Sell the Whales

Once upon a time, Socialism was sold as a superior economic system. My public high school teachers told me in the 1970s that Socialism was more efficient and would inevitably replace free enterprise. Socialism was horribly immoral, but oh, so scientific and productive. So it was natural for Free World governments to adopt as much socialism as the reactionary, tradition-loving public would allow. It made sense for space exploration, conservation, education, etc., to be run as government programs.

How things have changed… rhetorically speaking. Now everyone talks about "the problem of calculation under Socialism," "rent seeking behavior," "the benefits of free trade," etc. The Economist and other mainstream business publications often mention the Austrian explanation of the so-called "business cycle" (i.e., inflation-driven malinvestment). Rhetorically, business leaders and politicians (even Russian and Chinese politicians) make noises about the superiority of free enterprise. But in the US, space exploration, conservation, education, etc. etc., are still run as government programs. In the real world, we are trapped in a permanent New Deal which is getting mighty old.

In theory, in most areas we're in a free enterprise renaissance. Theoretically, most thinking people accept that space industrialization should be privatized. And everyone (especially NEA members) accepts that their OWN children should go to private school; it's only those OTHER people who should have their children bussed across town to the dangerous educationist gulags. The one area where government still has a big theoretical following is in conservation, which has been given a coat of Deep Green paint and renamed environmentalism.

The Greens-who-used-to-be-Reds have modernized their case for nationalization of land ownership. Today, Socialism is not presented as more efficient than free enterprise, but less. Government ownership of land is supposed to protect the biosphere more effectively because government is too slothful to develop the land. The average American thinks of government as the trustworthy guardian of Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of "public service" propaganda ads. But in reality the Corps of Engineers has always wanted to dam the Canyon, and the Park Service has been no protector of Yellowstone's forests.

Every well-read Green knows that Socialist environmental policies have made deserts of much of Russia. They managed to turn Kazakhstan into a dust bowl, dry up most of the Aral Sea, and wipe out all but a few of the Aral's fish species. The oil-drilling area around Baku looks like the Moon, with slime pits that have been there since the Czar; and of course there was Chernobyl. The Soviet economy wasn't productive enough to afford to clean up its messes. But somehow the same sort of centralized, command-economy system is supposed to protect the environment of North America.

Government at all levels in the US owns about 42% of the US land area, plus the continental shelf, the rivers, oceanic whaling and fishing rights. Only about 10% of the Federal land area is National Parks. By far the majority of the Federal acreage is under the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. This land can be exploited by anyone who can pay the necessary campaign contributions, but the users can never own the land. The result is tragedy of the commons on a massive scale.

The government's terrible forest management has been made obvious over the last few years of ever-bigger forest fires. A couple years ago the Forest Service announced that Smokey the Bear would be supplanted by Reddy the Fire Squirrel (really!). Instead of a shovel the Squirrel carried a flamethrower, and his motto was: "Only You Can Prevent Forest." I was ready to see the Fire Squirrel and his friends the Crispy Critters in public-service cartoons, to the theme music of Metallica's "Fight Fire With Fire" (OK, that part I made up… but it would have been catchy). But eventually the Forest Service decided on a different PR approach.

The environmental bottom line is that the Forest Service loses money to cut down trees, and for decades it maximized the amount of timber-road construction without regard for erosion. For decades the BLM has lost money to create low-grade grazing land by smashing forest; they would tie a chain between two bulldozers, and let the Cats scamper merrily through the pines. No private companies could do this sort of profitless damage without going out of business.

Even the “friendly”Park Service has its share of ecocollapses. Yellowstone Park is the best-known recent example; far too many elk with far too few predators (killed off by government bounty hunters) damaged the forest and largely eliminated the habitat for other species such as mule deer and beaver. Recently wolves have been reintroduced, and Yellowstone's ecology has recovered some diversity.

Predators, of course, still must be strictly controlled because the tourists in National Parks are legally disarmed. The Forest Rangers have attempted to build a Disneyland with Ursus horriblis as a costumed character. Since grizzly bears don't wear mouse ears very well, many of the bruins end up getting clandestinely assassinated by the heavily armed Rangers, leaving too few predators for the elk. Ironically, if the bears were selectively hunted instead of fed from picnic baskets by the tourists, the Park would support many more of them.

The catalog of BLM, Forest Service, etc., land-management ecoatrocities is too long to list here. If you have a taste for environmental horror stories, you can find hundreds of them.

Government ownership of water works no better. Since property rights to stream water depends on so-called "beneficial use," to keep their water rights farm owners must pump water out of trout streams even when it is unneeded for irrigation. Nor can river water be traded to its most profitable use; irrigating farmers can't sell a few gallons to a computer-chip factory, even if the water would be worth a hundred times more. So there are still subsidized rice paddies by the freeway in Phoenix, Arizona.

There are difficult problems in environmental property rights: underground aquifers, emission limits in the atmosphere, and several other tough questions. But that's no excuse for not solving the easy problems. Private ownership of all Federal land and all streams and rivers would rationalize land use and increase incentives for conservation. Parks for hunting and camping could be in life-rich Eastern, Southern, and West Coast forests, while factories could migrate to deserts, tundra, and salt flats. Private ownership of rivers would also rationalize their use. In the US, all major rivers are somewhat polluted; you don't really want to drink from any of them (though you do). In a market-driven system, the prettiest rivers would be completely clean for recreational use, with others used for industry and agriculture runoff. This is actually done in Scotland, where country gentlemen take their ownership of fishing rights seriously. To save the environment, sell the environment.

But perhaps you don't care about the environment? Perhaps you only care about improving human technology so you can become a posthuman cyborg? Well then, you'd better care about saving the whales. Specifically, saving the Bowhead whales. Bowheads not only have higher technology than you do, it's the exact technology you need to be posthuman… because Bowheads are better at fighting both cancer and aging than we are.

Bowhead whales have been shown to be over two hundred years old by independent dating methods: amino acid racemization in the eye lens, and old stone harpoon heads embedded in the whales. A good introductory article on Bowhead lifespan is archived at:

Bowheads are big mammals. In fact they're really big; they're the third most massive of the whales. This makes their longevity extremely significant. All multicellular species have the problem of controlling cancer. The chance of a cell mutating into a cancer is proportional to the number of cells times the lifespan of the organism. So humans have more than a hundred thousand times the cancer-control capacity of a mouse. (And mice are really lousy cancer lab animals.) But Bowheads have to have a thousand times better cancer control than humans (five hundred times our weight times twice the lifespan). In the Bowhead, Nature has already proved that a body can be built that is a thousand times less susceptible to cancer than ours. An organism the size of a human being, using some Bowhead genes, might be able to live longer than recorded history.

How do the Bowheads do it? Is it through some modification of telomere biology? No one knows. Practically no work at all has been done on basic baleen-whale cell biology. In spite of the annual Inuit Bowhead hunt, which produces hundreds of tons of whale cells, there are no lines of Bowhead cells available to researchers through the cell collections at ATCC or Coriel. This tragic situation has cost the entire human race dearly in lost anticancer and anti-aging knowledge, in part because of EPA endangered-species red tape that prevents most labs from preserving whale DNA in their freezers without jumping through regulatory hoops. This costs the whale species itself, too; if Bowhead DNA were stored in thousands of cryovials in lab freezers around the world, the species would be much safer from final extinction.

No one owns the Bowheads, but the Inuit have the right to kill them. No one really knows how many Bowheads can be sustainably hunted; the lifespan estimates used to set the kill quotas were drastic underestimates. The Bowhead may well turn out to be another victim of the pre-capitalist killer ape racing its way to the last trophy.

The solution, of course, is private ownership. If private Inuit individuals owned the whale herd, they would have an incentive to manage them sustainably as a source of meat, tourism, and cancer research organisms. The same is equally true of the shorter-lived Blue and Fin whales; if the herds were owned by individuals, there would be no incentive for the Japanese to race the Norwegians to the last whale. Nor would there be scientific conflict of interest when studies were done to determine sustainable yield.

The managers of the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and other wealthy "ecology" organizations know that Socialism isn't good for the environment. Once in a while they even complain weakly about a government program or two, e.g. US "foreign-aid" schemes that pay to cut down the Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests. But most of the hundreds of millions of private "ecology" dollars go to propagandize for forcing more resources into the hands of the same bureaucrats who have already deforested millions of acres around the world. I would suggest that if you are going to donate to any ecology organization, find one with bumper stickers that say "Sell The Whales."

February 5, 2005