Posts Tagged ‘biodiversity’

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.

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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.

Conservation: short term pain for long term gain?

Protected areas can be good for local  people in developing countries; this is the slightly surprising conclusion of a paper lead-authored from the International Food Policy Research Institute (hardly a bastion of man-the barricades hard line conservation thinking). Since the standard position of most local people in developing countries and the social scientists who document their views is the opposite, this is significant good news for conservationists.

Some important caveats need to be made. Firstly the paper’s case studies were located in Costa Rica and Thailand. This choice was made for reasons of data availability, but one cannot escape noticing that (until recently at least) these were two fairly well governed countries that had invested significantly in ecotourism. Secondly, the authors can only speculate as to what have been the drivers of the additional economic growth associated with protected areas. Maybe donors have invested a lot in supporting these protected areas, some of which has manifested itself as community development projects in an attempt to buy local support. Thus while those donors might have reason to feel pleased for themselves that their strategy has borne fruit of a sort, if we took that support away maybe the protected area would not have achieved the document positive effects. Thirdly, the paper looks only at economic impacts; it doesn’t consider whether or not local people like the protected area, which is also often a key issue. (And donors who pumped money in to support it may still not have achieved what they actually set out to achieve.)

This third caveat brings me to a wider point. No catch zones around spawning areas in fisheries have been shown to increase catches outside the protected zone, but conservationists often still face an uphill struggle convincing fishermen that such measures are in their best interests. In other words we don’t often know what’s best for ourselves, and in an uncertain world prefer clear short term gains to uncertain long term benefits. The bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Thus we have protected areas enacting the tragedy of the commons in reverse. The study focused on the long term impacts of the protected areas and the authors imply that they believe the shorter term effect may have been negative. Numerous studies have shown how biodiversity itself has diffuse positive impacts on environmental; I would imagine that these are mostly subtle and take time to have an effect. Thus even in something as easily quantifiable as fishery yields it may take a few years for the populations to recover sufficiently to notice a positive return on catches. When we are concerned about economic gains across communities living in and around a protected area this indirect linkage will likely be even subtler and diffused across a range of different livelihood strategies.

It is not just political correctness to say that local communities absolutely should have a say in the creation and management of protected areas in their homelands. Furthermore new protected areas should not be created without more than adequate compensation being paid to those people affected. But just as fitness campaigners are right to point out that it we stop drinking alcohol and smoking, and exercise more then we will live healthier lives, so it is fair enough for conservationists to campaign for sensible environmental stewardship. Obese Westerners do not always want to exercise, local communities may resent loss of their hunting or grazing rights; society as a whole can take a wider and longer view.

Hat Tip: Not Exactly Rocket Science

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