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I Spent My Life Saving the Whales. Now They Might Save Us

6 minute read
Roger Payne currently serves as Principal Advisor to Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), a TED Audacious Project and nonprofit, interdisciplinary scientific and conservation initiative. Payne's many honors and awards include a knighthood in the Netherlands; a MacArthur Fellowship; a WWF Member of Honor; a UNEP Global 500 award; and Oxford University's Dawkins Prize.

More than fifty years ago, my team and I first discovered that whales sing to each other. Recordings we captured of the beautiful, evocative songs of the humpback whale captivated people all over the world. Whale song became the soundtrack for the “Save the Whales” movement, one of the most successful conservation initiatives in history. It led to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which marked the end of large-scale whaling in the United States and saved several whale populations from extinction.

In the decades since, I’ve often pondered what it would take to spark a new conservation movement uniquely suited to the opportunities and challenges we face in this age of dire warnings and unassailable evidence of a rapidly changing planet. A movement that inspires a new generation, gives voice to the marginalized, and uses science to inspire awe instead of fear.

The question has recently led me to an initiative I’m involved with called Project CETI (the Cetacean Translation Initiative). In a quest to better understand our world and its inhabitants, CETI scientists are using advanced machine learning and state-of-the-art robotics to listen to and translate the communication of sperm whales. CETI’s work in Dominica is in its early stages, and though much has already been done to lay the groundwork for this massive effort at interspecies communication, including a scientific roadmap published last year.

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I find myself at 88 years of age, very close to the end of a long life, coming to terms with the fact that I will not be around to find out what we learn. But what I can tell you is why this monumental journey of discovery matters.

The way I see it, the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years isn’t E = mc2 or plate tectonics or translating the human genome. These are all quite monumental, to be sure, but there’s one discovery so consequential that unless we respond to it, it may kill us all, graveyard dead. It is this: every species, including humans, depends on a suite of other species to keep the world habitable for it, and each of those species depends in turn on an overlapping but somewhat different suite of species to keep their niche livable for them.

But there’s a problem here. No one can even name all the essential supporting species, let alone describe their full roles. We do know that some of the most essential species are microscopic plants and animals that we kill, unintentionally, by the trillions. But we know so little about them, they don’t even have common names, just Latin names. And many are unknown, unnamed, and undescribed species.

Read more: Healthy Biodiversity Is The Reason To Fight Climate Change

Faced with such capacious ignorance, our only rational course of action is to use every means possible, regardless of cost, to try to save all species of life, knowing that if we fail to save enough of the essential ones, we will have no future. The things we consider to be life’s worst disasters—wars, plagues, and pandemics that have killed off tens of millions of people but left a global population of survivors greater than the number of the dead—will seem like minor nuisances compared to what we will experience if we kill off essential species that keep this planet livable for you and me. The consequences of failure are so astronomical, that it is clear that there is nothing else nearly as important and urgent as preserving the rest of life.

The challenge now is figuring out how to motivate ourselves and our fellow humans to make species preservation our highest calling—something we will never cut corners on, delay, postpone, diminish, or defund.

How can we get this idea across to the whole world? Inspiration is the key. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, understood this and how to use it positively when he wrote: ”If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide up the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

I believe that awe-inspiring life-forms like whales can focus human minds on the urgency of ceasing our destruction of the wild world. Many of humanity’s most intractable problems are caused by disregarding the voices of the Other—including non-humans.

Just imagine what would be possible if we understood what animals are saying to each other; what occupies their thoughts; what they love, fear, desire, avoid, hate, are intrigued by, and treasure. If we could communicate with animals, ask them questions and receive answers—no matter how simple those questions and answers might turn out to be—the world might soon be moved enough to at least start the process of halting our runaway destruction of life.

We might find it easier to work with parrots or dogs, but whales, by their sheer size, their commanding voices, and their surprising grace elicit a kind of attention that smaller lifeforms simply can’t. Just as redwoods trigger stronger emotions than dogwoods, the magnificence of whales has a unique ability to infuse us with awe.

I’ve received criticism for spending time and treasure trying to translate what I refer to as WhaleSpeak. My accusers complain that the needs of humans should always come before the needs of nonhumans. But the reason humanity finds itself in its present predicament is in major part because we have always put the needs of humans before the needs of the rest of life.

As my time runs out, I am possessed with the hope that humans worldwide are smart enough and adaptable enough to put the saving of other species where it belongs: at the top of the list of our most important jobs. I believe that science can help us survive our folly. Fifty years ago, people fell in love with the songs of humpback whales, and joined together to ignite a global conservation movement. It’s time for us to once again listen to the whales—and, this time, to do it with every bit of empathy and ingenuity we can muster so that we might possibly understand them.

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