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Opinion: Saving Species through Economics

Successful conservation depends on an economy that doesn’t incentivize destruction of species and habitats.

By | May 21, 2012

image: Opinion: Saving Species through Economics Wikimedia Commons, Esculapio

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, ESCULAPIO

The world is in the midst of an extinction crisis: one-quarter of all wildlife species are threatened with extinction, from the iconic Siberian tiger to the inconspicuous cricket frog. We have barely begun to appreciate the role most of these species play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and thus promoting the survival of life on earth, and we are at risk of losing them forever. To make matters worse, the extinction rate is accelerating because few conservation projects have been able to tackle the fundamental driving force—namely unsustainable economic activities associated with habitat loss and overexploitation.

Our global economy is currently maintained through a complex of trade treaties, subsidies, tax breaks, and regulations that aim to stimulate economic growth and employment.  This model assumes that growth will bring about greater prosperity and equality, eventually ensuring full employment and an interest in protecting the environment.  Unfortunately, our economic measures tend to value short-term profit and fast-rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—a metric that accounts only for money changing hands—over sustainable, long-term resource management.  In the real world, this translates into perverse incentives for people, and whole nations, to destroy rather than protect species and the environment in order to get ahead in the global economy.  We are nowhere near reaching the hypothetical apex where economic growth supposedly guarantees stability, efficiency, equality, and protection of the natural world.

The result has been a direct conflict between the current status of biodiversity and economic growth. The Living Planet Index, created by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London, aims to quantify trends in populations of more than 2,500 species.  Overall, this indicator showed a global decline of around 30 percent of these organisms between 1970 and 2007.  In that same time period, world GDP per capita rose by greater than 900 percent.

Increasingly, people are recognizing the flaws in using GDP as our sole measure of economic health.  When delegates from around the world convene this June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, one of the main topics on the agenda will be the “green economy”—a system that could be more sustainable and environmentally-friendly.  The exact components and structure of a green economy, however, have been the subject of heated debate for decades, and rarely in that discussion does wildlife get a mention. To make matters worse, governments are not always inclined to dedicate the funds necessary to support such a transition.  For example,  in the United States, the proposed 2013 federal budget allocates $17.7 billion to NASA’s space exploration programs, while the Environmental Protection Agency will be given less than half that, at $8.3 billion.

It is clear that in the field of conservation, addressing economic issues is essential to improving effectiveness.  A variety of market mechanisms are being implemented with variable success.  For example, ascribing market values to species and whole ecosystems—known as the “ecosystem services approach”—is widely popularized.  Under such a system, species and biological communities are assessed to determine how much they contribute to the economy, which then guides conservation efforts and funds accordingly.  However, this approach has been criticized since it inevitably leads to the transformation of nature into a commodity with no intrinsic value.

The ultimate problem with using market mechanisms in conservation is they do little to address the fundamental exploitative nature of the current economic system.  While we can effect incremental change as individual consumers, halting the extinction crisis will entail a systemic shift in the global economic system.  A number of groups are now advocating for such a shift—away from global growth towards a new, more human-scale economy—offering a unique opportunity for those working in conservation to contribute to the discussion around macroeconomic reform.

This is the focus of this week’s conference at the Zoological Society of London, entitled “Economics as if Life Mattered,” where some of the most influential figures in the conservation and economic fields will come together to discuss how we can shape economic policy to save species. The symposium will explore how we can bring conservation of wildlife species to the fore—not merely as commodities that serve our short-term survival needs or contribute to economic growth, but as invaluable parts of diverse ecosystems to which we also belong.  Protecting wildlife is not at odds with creating healthy, sustainable economies.  With more open dialogue and collaboration, there is the potential to build economic systems that further equity, alleviate poverty, reduce pollution, and support all forms of life on earth.

Kristen Steele is Programs Coordinator at the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC) and organizer of the Economics as if Life Mattered symposium. 

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Avatar of: lonjones

lonjones

Posts: 17

May 22, 2012

Good luck Kristen. 

We have been trying for a decade with no apparent interest. Lin Ostrum was awarded the Nobel in economics, which isn't bad for a political theorist, but few seem to take anything from her work. I hope she is at your conference.

I think we can learn much more from nature: all of the destructive trends you mention, that come from political and economic pressures to maximize profits now, are those that end up destroying the commons; they are all focused on the survival of the individual. What balances them in nature is the diversity that is really the other pole toward which nature seems to be striving and represents the survival of the system. If you are going to succeed in any way it will be by selling diversity to a world that appears stuck on individual survival. 

Stuck systems tend to die off from inbred weaknesses because survival traits are optimized by inbreeding. But whether it be bulldogs with shoulders to big to be born without surgical assistance, financial innovations that profit only the bankers, or inbred military-industrial interests they all eventually succumb to their own weaknesses. Often they take their whole environment with them; at least that's what happens to the commons--and it's what should worry all of us.

Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 1457

May 22, 2012

How do we bring back the tall grass prairies in North America, 99 percent destroyed by economic pursuits?  Can we stop this insane biofuel production and bring back fallow lands?  Can we bring back small-scale 'family' farming to replace corporate farming?  How can we do this with our failed political system in the US?

Avatar of: hbeierbeck

hbeierbeck

Posts: 4

May 23, 2012

Good luck creating a system of "Economics as if Life Mattered". How can you expect Big Business to value wildlife if they don't even respect human life.

Arms manufacturers benefit from war, tobacco companies intentionally make their toxic products more addictive, Monsanto and others try to prevent GMO labeling to ensure sales of products people don't want, food companies make their unhealthy junk more addictive, pharmaceutical companies corrupt the practice of medicine, etc. All of them lobby (bribe) furiously to have their way -  damn the consequences.

We need more than respect for the natural world - we need to take back control over our own lives before American-style capitalism will be our undoing.

Avatar of: Mike Noren

Mike Noren

Posts: 3

May 23, 2012

Brazil, the country hosting this year's conference on sustainable development and biodiversity, has just started construction on the giant Belo Monte dam in the Amazon which will endanger "several hundred" species and completely extinguish about a dozen species. That's how little species matter when pitted against tens of billions of dollars in construction contracts and lumber and mining rights.

The dams main backer is the mining company Vale, as the dam is intended to provide electricity to bauxite mines in the amazon, and the head of the Brazilian environmental protection agency was fired and the agency turned into a rubber stamp when it refused to approve the project due to its fraudulent environmental impact study. Several legal challenges against the dam have been dismissed by hand-picked corporate-friendly judges on the grounds that the dam is more important than the various laws and treaties it violates. That's how little laws, human rights or public opinion matter.

I'd love for the world to view maintaining diversity as important as short-term corporate profit, I'd even settle for biodiversity being at least considered in the planning of megaprojects such as Belo Monte.

But I don't think that will ever happen, I don't even see how it ever could.

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