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Earth Talk:

What is the current status of whales? How effective is the International Whaling Commission and which countries are involved in illegal whaling?

Some larger whale species have been recovering since the dark days before the whaling industry was regulated, but the majority of cetaceans—that is, the distinct order of marine mammals consisting of whales, dolphins and porpoises—are in decline, with some likely headed for extinction in the near term.

According to data collected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a “Red List” of threatened or endangered species, two of the largest whale species, humpbacks and southern rights, have rebounded since 1982 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling. Based on IUC’s 2008 survey of cetaceans, both species, while still threatened, were upgraded from “Vulnerable” to “Least Concern” status on the Red List. “Humpbacks and southern right whales are making a comeback in much of their range mainly because they have been protected from commercial hunting,” says Randall Reeves, IUC’s assessment leader. “This is a great conservation success and clearly shows what needs to be done to ensure these ocean giants survive.”

But other cetaceans haven’t fared so well. Almost a third of the world’s 80-plus cetacean species had their Red List status changed based on the IUC’s 2008 assessment, with the vast majority now considered at greater risk than before. Overall, nearly a quarter of cetacean species are considered threatened, and of those, more than 10 percent (nine species) are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, the highest categories of threat. Reeves says that the real situation could be much worse, as researchers could not obtain enough data on more than half of the world’s cetacean species to properly classify their status.

While commercial whaling is what first put cetaceans at risk—the IWC’s 1982 moratorium greatly reduced stress on many species—other threats loom larger than ever: Whales the world over withstand ship strikes, habitat deterioration, and declining prey. And the smaller cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, and small whales) often drown in huge fishing nets that trawl the ocean scooping up everything in their path.

And of course commercial whaling still goes on despite the moratorium. Norway, even with its IWC membership, disregards the moratorium and resumed commercial whaling in 1994. Iceland, which initially withdrew from the IWC over the moratorium, began commercial whaling again in 2006. Japan claims to hunt whales for scientific research purposes—but critics say this is just a front to obtain and sell whale meat under the false pretense of species counts. Whalers from several nations, including the U.S., hunt limited amounts of cetaceans for subsistence purposes, but these numbers are very small.

The IWC is a voluntary organization not backed up by any treaty, so its ability to regulate whaling is limited. Perhaps the biggest factor in nations’ willingness to honor the moratorium is the court of public opinion; awareness of the plight of cetaceans has skyrocketed since the 1960s when environmental groups like Greenpeace first began publicizing the threats faced by the largest creatures on the planet. Today “Save the Whales” might seem like a cliché from bygone days, but with so many cetacean species in decline, it just might be a more needed environmental battle cry than ever before.

I’ve heard of extremely environmentally friendly homes and communities called “Earthships” popping up across the U.S. What are they exactly?

An Earthship is a kind of passive solar home—or community of homes—typically made of natural and recycled materials such as old tires and recycled cans. Such homes make use of non-polluting renewable energy sources and smart design to meet most if not all heating, cooling and power needs. The term Earthship, coined by self-proclaimed “biotect” Mike Reynolds, is derived from the homes being in and of the Earth—that is, constructed responsibly out of earthen materials and built into the ground. It also refers to living in a ship, which requires inhabitants to be autonomous from outside help (such as a power grid).

The concept has spread well beyond from its roots in the desert surrounding Taos, New Mexico. Besides being the headquarters for Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture business, the Taos area is also home to several Earthship communities which generate their own power without contributing to the atmosphere’s growing carbon load and make use of local recycled materials to minimize resource use.

Construction materials in Earthship homes vary according to what particular recycled items are plentiful and useful in a given locale. The New Mexico versions usually consist of exterior walls made from earth-filled tires stacked like bricks and covered in stucco or adobe. These thick outer walls employ “thermal mass construction” to naturally regulate indoor temperatures. Wintertime heating is provided primarily by the Earthship’s layout and orientation, with windows on the sunny sides of the building letting in light and heat. A properly constructed Earthship can maintain a comfortable indoor air temperature with plentiful natural ventilation all year-round with little or no help from power-hungry heating or cooling equipment.

Earthship Biotecture makes available via its website several books and videos outlining different perspectives on the Earthship concept, as well as practical information on how to build one of your own. The website also provides a wealth of information on existing Earthships and helps those interested in the concept connect with one another via a global network of builders and enthusiasts. It is also a great place to find an existing Earthship home for sale or rent. The firm also offers internships with Michael Reynolds and other leading practitioners in the emerging discipline.

Earthships can be found in most U.S. states today, though New Mexico is the leader, followed closely by Colorado. Several have sprung up in England and France as well as in South Africa, among other countries. And with more and more governments tightening up their building codes to require increased energy efficiency and smarter use of resources, Earthships are bound to become even more popular.

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