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Whale Economics - A Win-Win Nature-Based Solution to the Climate Crisis

The journey began in Baja, Mexico in 2017 when Ralph Chami, a financial economist and Assistant Director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), went out on a research boat to enjoy and learn about whales. During the trip he learned phytoplankton is responsible for approximately 50% of all oxygen produced (every other breath we take) and for the capture of about 43% of all CO2 produced. That is equivalent to the CO2 captured by 1.70 trillion trees per year - four Amazon forests’ worth per year! More phytoplankton means more oxygen and more carbon capture. He also learned how whales generate phytoplankton blooms through the "Whale Pump".

Ralph was deeply inspired and humbled when he became aware of all the services whales provide which we depend on for our survival. But this new-found knowledge left the economist with some burning questions such as, why is it that humans are compensated for their services but nature is not? And why do species who play such a crucial role in generating biodiversity, capturing carbon, and balancing and regenerating entire ecosystems, only have value after they’re dead?

After deep contemplation, Ralph realized there was something fundamentally and ethically wrong with our current economic system and what was needed was an entirely new mindset. The great transcendentalist, Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.

And that is what Ralph felt called to do, to build a new model using a carbon pricing model to quantify the value of carbon-sequestering services provided by species. This is something which had never been done before.

Prior to this, species had no value until they were dead. For example, a slaughtered whale is worth $40,000 (Chami et al 2020) in the current market but worth nothing when it’s alive and thriving and providing countless benefits to the ecosystem. When Ralph applied his valuation framework to the carbon-sequestering services provided by whales, the number came in at approximately $2 million dollars per individual whale. Shocked and trembling, he called two colleagues and asked them to verify his numbers. The numbers stood, and he realized this framework could change the way humans view and relate to nature, and that it must be published.

In March of 2019, he jumped on a plane and headed to Baja, Mexico to gather more data for the publication and this is where I first met Ralph. When I learned about his love for the whales and what he was doing to try and save them, I knew he needed to meet Amma to receive her blessing for this sacred work he describes as, "a win-win solution" to the climate crisis.

The reality is, we need a way to capture and drastically reduce our atmospheric carbon in the next 10 years to avoid a 1.50 C rise in global temperature, but we can’t just shut everything off all at once. That is why nature-based solutions are considered an essential part of the transition to a net-zero world.

But it’s not just about reducing carbon, it’s about restoring and protecting vital ecosystems that naturally reduce carbon for us! As Amma has said, "Humanity is dependent on nature for its very existence. In truth, we are not protecting nature - it is nature who protects us."

And Mother Nature is a carbon-sequestering rock star! She’s been doing it through the soil, tidal marshes, mangroves, rainforests, seagrasses, kelp forests, phytoplankton, and many other species for over 4 billion years! It wasn’t until humans started disrupting this delicate balance that vital ecosystems began to collapse.

In July of 2019, Ralph met Amma during the Washington, DC program and received her darshan. She sat with him for over forty minutes, looking over his papers and asking questions while Swami Amritaswarupananda Puri translated. She expressed so much enthusiasm when he showed her the diagram of the Whale Pump and explained his findings. Amma said he had ‘a beautiful mind’ to think of such a heart-centered approach to help Mother Nature. After lavishing him with love, she pulled a secret stash of mala bracelets out from under her chair and slipped one on his wrist. He hasn’t taken the bracelet off since.


After meeting Amma, Ralph found himself in high demand being invited to present his work to universities, environmentalists, scientists and economists all over the globe. Suddenly, these diverse professional groups, which had previously been divided because they all spoke different languages, were now being united around the idea of a way to protect and preserve nature that was also profitable, inclusive and sustainable. The youth, who are now bearing the brunt of our mistakes, should also have a place at the table and be part of the conversation.

In August of 2019, Ralph graciously accepted the invitation to speak at the World Peace Through Inner Peace AYUDH Youth Summit in Chicago. (AYUDH is the Youth wing of Amma’s network).

Most recently, Ralph was contacted by scientist, Fabrio Berzaghi, asking if this methodology could be applied to the African Forest Elephant. Like whales, forest elephants are a Keystone Species who help forests capture carbon. They are often referred to as eco-engineers because through their foraging and trampling of young shoots and small trees they allow larger and more carbon-dense trees to get bigger. Using the same model, he was able to quantify the elephants’ carbon-sequestering services at approximately $1.75 million dollars per individual elephant. When these elephants are slaughtered for ivory, they are worth only $40,000. (Chami et al 2020)

The hope is, when governments begin to realize they have billions of dollars in live "assets", or natural resources, they will have a vested interest in protecting and helping them grow, rather than exploiting and extracting them. Corporations who have made financial commitments to reduce their carbon can invest in these natural resources to offset emissions while transitioning to sustainability. The revenue generated from these investments can go back into the local communities to offer sustainable employment. This is a model that uplifts humanity while honoring nature.

As Amma has said, "Nature gives all of her wealth to human beings. Just as nature graciously serves, protects and helps us, it is our responsibility to return that dedication and service by helping her. Only then can the harmony between nature and humanity be preserved."

The last two years have been a whirlwind. Ralph credits Amma with opening doors and minds that were previously closed and for removing many obstacles along the way.

Amma says, “Where there is Love, everything is effortless.”

Ralph says his love for nature compelled him to act ,but it is Amma’s grace that has kept him going. So, how is all of this going to get accomplished? That’s another article...

"Many people talk about environmental preservation, but true greatness lies in putting these principles into practice and doing something about it." - Amma

Reference: “On Valuing Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change: A Framework with Applications to Elephants and Whales,” by R. Chami, T. Cosimano, C. Fullenkamp, F. Berzaghi, S. Espaneol- Jimenez, M. Marcondes, and J. Palazzo. ERID, Working Paper No. 297.

Diya, Seal Rock, Oregon

Read Amma's 2021 Vishu message from the Q2 2021 newsletter >>


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