“Research on chimpanzees is contentious, expensive, and of increasingly limited necessity,” wrote medical researchers in a piece titled “Guiding limited use of chimpanzees in research” published last week in the journal Science. This same sentence could have introduced an article published in this week’s Nature – with the word ‘Whaling’ replacing the phrase “Research on chimpanzees” since whaling is, after all, contentious, expensive, and unnecessary.
Instead, the Nature commentary, titled “A market approach to saving the whales,” begins with how whaling has doubled since the early 1990s, despite the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on whaling. The authors go on to propose how a whale conservation market might save some of the 2000 whales destined for slaughter this year – never bothering to note plenty of work in economics, at this point painfully popular, on how putting a price tag on behavior most people see as negative (e.g., picking your children up late from daycare) can actually exacerbate, not temper, a trend (e.g., more parents arrive late because the market has now undermined the norm and the financial penalty is less burdensome than guilt or shame). In the case of whaling, an international price tag, which the authors argue would allow conservationists to buy the lives of whales, would create a clear incentive in favor of whaling and undermine the norm (a norm that Sea Shepherd is using its multi-million dollar media-driven campaigns to cultivate and spread -- a hard-to-quantify but valuable addition to the 350 Sea-Shepherd-saved minke whales that the authors report).
This is economics at its most naïve – the same Milton Friedman number crunching that might try to justify markets for child labor, organs, or adoption.
But worry not. This idea operates on the premise of a ‘cap and trade’ system. It would not be an open market; some bright guys would regulate how many whales could be taken each year – a job that that sounds suspiciously like the current role of the IWC, which, as the authors note, is still arguing, thanks mostly to Japan, over the numbers. So much for an improvement on the current situation, and so much for the free market.
The chimpanzee research article is more nuanced. The economic arguments are presented (the average chimp in captivity can cost $642,400 for its lifetime; surprisingly, that number does not include a college education), but the authors never pretend the money is the reason that chimpanzee research is in question. Chimp research might be expensive, but even if we could lower costs by setting up shop in Juarez, Mexico, it’s doubtful public opinion would budge.
We know the reasons chimpanzee research is so distressing: they are too cute, too clever, and too much like us to subject them to the pains of captivity and medical research, even if the conditions have been improved since the horrors discussed in Roger Fouts' Next of Kin. The ghosts of chimpanzees past haunt our conscience (for evidence, see the film Project Nim). And, most important, we just don’t need chimpanzees to answer most medical questions. In 2010, the EU banned the use of all great apes in research.
Similar to chimp research, it is wrong to think that the question of whaling can be distilled to an economic argument. If it was, whaling would have ended long ago because the enterprise is, in fact, heavily subsidized and, in fact, a money losing past-time, which the authors in the Nature commentary rather conveniently overlook. Yet whaling continues. Not for food, research, or oil. Whaling has continued as an accessory to the notion of empire, which is why numbers are nice but ultimately irrelevant, just as they are in the fight to expand the empire of our morality – to our neighbors, across continents, to our next of kin, and deep into the oceans.