Tigers or Transition?

Is biodiversity conservation part of the environmental movement? To what extent is the protection of species like tigers an integral part of wider concerns about transition to more sustainable lives on earth?  These questions came up at a recent meeting Conservation and Sustainability: Do We Practise What We Preach?, organised by the Cambridge Conservation Forum. The questions are simple enough.  The answers turn out to be a bit more complicated.

Historically, it’s a no-brainer.  The birth of the modern conservation movement in the late Nineteenth Century was strongly environmentalist, in that it was a broad-spectrum reaction to the depredations of capitalism and industrialism. In colonised territories like North America or Africa, the extinction of species (blaubok, quagga or passenger pigeon) and the settlement of frontiers drove a wave of sentiment for wilderness.  Yet in countries like the UK, conservation had broader roots: the founders of organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB and the Open Spaces Society were people who opposed the impacts of industrial pollution, urban sprawl, hunting and collecting, even if they enjoyed certain of its fruits.

Conservation today is tightly focused, following the fantastic successes of the second half of the twentieth century. The expansion of protected areas is quite remarkable, and the CBD Aichi Targets now propose that they should be extended to 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas.  Conservation has become a major global land use.

This version of the story places conservation firmly within a tradition of opposition to industrialised modernity and commerce and development.  According to this narrative, the pioneering middle-class and aristocratic refuseniks of the Victorian and Edwardian era were the forerunners of today’s environmentalists.  But is this true?  Not really.  Environmentalism as a movement in industrialised countries in the 1960s certainly drew on ecology, and concern for species and ecosystems, for example in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) with its indictment of organochlorine pesticides.  But it become much broader, concerned not just with species or spaces but with human population, consumption and economic growth.

In 1972, The Ecologist launched its Blueprint for Survival heralding ‘the dawn of a new age in which Man will learn to live with the rest of Nature rather than against it’.  The same year saw the publication of The Limits to Growth (which sold 12m copies in 37 languages), and the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.  That began the slow beat of concern about sustainable development, marked by vast conferences where the idea of a global community of nations was conjured and begged to save the earth: the Brundtland Report, Rio, Johannesburg and most recently Rio again.

That meeting, Rio+20, was portrayed as ‘a chance to move away from business-as-usual and to act to end poverty, address environmental destruction and build a bridge to the future’.  This is the official face of environmentalism: a refashioning of the regulatory systems of friendly nation states, a re-focusing of the neoliberal world economy to make it ‘green’, all driven by culture shifts in humankind.  The hope is that with sharpened sensibility, we will ask our governments, employers, manufacturers and traders to deliver our dreams, within the bounds of ‘sustainability’.  All will live happily ever after.

This model suits conservation quite well.  If development can be made ‘sustainable’, then surely its environmental impacts will be addressed, and biodiversity will flourish.  Moreover, conservation itself, by protecting nature, can become part of the process of delivering sustainability: cue funding for ‘conservation with development’.  Back at the turn of the millennium, David Hulme and Marshall Murphree wrote in the Journal of International Development of the emergence of  ‘new conservation’, involving a shift from a concern to protect nature from the market to a concern to achieve conservation through the market, from a focus on preservation to the pursuit of sustainable development, trying to achieve both conservation and development at the same time.  For conservation, this magic was chiefly pursued at the local level, under the rubric of ‘community conservation’ or CBNRM.

Some opposed this shift within conservation, of course.  John Oates memorably argued in Myth and Reality in the Rainforest that an excessive emphasis on development could lead to ‘a de-emphasis of conservation goals to the extent that they are no longer seriously addressed’.   Outside conservation, the social impact of conventional protectionist conservation, especially the displacement of local people and the creation of ‘conservation refugees’ became the focus of fierce critiques of conservation by human rights activists and academics.

Meanwhile, the global love affair with markets as a solution to all possible policy problems consumed all before it.  Neoliberalism came to dominate thinking about relations between society and nature, and became a central dynamic of conservation itself. As Chris Sandbrook reports, scholars are busy analysing how capitalism has energetically ‘grabbed’ green agendas. Conservation outcomes are increasingly driven by markets for real and virtual ‘nature’.

Conservation today does not stand against the system of industrialised production and mass consumption, it places itself firmly inside it.  Conservationists either fail to find this strange, or imagine that with a few tweaks, capitalism can be made to work for nature and not against it.  Meanwhile, the dominant conservation business model is based on commercial sponsorship, revenue from sales of luxury goods and services, and endless travel for wealthy wildlife tourists, increasingly visiting private nature facilities.

Conservation organisations increasingly look to corporations, for sponsorship, for influence, and in the hope of transforming their activities.  As John Robinson describes, the engagement is tricky.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concern to many corporations, particularly those with brands to protect in Western high streets.  A shift from profit-maximisation to environmental conservation runs counter to shareholder interests.  Indeed, critics of neoliberal conservation argue that the reverse process is happening, with corporations taking over conservation to secure future streams of revenue.

It is strange that conservationists should imagine that the engine of nature’s destruction can so easily be tamed, and turned into a ‘sustainable’ motor that will quietly power conservation.  This is a pipe dream.  Current patterns of production and consumption are responsible for most forms of biodiversity loss.   The Anthropocene era is bad news for most non-human species.  As we barge blithely out of our estimated ‘safe operating space’, climate change, driven by release of fossil carbon in fuelling the world economy, has a serious implications for living diversity.  Yet impacts are not confined to climate: Manfred Lenzen and others suggested in Nature last year that one third of threats to species on the IUCN Red List were due to due to global trade in commodities like tea, coffee, palm oil, sugar and textiles.  A follow-up letter suggested the estimate was conservative.

The hitch therefore for a conservation that is based on the conventional sustainable development model, is that it will not work: it cannot provide a secure future for either human society or other species. Capitalism destroys nature as it extracts profit, and it is hard to see how any amount of tweaking production and consumption is going to effect the transition needed.

Environmentalism’s challenge to the current version of sustainability is to seek, in Tim Jackson’s words, prosperity without growth, to develop strategies for degrowth.  This will involve some kind of transition out of the current endless pursuit of increased production and consumption.  This requires political, economic and cultural strategies for contraction and convergence, and a new regime of social control on capital. Production needs to be transformed, de-carbonizing energy generation, de-linking energy consumption from economic growth, dematerializing production (radically reducing material throughput of raw materials and the production of waste).  And there must be a parallel transformation of consumption, reducing human demands on the biosphere to levels that can be sustained, redirecting consumption to less destructive forms.  And while we are at it, we need to redistribute consumption to the less well off: otherwise environmentalism becomes just the defence of the lifestyles of the rich.   To contradict George H.W. Bush, missing the spirit of Rio in 1992, the American way of life must be negotiable (as that of the UK and every other wealthy, gas-guzzling industrialised country).

This is an unnerving agenda, indeed it is not really an agenda at all, but a manifesto, a statement of possibilities.  There is no road map for transition, just theories and local experiments, mere straws in the wind.  But the need for transition is deadly serious. Nothing else offers a way forwards for humanity that addresses our demands on the biosphere.  Nothing else offers the basis of a true strategy for conservation.

And here’s the rub: the challenge of developing a transition from the twentieth century growth model is not consistently part of the conservation agenda.  Conservation plays on a much smaller stage, mopping nature’s wounds not addressing the cause of injury.  Biodiversity conservation and environmentalism have different agendas, and there is a widening gulf between them: between conservation with its increasingly sophisticated protection of species and spaces, and environmentalism with its demand for radical change to production and consumption.

Most, perhaps all, individual conservationists care deeply about sustainability.  Moreover, many conservation organisations accept the need to respond corporately as they urge their commercial partners to rise to the challenges of profligate consumption of carbon.  Yet I see little explicit commitment beyond a pursuit of extinction’s endgame, protecting more and more of less and less undisturbed nature. With the exception of editorial essays, I see scant acknowledgement in conservation journals, magazines and websites of the need to challenge current systems of production and consumption, let alone a commitment to addressing the environmental contradictions within capitalism.  Too few conservationists make the carbon connection.

Stephen Emmott observes: ‘the behavioural changes that are required of us are so fundamental that no one wants to make them’.  He means by ‘us’ humanity, but his comment applies quite as well to conservationists in particular.  Is it time to face up to the 4×4 in the room? (sorry, we are a bit low on elephants).  Conservation is not sustaining a biodiverse world, but negotiating for bubbles of diversity amidst profound transformation.  It is better than nothing, but not by any means enough.   Peter Forbes argues that conservation should be about ‘the making of lives that are worth living’.   That means working for transition, not just tigers.

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10 thoughts on “Tigers or Transition?

  1. My feeling is this – Our anscestors learnt to dominate nature in order to survive. Then as that domination became too strong we learnt that we must live with nature. There are too many of us on the planet to do this without some miracle technology appearing so until that day arrives I think we have to learn to mimic nature. Capitalism is a fairly good mimic of nature with one major flaw. It is driven by individuals who will actively seek to destroy every last trace of competition. Nature is equally destructive but as a species it is easier to hide in nooks and crannies as disaster passes over. The none selective hand of destructive nature drives our bidiverse planet. C

  2. Sorry but my leave a reply box locks up. What I am trying to say is that most capitalists are no worse than a forest fire in which a pine tree finally gets to open its cones but that Mean Capitalists like Arnie relentless terminators need to be stopped. Who are we to say whether or not tigers are critical to the survival of the planet but I think it is important that the principle of genetic conservation in seed banks, zoos and reservations of all species is critical to the long term future of our descendents when nature has wiped most of us out. I think biodiversity conservation should be part of the environmental movement.

  3. Sustainability is about balancing desire with need through self regulation. Conservation to date has beens about restoring balance to an unbalanced system but in contrast conservation is in danger of going the other way and toppling the sustainable balance. Capitalist economies, conservation and sustainability work as a threesome.

  4. Science in bed with capitalism would be all right if we were all robots but we are not. The missing parts of your sustainability equation are polemics and skills. Without these having a voice any drive for sustainability is false. As geographers you are in the prime position to speak to the Lost People for it is them who hold the key to a balanced future. But do you all have the courage to go there?

  5. This is a brilliant essay on the need to seek alternatives for a sustainable life. It’s a formidable task at the same time as the corporate world has laid it’s firm grip on the political governance with industrial economy having established deep roots. There is yet a possibility if means of production could be tranferred to the communities from the few individuals controlling all economic activities.Representatives of communities also can decide the kind of technologies needed to produce the needs of the societies in such a way that development is designed keeping in mind the levels of sustainabilty.
    To bring about such a tranformation we need a radical change in thinking and our education. Education today is fragmented hence progress and development are skewed and linear causing dammage to environment and society in many ways.We are at a loss understand the things that happen around us because we have no ability to connect one thing with the other. A holistic understanding of life can come through integration of knowledge and drive towards this need should emerge at both local and a global level. A cultural revolution to determine lifestyles that are sustainable has to begin at the earliest.

    • I agree with the need for more holistic understanding but I don’t think that education is at fault. Education seeks to expand the mind and allow us to see all possibilities, however it is communication that brings us all back together in a fresh holistic way. Unfortunately people have learnt to parrot their education as opposed to discussing the multitude of unanswered questions that education delivers.

  6. What a brilliantly written piece. I am among those who ask that significant parts of this planet be left totally alone so that nature’s production factory is able to do what it was designed to do since life on earth began. These biodiversity areas will spill over into human dominated landscapes, where their “produce” can be harvested according to law and social custom. In days of yore such untouched geographies were called ‘temple forests’ where vast parcels of land were set aside for dead ancestors… and where no living human dared walk. Several times a year, on special occasions, priests would escort villagers into these hallowed precincts, as much to cleanse the human spirit and keep alive connections with ancestors, as to conduct ‘audits’ to confirm that no damage had been surreptitiously done. These ‘core areas’ were inviolate.

    Today, with traditional cultures having largely vanished, actual temple forests, much as we love to venerate them, are not large enough, nor respected enough to perform the ecological role that the subcontinent requires. Some landscapes must therefore necessarily be placed out of bounds of rich or poor. But, as this particularly meaningful text from the article states: “Conservation plays on a much smaller stage, mopping nature’s wounds not addressing the cause of injury.” Therefore, representatives of industry on the one hand, and human rights on the other, lay unlimited claim to all lands, with predictable effect.

    Absolutists on both ends of the scale (“Let’s industrialise and farm till we die” on the one hand and “vaporise humans and leave the entire planet alone” on the other) are equally loony. Humans impacts have begun to rival geologic change on the planet. In India, the physical havoc caused to natural ecosystems by industrial pillage through mining, dams, roads, and urbanisation is matched if not exceeded today by deforestation at the hands of encroachments for marginal farms, most of which fail to feed famiies in a few short years, forcing them to move deeper into forests. Both the rich (industry and city-dwellers) and the poor (rural folk and forest-fringe dwellers) are therefore locked into “customs” that create wastelands.

    The bottom line is that nature will not deliver us any judgments at all… only consequences… such as climate change and its handmaidens — floods, droughts, disease and social unrest. And while articulating this, I realise, with humility, that I am the very problem I want solved.

  7. Pingback: Peeling the onion: how deep should conservation go? | Thinking like a human

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