. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series. I’ve enjoyed writing it, but am still hoping for a few more votes in my poll. Us bloggers don’t ask for too much and voting in a poll is a lot less effort than writing a post or even commenting upon one, and we do so love to get a bit of feedback every now and then! So it would be great to hear from a few more of my readers before I conclude with my own position on the Grey Whales of Sakhalin tomorrow.

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