A quick follow-up to my post at the beginning of the year over the controversy surrounding the proposal to ban the hunting of polar bears. It appears that scientific sense and respect for indigenous cultures have prevailed over blind love for cute (on TV) animals: CITES have refused to pass a ban on hunting polar bears. My heart still weeps for the polar bears’ fate, but if we want to change that, then we need to tackle global climate change. Anything else is just a distraction; a chance to feel good whilst accomplishing nothing of lasting benefit.
Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category
Last week I blogged about how, despite all its drawbacks, monetising nature has a lot to be said for it in its ability to tap into the global system of values. As luck would have it I was not the only person pondering these questions that day; David Bent was also struggling with the challenges of lack of clarity over sustainability issues, but his dilemma was that of a consumer unsure as to which was the most “sustainable” carpet to buy.
David’s challenge was to determine which was the most sustainable carpet, what forms of sustainability were good value for money versus which primarily worked by appealing to middle class faddishness, and that the complexity in this field was such that the salesperson struggled to explain the differences and thus to make a well-informed recommendation. When confronted with these multiple interacting and complex variables on top of the standard set of consumer choices, such as colour, pile, look, pattern of the carpet, it is not surprising that even an expert can quickly become bewildered.
However, if each of these different variables could be priced then the problem would be rapidly reduced to the standard choice of which products do you like most (in a subjective sense) versus their respective prices. For instance if carbon were taxed or otherwise priced, those manufacturers who sought to reduce their carbon footprint would benefit from lower prices compared to their competitors. They need not directly reduce their carbon footprint, however, they might find it cheaper to buy offsets off the shelf, e.g. from forest protection. Water and biodiversity can be similarly priced and thus incorporated into our economic decision making. Yes having the wrong price can be harmful, but it is easier to adjust a price once you’ve agreed the principle, than it is to agree it in the first place as has been highlighted by the entrenched opposition to global climate change negotiations.
I think part of the problem is that many environmentalists hope or assume that biodiversity and landscape conservation can all be marketed like ecotourism. While some tourists will always opt for the simple pleasures of the Costa del Sol or the bright lights of the nearest shopping paradise, there is a very substantial market of tourists who want to go somewhere different, that feels a bit special, makes them feel a bit special, and is away from the beaten track. The hotels that appeal to such tourists are all unique in their own particular way, little of which boils down to price, although accessibility can have a big impact on the price at which services can be delivered in remote wild locations. Ultimately, such tourists are choosing a place, with all its attendant charms and flaws: more than anything else, it is an emotional choice.
A shopper in need of a carpet, however, is in a totally different position. They have no access to the sort of detailed information about the sources of the products they are comparing or glossy photographs of the landscapes, and even if they did would unlikely to be motivated enough to want to peruse it all in detail. Instead they want a mechanism that makes their life easy. This doesn’t have to be entirely monetary, e.g. the energy efficiency star ratings system is rarely translated into the dollar cost to run the device concerned over its expected life span, but internalising such costs as carbon emitted or biodiversity lost into the product price, is the only guaranteed way to ensure the consumer pays attention (or pays the price for not).
Will monetising nature lead to distortions in how certain landscapes are managed? Without doubt. Will it be a shame if some unique characteristics are lost as a result? Yes. But if those unique characteristics are not sufficiently well appreciated to merit more stringent protection then that is s decision that society has collectively made. Moreover such distorted landscape management will almost certainly be better than converting the whole place to mechanised agricultural production.
At the end of the day the choice for society is very simple: pay for it, one way or another, or lose it.
“Finally, conversion of complex landscapes into numerical and monetised metrics instrumentalises peoples and non-human natures so that these conform to a homogenising system in which money is the mediator of all value. This can displace local eco-cultural knowledge, practices and values which may be more benign for biodiversity, thereby reducing options for transferring maximum socio-ecological diversity to our descendants.”
That is Sian Sullivan on writing on Financialisation, Biodiversity Conservation and Equity: Some Currents and Concerns (emphasis in the original).
It is both an important point and also rather stating the obvious. (Important, because in our enthusiasm we are apt to forget the obvious rather too often.) However, I think such analyses sometimes miss the point in failing to fully consider the counterfactual.
We cannot put anywhere as much of nature as we would like into protected areas, and even where we can someone needs to pay for their running costs. So how can we incentivise management of other parts of the world to promote conservation and environmental issues? More to the point how can we do so efficiently and cost-effectively?
Monetisation is often not simple – just ask any REDD project proponent – but once completed you are tapped into the only globally understood system for valuation of products and services and for trade of said values.
The environmental movement is not sufficiently resourced to undertake entirely bespoke conservation in every place of interest. Monetisation may be a crude tool, but it is brutally efficient, in both positive and negative senses. It may also be the only tool available to deliver wider scale conservation.
Hat tip: Just Conservation
Polar bears made, I suppose, an appropriately seasonal topic for this article on the BBC news website that appeared on Christmas Day. Except that the contents were actually pretty grisly and touched upon a central tension of the conservation movement.
At question was what is driving polar bears to extinction. Is it climate change, hunting or both. WWF claim the main driver is climate change. The Humane Society say it is a combination, and that hunting will deliver the coup de grâce. They may be technically right, but, without, I confess, having actually examined the science, I would be inclined to trust WWF, IUCN and Traffic, when they suggest that hunting is little more than a side show and that climate change will likely cause the extinction of polar bears in the wild regardless of hunting pressure.
Quite apart from the likelihood that the big guns have got their science right, my suspicion is aroused by the name of the disputants. If the Humane Society are concerned that the hunting of polar bears is inhumane they should say so, and preferably put it in context by comparing it with, say, the trauma that livestock experience at a typical abattoir. But when they start arguing the toss over biodiversity losses with the experts you have to wonder at their motivation.
Mike Shanahan touched upon the same problem in his confession that he once ate shark fin soup. We are back at the same question of “What is conservation for?” that I tackled in my series last year on the Sakhalin whales.
I suppose in some ways it is a good thing that urbanites consciences should these days extend to the killing of animals previously seen as dangerous predators. But there surely is a limit to this inter-species empathy; I bet few such urbanites would hesitate to call a pest control company if they experienced a sudden rat infestation. And the romantic fantasising about the fierce world of the top predator is as nonsensical as the Victorian myth of the noble savage. We should respect other cultures and other species regardless of their apparent nobility or lack thereof.
The fact is that we find the lives of these charismatic species inspiring. The soaring flight of an eagle will always have considerably more emotive power than the domestic fluttering of a sparrow (unless there are chicks involved). Moreover these emotive connections are what first drew all of us in; nobody was inspired to be a conservationist by biodiversity loss statistics. So we should harness these stories.
But conservation policy and practice is best if it is science-driven. What good is saving a polar bear from a hunter’s bullet only for it to die of starvation as its arctic habitat disappears? The bullet might be the kinder way to go; something the Humane Society might wish to reflect upon.
I still (probably naively) harbour hope that humanity will get its act together to stave off catastrophic climate change, and thereby save the polar bears and many other species from extinction. A ban on hunting polar bears would be the equivalent of worrying about whether you made the bed while the house burns down.
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:
- Hunting whales is just morally wrong.
- Biodiversity loss is a major problem. Anywhere we can draw the line we should.
- Protecting these whales will protect a lot of other wildlife. (The umbrella species argument.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Economic development should generally take precedence over conservation within bounds, i.e. allow the oil and gas developments to go ahead with appropriate regulation.
- This is just red tape dyed green, strangling legitimate business. If you want to keep the grey whales then you pay for it!
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.