Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

So what, finally, about those Western Grey Whales?

This is the conclusion to the series I have run recently on the fate of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin, and whether or not we should care about them. This was all prompted by an article by Richard Black on some esoteric arguments about whether some of the Sakhalin whales may actually be temporary visitors from the much larger population of Grey Whales in the Eastern Pacific, and the implications this discovery has for how they may be treated from a conservation perspective.

Such, apparently unexpected outcomes of conservation analysis and regulation are not as rare as one might expect. Global warming is shifting species ranges across national borders. When this first happens the new arrivals instantly become a rare species in their new country, and may be afforded all sorts of protections (and thus constraining businesses) as a result. Viewed globally this is nonsense since the vast majority of the population is elsewhere; so long as it is not globally endangered then there is no real reason to grant it extra protection in a country it has not historically called home.

So how did we get here? We start from a basic moral argument for conservation that is usually rooted in a love for nature, that assigns it some intrinsic value. Aesthetics and empathy for our mammalian cousins (except for some of the rodent class) often plays a big part. How many conservationists were converted to the cause by watching the likes of David Attenborough?

This, however, only serves to protect a few gems in national parks and other protected areas, and is not very scientific. So biologists have long talked about biodiversity, a measure of the degree to which wildlife found in a given place is both different from each other (many species) and different from elsewhere (unique). Biodiversity hotspots have become a major theme of conservation. It helps that many of these hotspots coincide with traditional views of conservation priorities, e.g. the lemurs on Madagascar, but not all such hotspots are so charismatic; it is unlikely that the East African Coastal Forests will ever attract huge numbers of tourists. More tellingly, biodiversity itself is an abstract concept; easy to relate to when marvelling at the lush and beautiful diversity on display in a tropical rain forest or coral reef, but much harder to grasp when, say, a new car park obliterates the last home of a hitherto undiscovered beetle.

So where do I stand?

I kicked this series of posts off with a poll. I asked you readers to select from a number of options:

Alas less than 10% of you bothered to vote. I guess I should be flattered that you are rather more interested in my opinion than in expressing your own (either that or you couldn’t care less either way). The votes were fairly evenly split except for the last option which received no votes, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I shall leave the poll open for a while longer and watch to see if anything interesting does come of it.

As for my position, it is this. I think it would be great if sufficient moral clarity existed in the world that the top arguments held sway. But that is not the case. Other moral arguments about the ‘rights’ to development, food and clean water, and to health and education, also command our attention, and often compete with conservation. Sometimes, as in this case, there is a direct trade-off, other times it is simply a matter of competing for scarce financial resources. Thus conservation must prioritise internally and compete with other causes externally for support. Such prioritisation requires careful, rational thinking which often takes us some distance from our purer, more emotive starting points.

First and foremost I am a conservationist, but I recognise that conservation must fit with the economic realities in which we find ourselves; people who argue it should be the other way around are simply being Utopian. It is possible, nay desirable, to change the rules of the game, e.g. with the introduction of natural capital accounting, but it is not feasible to change the game entirely.

Thus my preference, were it possible, would be to try to combine economic development (in this case drilling for oil and gas) to go ahead with appropriate regulation to minimise such negative impacts as could be mitigated cost-effectively. If that were not possible, and as I previously remarked, the situation in Russia is not encouraging in this respect, I would probably be prepared to sacrifice the sub-species, with the hope of achieving better conservation results elsewhere, unless the umbrella species argument were particularly compelling, which I do not believe to be the case, though I know far too little about the Sakhalin environment to know for sure. Finally I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to pony up the cost to buy the rights to the Sakhalin oil and gas if they think it is so important.

Whither the Western Grey Whales? You want them, you pay for them!

This is part seven of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “This is just red tape dyed green, strangling legitimate business. If you want to keep the grey whales then you pay for it!” At the time of writing this is the only option to have received no votes, which I think is a real shame for I think it encapsulates a reality that many Western environmentalists fail to grasp.

It is nice to be able to assert that wildlife has intrinsic value and should be protected for its own sake. But such moral values are more often than not the preserve of the relatively well off, a category into which only a minority of the world’s people fall today. For the rest, jam today nearly always beats jam tomorrow. If cutting down a forest may lead to devastating soil erosion then it is possible to convince even the poorest farmers that conservation is in their own bests interests. But when arguments get more esoteric, such as bemoaning lost opportunities to find possible anti-cancer drugs, it is not so much a case of jam tomorrow, as somewhat hypothetical and probably irrelevant jam in twenty years time. Poor peoples’ priorities, quite simply, are elsewhere.

So, goes the argument, if you want conservation so badly then you pay for it! And, indeed, a lot of modern conservation practice is all about trying to monetise good environmental stewardship, whether it be through ecotourism or payments for ecosystem services (including REDD). Indeed the Ecuadorian government is already doing just that: being paid not to drill for oil in the Yasuni National Park (part of the Amazon rainforest). Researchers Costello et al. have suggested a similar possible solution to whaling: auction permits to harvest whales, and anti-whaling groups could simply outbid whalers and eaters of whale meat (see ungated commentary by the Economist here).

All this may offend the purists who will contend that the natural world is priceless, and/or that whaling is morally wrong, but such cris du coeur will only ever motivate a minority. Putting your money where your mouth is, on the other hand, will always get somebody’s attention. A more important concern is that of a small minority of richer people paying for public goods that everyone enjoys, including those filthy rich rapists and pillagers of our natural patrimony whose business interests have created the opportunity cost in the first place. That, however, is how much of the world goes much of the time, and in the meantime you could at least achieve something useful with your money.

ps. If you made it this far, congratulations. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series. I’ve enjoyed writing it, but am still hoping for a few more votes in my poll. Us bloggers don’t ask for too much and voting in a poll is a lot less effort than writing a post or even commenting upon one, and we do so love to get a bit of feedback every now and then! So it would be great to hear from a few more of my readers before I conclude with my own position on the Grey Whales of Sakhalin tomorrow.

Whither the Western Grey Whales – will regulation suffice?

This is part six of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “Economic development should generally take precedence over conservation within bounds, i.e. allow the oil and gas developments to go ahead with appropriate regulation.” On one level there is not much to argue with in this proposition which suggests we can have the best of both worlds: economic development for Russia and Sakhalin and effective conservation of the endangered grey whales … if it works.

And therein lies the real question. Are these two goals actually reconcilable? If so will the necessary regulations actually be written, or will lobbying by one side or the other ensure that the ‘compromise’ option in fact only works for one side? Even if good regulations are promulgated will they be effectively enforced? Recent history in Russia suggests, if anything, over-enthusiastic enforcement of environmental regulations with respect to foreign investors but complete amnesia when it is local (usually government controlled) firms which are doing the investing.

This option is thus for the optimistic amongst us who like to think they can have both conservation and development together. The pessimists, though, may simply conclude that, as is so often the case, it is simply not possible to have your cake and eat it, and that compromises are as likely to please nobody as to please anybody. I do not myself know enough about the situation in Sakhalin to say who would be right in this instance.

Whither the Western Grey Whales – might sacrificing a sub-species be justified?

This is part five of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “Conservation and development should be balanced, but we’d be asking Russia and the local communities in Siberia to sacrifice a lot of money and this is just a sub-species.”

This statement is essentially asking us to explicitly weigh the value of this sub-species* population. Different people have different values and so will answer differently as to which side of the fence they sit on. Regardless as to which side you sit upon, I think it is important to acknowledge the different perspectives and not to assume that one or other is necessarily morally superior to the other. It may be that in the future such questions are resolved with the same clarity as other moral questions, in much the same way that slavery, once an accepted part of life, is now regarded as barbarous. But for now there is not such a universality of views, and basic pragmatism requires us to recognise that, however strongly held may be our views, we need to be able to talk to and engage with others who do not see things the same way.

Moreover if we are to properly answer this question we need to ground our arguments properly. Exactly how much biodiversity does a sub-species represent? Many other species and sub-species of beetles and microscopic organisms which we do not even know about are going extinct every day with destruction of precious, highly diverse habitats such as tropical rainforests. Just because the whales are mammals does that make them somehow more special?

Of course such arguments are in themselves not a reason to do nothing. If it was going to be easy or cheap to save the whales we might reasonably conclude that we should do it anyway. But it appears that saving these particular whales could be very expensive. Think of all the other sub-species we could potentially save with the money that it would cost to save these whales!

This all might seem a bit cold and calculating in comparison to the moral simplicity of other stances, but the reality is that we live in a resource-constrained world, and conservation organisations are having to determine their priorities in this way all the time. I just hope that when it comes time to weigh my soul such calculations will not feature on the negative side of the ledger.

* I am not sure whether, strictly speaking, the Western Grey Whale is a full sub-species or some other taxonomic category. Depending upon ones values, determination of such might be critical to answering the specific question this blog post poses, but is not relevant to the wider issues I raise.

Whither the Western Grey Whales – taking a stand against global warming

This is part four of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

In that poll I offered the option that: “Conservation and development should be balanced, but sacrificing biodiversity to extract more fossil fuels which will just increase global warming is not a sensible trade off.”

With this point of view we start to move away from the purist conservation arguments, but then circle back with the global concern of climate change. This argument however falls down in trying to address a global problem with a very localised solution. Global warming is certainly not going to be halted by stopping the development of the Sakhalin oil and gas fields alone, neither is there any plausible strategy in which an initial victory here translates into an international movement to prevent all further fossil fuel exploration and thus a transition to a cleaner economy.

In adopting this argument one would be essentially asking the people of Sakhalin and the Russian government to forego local development for the sake of a global good when others are not making similar sacrifices. Quite apart from the political naiveté this demonstrates, in my opinion this argument is a fig leaf for much more real concerns about local conservation or an anti-developmental agenda. Global climate change is the most pressing issue of the day, and the international political deadlock on it is deeply disappointing, but stopping Sakhalin is not the solution.

Whither the Western Grey Whales – will saving them save other wildlife?

This is part three of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

This is the umbrella species argument. It’s not really about the whales, it’s the habitat, stupid! If you are going to adopt this argument, which again has a lot going for it, then you need to quantify in some ways the value of all the other wildlife that will be protected. Since we do not currently know where these Western Grey Whales breed, we are talking here about their feeding grounds off Russia’s Sakhalin Island. A quick online search didn’t turn up anything definitive on this (the grey whales feature prominently due to the press interest drummed up by campaigners). Clearly there is a lot of wildlife or and around Sakhalin but it is not clear how much of it is threatened by oil and gas extraction, nor how much would be protected as a result of safe-guarding the whales.

This is symptomatic of a wider problem in conservation: so-called charismatic flagship species may not always make for good umbrella species if the flagship species’ range does not actually accord closely with the distribution of rare or endangered species. E.g. grizzly bears can be content to live in peri-urban environments and raid dustbins. That all said, the multiplier effect of the umbrella species argument cuts a lot of ice with me, and, in my mind, beats the above two arguments for importance, although ultimately it also rests on the assumption that protecting biodiversity and pristine habitats is a good thing, which are same the principles that underpin those earlier moral arguments for conservation.

Whither the Western Grey Whales? Stopping biodiversity loss

This is part two of a seven part series on my views on the philosophy of conservation and the case of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin in particular – see Richard Black’s article for an introduction. If you are coming to this blog new, before you read this and other posts in this series please consider reading my earlier one and voting in the poll.

This is the scientific version of the moral argument against hunting I outlined earlier. Many conservationists contend that destroying biodiversity is morally wrong, and recently there have been scientific attempts to prove that a general loss of biodiversity itself (as opposed to habitat destruction or elimination of specifically valuable species) can be bad for us (lost opportunities for medical discoveries, weaker environmental resilience).

As a conservationist myself I think there is a huge amount to be said for this very important argument. But just because something is true, even scientific fact, does not in itself elevate it above other important truths. Political leaders are rightly called upon to balance competing interests. In this case they would ask exactly how much biodiversity would be saved by protecting these whales, and they might legitimately conclude that a sub-species that may already have fallen below the minimum viable population threshold, and might not actually be distinct from its eastern cousins, is not worth getting that worked up about.

Whither whaling – is it just morally wrong?

If you are coming to this blog new before you read this and following posts please consider reading my previous one and voting in the poll.

In considering the question of the morality of whaling it depends first upon why you are hunting. Although not exactly a pressing conservation problem, I supported the ban on fox hunting which the previous UK government introduced because I think hunting for fun is barbaric, and has no place in a civilised society. On the other hand it has to be said that licensed hunting of big trophy mammals (elephants, lions etc.) in southern and eastern Africa has proven a big conservation success due to the extremely high fees that hunters are prepared to pay. Although I would hate to pull the trigger myself, I very much support this as a pragmatic solution to biodiversity conservation and habitat protection, for without the funds these hunters pay the large mammals would just be hunted and chased away by farmers, and the habitat degraded if not destroyed.

In the past a major incentive for whaling was the oils and fats that could be harvested from their bodies. However, since the advent of better synthetic replacements derived from petrochemicals, most whaling is done for food (discounting the pseudo-scientific hunting practiced by Japan to get around the current moratorium). So anyone who voted for this option had better be a vegetarian or they are a complete hypocrite. I eat meat so ultimately cannot agree with this position, although I do admire people prepared to live their ideals in this regard.

Whither whaling?

So I promised you that I’d come off the fence on what I think about whaling, and specifically the case of the Western Grey Whale that Richard Black discussed. So far sample size on my poll is too low for me to bother reporting, but I hope that these following posts may prompt a few more to cast their votes. For now the only way for you to find out what your fellow blog readers think is to vote and then you will see the current breakdown.

Last week I set out a number of options:

As I said then I think all have some validity. Over the next few days I shall post some thoughts on each one in turn (see links above) before concluding with my final considered opinion.

Who cares about a few whales?

I’ve been reading Richard Black’s updates from the latest IWC* annual conference with interest. Like him, and many fisheries experts, I am struck by the fact that the IWC was set up to regulate whaling not ban it, and that it has been somewhat hijacked by more fundamental conservation interests.

That is not to say there are not moral arguments against whaling, but that I do find it hard to know why the line should be drawn at whales and not other apparently sentient animals. This is the conservation world’s version of the Iraq war argument: sure toppling an evil dictator like Saddam Hussein may be a good thing**, but why stop there? Why not Burma (as it was in 2003), North Korea and Zimbabwe? (Why also not the Central African Republic which is equally badly governed but gets far fewer column inches?) To which one inevitably concludes that the second Iraq war was at least partly about oil, just no-one would admit it. Similarly one concludes that the ban on whaling is at least partly about public opinion driven by idealistic visions of majestic oceanic leviathans and impressively intelligent dolphins than the Hobbesian reality of life in the open seas.***

But the first of Richard’s posts got me thinking about the opposite point of view. Before giving my perspective, I’m going to try an experiment, and post a poll on this blog for the first time, to get reader perspectives. So go and have a read of this, then tell me what you think.

I think all of the above have some legitimacy, but I’ll expand on that and come off the fence next week. If enough of you have voted by then I’ll let you know the results, but either way will leave the poll open for a while and see what transpires.

* International Whaling Commission

** In practice, of course, it didn’t exactly turn out the way everyone hoped, but that is a different kind of argument, that suggests that going to war very rarely achieves the aims of the aggressor, but definitely will lead to huge loss of life and human suffering.

*** Ref that scene in David Attenborough’s magnum opus, the Blue Planet , in which a baby grey whale is mercilessly hunted down by killer whales.

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