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If we can save the whale, why not energy?

At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 the whale became a symbol of the decade's environmental movement. The rhetorical question was asked, "If we cannot do something for the whales -- when they are so clearly endangered and are of so little economic importance -- what hope do we have to solve our other and substantially more difficult environmental problems?"

The question was largely answered through the combined forces of a spectrum of private organizations that unified behind a campaign to reverse the trend that appeared certain to lead to the demise of the whales.

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The gains for whale conservation are real. They have occurred because people cared, submerged personal differences, and worked closely with government officials. We have proved, without qualification, that we can solve a problem having minimal societal and economic impact.The next and more critical step remains. Can the forces that have assembled and continue to work on whales effectively turn to more difficult issues, particularly energy conservation?

While the economic and political realities of our extravagant use of energy are made blatantly obvious in every newspaper every day, it should also be clear that the environmental gains of the past decade may be canceled without a strong and workable energy conservation program. The assaults on environmental legislation designed to expedite national self-sufficiency for energy supplies will become irrelevant to the environment, if energy utilization continues to expand, thus leading to increased CO[2] production, thermal pollution, and inevitable habitat destruction. In this case, the habitat we destroy may be our own as well as the whales'.

The groups involved in the struggle for the whale were characterized by their diversity, with leaderships that in some instances reflected past antagonisms toward one another that bordered on actual combat. Yet the whale issue buried past conflicts, bringing to the surface a new spirit of cooperation.

While more remains to be accomplished, considerable success has been achieved. Whale quotas, which at the time of the Stockholm sessions permitted the taking of about 46,000 whales in 1972, are set at about 16,000 for this year. The most endangered species of whales are totally barred from commercial harvest. Except for factory ship operations in the Antarctic to take the small and relatively abundant minke whale, virtually all other whaling is done from shore stations, generally by small ships operating out of villages whose economic and social survival are heavily dependent on the hunt.

These accomplishments are particularly impressive when one recognizes that the archaic voting structure of the International Whaling Commission permits a bare one-quarter of the nations voting to block the majority will, and the fact that many nations do not share America's moral imperatives to save the whales.

But commercial whaling interests can be seen in the abstract. They are hard to sympathize with and are an easily identified "enemy." Fighting them to save the whales was relatively easy chore. The enemy to energy conservation, however , is not a distant unnamed, unidentifiable creature -- it is we ourselves, you and I, and it is we who must pull together to solve this critical problem, for both ourselves and the whales.