Keep Capitalism Out of Conservation

Yves here. I must confess to finding the argument made by soi-disant ecologist Thomas Eisner to be revolting, as if the reason to preserve rain forests is for better human exploitation. We will never pull out of our climate/environmental nose dive if we see everything as meant to serve only us, and even worse, only pretty immediately. This attitude strikes me as going beyond capitalism, and goes back to Genesis:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

I know Louis C.K. has gone out of fashion, but IMHO he nailed it here (I wish I did not have to use the animated version but it is all I could find on YouTube):

By Louise Fabiani, whose science writing and critical essays have appeared previously in Undark, as well as in Sierra, JSTOR Daily, Aeon, Slate, Science, New Scientist, the TLS, and elsewhere. Originally published at Undark

A few years after earning my master’s degree in environmental studies, I attended a public lecture at McGill University, my alma mater. The famed chemical ecologist Thomas Eisner concluded his talk on “The Hidden Value of Nature” by saying that a major reason for protecting rainforests is the possibility of finding the next wonder drug there. I recall asking him if, by putting a higher value on particular plants (or animals or fungi), there wasn’t a danger of caring less for everything else, namely the species that do not appear useful. The question seemed to surprise him, but I don’t remember how he replied.

Eisner’s rhetoric clashed with my biocentric view of the environment — and may have proved unnecessary. His small audience consisted of science professors, students, and alumni like me — presumably pre-sold on the idea of biological conservation. He was not tasked with convincing shareholders in the pharmaceutical industry or owners of cattle operations to allow some of the planet’s living jewels, tropical rainforests, to keep on living. His appeal “to reason” lifted arguments straight out of the capitalism handbook.

Everyone from biodiversity prospectors to ecologists seeks to unveil the hidden value of everything in the natural world, with or without different ends in mind. Some things are considered goods, like the Madagascar periwinkle, source of vincristine, an alkaloid used for chemotherapy; others are services, like a mushroom’s ability to detoxify soil.

In the decades since Eisner’s talk, conservationists have drawn attention to the idea of ecosystem services, or ES, that they once directed to individual poster-child species. In the 1990s, the endangered spotted owl became an emblem of old-growth, West coast forests, with protesters trying to halt logging — and angry loggers putting a price of a different kind on the owl’s feathered head. These days, the conservationist’s greatest rhetorical weapon for garnering support for their causes tends to be the story of a whole ecosystem and its many wonders.

The argument goes as follows: When nature provides free of charge something humans need or want, that utility justifies losing any revenue earned from exploiting or even destroying the ecosystem in question. A good example might be deciding not to build a fancy beachside resort that would eventually ruin the nearest coral reef, home to a vibrant marine community that helps feed local people and attracts tourists. There is hardly anything more fundamental to economics than the cost-benefit analysis.

The field of study has branched out since the 1970s, when the concept of ES first appeared. The United Nations–affiliated Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, employs the contentious term “sustainable use” as it lists the ways humanity depends on the more-than-human world. Environmental scientist Gretchen Daily’s work has given rise to the Natural Capital Project, an ambitious program that urges world leaders to appreciate nature — essentially by putting a monetary value on it. Then there’s the catchy term “nature-based solutions,” which proposes ways to employ ES to improve human welfare. Its appeal lies in cases of immediate need, such as using green spaces to decrease urban heat-island effects.

A recent editorial in Science admits that biodiversity credits — which provide a way for companies to finance activities that, on the whole, increase biodiversity — may sound like promising sources of conservation funds. But the authors contend that “the risk that trading ill-defined generic biodiversity credits will result in biodiversity loss, not conservation, should be considered. Scarce resources could be diverted to market regulation rather than conservation.” Even The Economist Impact notes that the “difficulty of quantifying biodiversity units as opposed to carbon units renders impact assessment challenging.”

And then there is the startling rise this century of green (or eco-) capitalism — to some, an oxymoron. Capitalism seeks endless growth. Ecology sees growth as part of a larger process. So why has conservation embraced capitalism so enthusiastically? The quick answer is that everyone understands money — how it changes hands, how it accumulates, what happens when it’s scarce — and most realize that conservation can be extremely expensive. The typical nature-lover would save endangered species and spaces at almost any cost; after all, extinction is forever. As a result, those working to protect nature frame their efforts in language people grasp immediately. Unfortunately, that can mean mentioning, say, a mangrove swamp’s amazing ability to absorb coastal storm surges in the same breath as the cost of real estate protected.

One recent opinion piece observed that “scientific articles increasingly highlight the benefits of, rather than the threats to, habitats,” the latter being too gloomy, off-putting. Talking about how urban tree cover reduces the heat-island effect sounds positive. In contrast, describing yet another unfolding disaster will turn many people off.

A team of environmental researchers in 2013 described several major metaphors for our actual or potential relationships with the rest of the living world. Of these, the researchers wrote, one predominates: economic production, meaning that humans treat nature like a warehouse and service center. I have found that the old idea of stewardship — which at least cautions the dominant species, us, to take good care of everything else — is about the best metaphor currently available. That isn’t saying much. Anthropocentrism remains front and center, no matter how it’s dressed up.

We certainly need to obtain raw materials from the geosphere and the biosphere, but other species do not exist for us. It can be a challenge to tease these realities apart, especially as many cultures condone human privilege to use “resources” as we see fit.

As I brashly pointed out to a respected scientist many years ago, whenever we call certain species or communities “valuable,” we create de facto categories — in-groups and out-groups. This is profoundly arrogant and myopic. As the iconic 20th-century conservationist Aldo Leopold said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” No one can deny that we are master tinkerers, but maybe not such intelligent ones. The species we end up devaluing could be linchpins for ecological processes yet to be comprehended.

As ES research continues, and persuasive examples accumulate, how do researchers, editors, and science journalists frame the results? Do they uncritically further the capitalist, everything-has-a-price agenda? Do they reinforce the idea that humanity possesses some right to pass judgment on which organisms best suit us and our chosen companions? Finally, when we discover these wonders and decide what to do with them — exploit or protect — do we ensure reparations to local peoples thereby avoiding charges of biopiracy or environmental injustice?

A recent article in Nature proposes taking neither an anthropocentric nor a purely biocentric approach to evaluating nature, but a diverse, “pluricentric” one. Instead of objectifying the natural world, we ought to see ourselves as part of it, a stance commonly associated with Indigenous peoples.

In the meantime, ignorance, arrogance, and stubborn adherence to outmoded capitalist mythologies — not to mention the climate crisis — almost ensure that threats to biodiversity will increase. We know far too little to make snap “Sophie’s Choice” decisions about what to save, exploit, or merely leave to its fate. The market adds complications. Let’s cultivate some humility, in both science and society. We clearly cannot save everything, but we must not believe that putting a price on nature’s functions is the best way to save as much as possible.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately (a good thing), so animals who are able to communicate with other species, including humans, are the norm. With that context, maybe we could set up a “Shark Tank” like show where different species could come before The Billionaires and make their case for survival. Of course, the only way to win over the Masters of the Universe is for a species to make the case how it could make them even richer. Pity any species whose slot comes when Bill Gates is a guest judge. He hates living things.

    1. Trees&Trunks

      Or how about letting the billionaires confront venomonous snakes, a couple of lions and tigers as well as a couple of hippos with kids and let them argue why the animals shouldn‘t kill them? That would be a more fair set up as well as mirroring the real risks

  2. Wukchumni

    E.O. Wilson related that we ought to keep 50% of the world alone to save us from ourselves, and as far as I can tell, the only place that really happens in the USA Is our National Parks, where everything is protected from the hand of man.

    There’s 404,000 acres in Sequoia NP, and there might be a few hundred acres that have any sort of developed areas.

    Aside from intrepid travelers on foot or horse seeing themselves as part of it, for all intents and purposes it looks abandoned as far as humanity is concerned.

    1. Socal Rhino

      Well, if a few centuries happen first, the deity may express satisfaction with the way the cockroaches have overseen things.

    2. NYMutza

      What you say about the national parks is not entirely true. Yosemite National Park is in no way, shape, or form a protected wilderness area. Instead, it is has become a Disneyland of sorts. The wilderness areas of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are an exception, not the rule. Most of the popular national parks are heavily commercialized and overrun with visitors who demand all kinds of services. National park rangers often carry firearms, even the back country seasonal rangers.

      1. Wukchumni

        99% of the visitors to both Yosemite & Sequoia NP only go to 1% of the area within both National Parks, while 1% goes to 99% of them.

        None of the backcountry rangers in Sequoia NP carry firearms, by the way.

        The reason being that they used to, but earned an extra $7 an hour in doing so, and seeing as we treat the NP’s like a leper colony as far as funding them, the decision was made to disarm them, to save money.

        1. Carolinian

          I’ll join you in defending the Park Service. But i’ll also add that vast swaths of the West are just as special as the National Parks and their sheer remoteness protects them unless the BLM or Forest Service moves in. So it’s a mixed bag.

        2. NYMutza

          The point I was making is that the national parks have been heavily commercialized for the most part. Private interests see profit opportunities in serving the masses who visit the parks and so the park service obliges them by allowing them to set up shop – lodges, restaurants, tours, and the like. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg. The wilderness areas are less visited precisely because they don’t contain all kinds of creature comforts, while the non-wilderness areas contain all kinds of creature comforts and no longer resemble what a national park experience should feel like. Large parts of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Smoky Mountains national parks have been debased because of so much commercialization. The park service does a good job trying to protect these lands, but politics often gets in the way so little by little things get worse as budget cuts and profit seeking take their toll.

          1. Wukchumni

            Large parts of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Smoky Mountains national parks have been debased because of so much commercialization.

            Nah, its all the same deal, a sliver of each of the NP’s mentioned is touristy and overrun with people, while the vast majority of the terrain receives almost no visitation, nor is there anything to buy-your money is about useless in the back of beyond.

          2. Carla

            We visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon in 2017. It was still pretty special and unspoiled then. Hope people keep going to the south rim!

            1. Carolinian

              Boy that’s a long drive to get to. I’ve only been once.

              As Wuk has pointed out there are typically more Asians and Europeans at the parks on any given day than Americans. We clog their museums and cathedrals and they pay us back by flocking to, per Ken Burns, “America’s best.” I don’t think nature itself is suffering from this, but those who prefer solitude may be. It is what it is. At peak times it can be hard to even get into Yosemite or to park at Zion. Long lines form at the entrance stations of the GC. Guess we USians will all have to get snow shoes and go when the tourists don’t.

              1. Wukchumni

                Walked from rim to rim in a day starting from the North Rim about 20 years ago, and we took a shuttle bus from the South Rim to get there-which is as you say, a long ride. Along the way we passed by some of the most hardscrabble Native American settlements i’ve ever seen, made Appalachia seem prosperous. These were not the casino tribes.

                It was the longest day hike of my life and really felt as if we were walking through time, which of course we were, geologic time-that is.

    3. steppenwolf fetchit

      If Indian Nations people lived in that area before the California Conquest, and if they oversaw eco-system maintaining managed burning, then they were excercising the hand of Tribal Man to the benefit of that area.
      I don’t know if they were or not, but if they were, then if would show that the right kind of hand of the right kind of man is a good thing.

      1. NYMutza

        Forests have been burning since long before the First Peoples arrived on the scene. “Managing” forests has always been a sham. “Managed” or “controlled” burning is also a sham. Left to their own devices the vast majority of forest fires, in the somewhat distant past, burned themselves out. It is logging industry propaganda that thinning forests reduces wildfire risk. In fact, there is ample evidence to conclude the opposite.

        1. Jorge

          The First Peoples burned the hell out of Cali for reasons, here are 2:
          1. If you burn out the oak forests, in the following years acorns have less pest damage. They ate a lot of acorns.
          2. If you burn out the forests where reed grasses on the ground, in the following years the grasses are taller and of higher quality. They made a lot of baskets.

          1. steppenwolf fetchit

            If this is true and this really happened, it is more evidence that Indian Burning was a real thing rather than a sham.

            And if it had been pursued for several thousand years before the arrival of the Conquering Settlerists, that would show that it created a guidedly-stable ecosystem state.

          2. Wukchumni

            Yes, also think of the sightlines for hunting that greatly improved when you get rid of the brush, not to mention protecting the oak trees that provided 2/3rds of their food via acorns, from being burned down.

  3. Mikel

    The real answer that should have been given to God in the Louis CK skit when he said, “I gave you everything you needed. What are you doing?”

    Human: “Some people wanted it all for themselves.”

  4. jefemt

    If you don’t have, you really must have, and re-read at least once every couple of years, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. It is a dense and powerful little read.

    Glad to see that his notion of keeping all the parts was in thgis essay. Makes me think i-of the old Celestial Seasonings herbal tea boxes, that were loaded with quotes:

    What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered (Emerson)

    Hang in there, everyone!

    1. Carla

      Omigosh, I bought that little book a couple of years ago and mislaid it before cracking it. Now I have to go searching…

  5. jefemt

    I was thinking Fiat is as detrimental to the world as is the discovery of Oil.
    They both sure have enabled population and growth over-shoot, which is the Root Cause of most any other real or perceived issues facing all species.

    The way ‘we’ choose to live, I am thinking the No Free Will school of thought seems to have evidential merit?

  6. Eclair

    A recent Seattle Times report, Private Timberland from WA to CA Lost Billions in Value Due to Wildfires, encapsulates the contradictions inherent in capitalism.

    Calling forests ‘timberland’ marks them as being a commodity for the production of wood (timber) for construction purposes. They have lost ‘value,’ calculated in dollars, not primarily due to their being destroyed by wildfires, but to the threat that in the future they may be destroyed by wildfires. No concept of their ‘value’ as forests-per-se, producers of oxygen, home to countless species of life, both animal and plant. Or their value for just ‘being:’ sacred spaces that nourish and heal.

    We accept, pretty much without question, the notion that land can be ‘owned’ by a human person, or a corporation masquerading as a human person. That entire forests or millions of acres of farmland or hundreds of acres of prime grouse-shooting moorlands, can be ‘legally’ controlled by one person or family or corporation. That a person, who has amassed enough money can actually ‘buy’ part of the planet. And, then, under our almost universally accepted Roman legal concept of ‘jus abutendi,’ set about destroying it, by clear-cutting, strip-mining, building a chemical plant, spreading poison herbicides and pesticides, or building a MacMansion.

    1. NYMutza

      Your comment brought back an experience I had a couple of decades ago in Kings Canyon National Park. I happened to be camped near the Roaring River Ranger Station when a relatively small fire broke out. The trail out that I intended to take was within the fire zone so the ranger directed me to another route that eventually led me out, though 25 miles from where my car was parked. In conversation with her she mentioned that fires in national forest land are quickly suppressed, while those in the national park are left to burn (assuming firefighting resources are limited, as they often are). She explained that the trees in national forests are often harvested under permits granted by the forest service and so they are more valuable than trees in national parks which are prohibited from being harvested.

      1. Wukchumni

        Here in Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP, there are few roads, and harvesting wood in the back of beyond is a pipe dream, as you’d need a heavy lift helicopter to make it happen.

        The only prescribed burns in the wilderness come via lightning strike fires, and the Redwood Fire this summer and fall (it still isn’t fully out yet) 15 miles into the backcountry was a good example of the response NPS is capable of.

        Initially it was 10 acres in size and if NPS really wanted to, they could have extinguished it pretty easy, but the only way you can pull off a prescribed burn in the wilderness is an alliance with Thor’s Hammer…

        This one just happened to be near the Redwood Meadow grove of Giant Sequoias, and the Superintendent we have here is really a keeper, and he authorized the pyre proceedings, and now some 2,300 acres later you’d have to say it was a great success, and funny enough it was about the largest fire in the Sierra this year, after losing about a million acres in 2020-21 to out of control wildfires.

  7. Carolinian

    Modified Shakespeare: ‘first kill all the economists’? (capitalism’s lawyers)

    However I’ll hop on my favorite hobby horse and point out that we too are part of nature and the urge to make ever greater numbers of us is also part of that. So if this is about ethics then the fate of the many who never asked to be born must also be taken into account. Just like global warming it’s not a simple thing to solve.

    Still the gratuitous and harmful to humans exploitation of nature certainly can’t be defended. Giant palm oil plantations come to mind. A Solomon like ability to do what’s best is needed.

    1. NYMutza

      The majority of the world’s human population lives largely hand-to-mouth. They don’t have the luxury of taking the long view. If they are hungry they will fish. And they will continue to fish until all of the fish are gone. If they are cold they will cut down trees to burn for heat (and to cook the fish they caught). They will do this until the trees are all gone. This should not be unexpected. What is missing is leadership. Wise ones who look far beyond today’s urgent needs and consider the future many generations ahead. The political economy most of the world lives in has a very short term view – literally three month cycles of profit and loss statements. No civilization can last long with this mindset. Palm oil plantations are a symptom of the illness that is capitalism. As long as capitalism abides things will continue to deteriorate. Societies will eventually collapse.

  8. greg

    Economics begins with the simple observation that, given limited resources, it is impossible to satisfy all wants simultaneously. Choices and trade-offs have to be made. Economists generally have a high regard for market mechanisms as a way to make many choices efficiently. It is generally understood that environmental impacts–or more generally, external effects–represent a challenge to free market doctrines. Rainforests pose a particularly difficult challenge for public policy. In the area of stationary-source air pollution, US environmental policy has set ambient air-quality standards, and prevention of significant deterioration in pristine areas. Within these limits, firms can trade-off pollution from one smokestack vs another, and one firm can pollute more by paying another firm to pollute less, as long as the ambient air quality standards are still met. Such policies have been generally successful. Simply to express a visceral dislike of capitalism is not very helpful.

    1. Carla

      It’s true, disliking capitalism may not be “helpful.” IMHO, dismantling it as quickly as humanly possible would be, though — because just tinkering with its symptoms, with games such as trading pollution credits, cannot possibly lead us to the degree and speed of change necessary to save essential ecosystems and humanity.

      Choices and trade-offs may well have to be made. My guess: they won’t often be ones that economists can envision.

      1. greg

        On the contrary, defined rights and transferability make possible a better environment for a given level of cost than a lack of transferability. Imaginary government tends to be better than the real thing. State ownership of natural resources in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Congo, etc has been far more disastrous than the actual outcomes in Western countries.

    2. the invisible hand's iron glove

      sure but capitalism starts every resource allocation inquiry with “first take 30% off the top and hand it to the richest guy in the room. that’s his paycheck for telling you what to do with the other 70%.” the value in this proposition does not appear to obtain in every single domain.

  9. greg

    On the contrary, defined rights and transferability make possible a better environment for a given level of cost than a lack of transferability. Imaginary government tends to be better than the real thing. State ownership of natural resources in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Congo, etc has been far more disastrous than the actual outcomes in Western countries.

    1. TomDority

      I thought most of the environmental problems were caused by Western countries and obviously, “defined rights and transferability make possible a better environment for a given level of cost than a lack of transferability” indicates that our given level of cost has been starved due to the value of money being greater than the value of a place for all species to live in this economic system that greatly distorts the whole Free Market hallucination.

  10. rob

    I think an aspect of this whole problem swirls around the idea of “the commons”.
    capitalism uber Alles…. says, the commons belong to those who buy it. then they get to control and “care” for it.
    There are so few “commons”, and getting fewer.

    If the commons were to be given a seat at the table, then capitalism would have its boundaries

    Starting with keeping the air,water,and soil clean. Anti-pollution laws that are enforced.
    Things like the commons of MONEY, if the way money was made was changed from it being created by private banks, and created for public good instead.
    the electromagnetic spectrum, aka “airwaves”… that used to belong to the people before they were sold off… could instead be given back to the people who could require political access be given to ideas… instead of free speech for those with the most money. it would provide ways for the people to get to know “the commons” and decide who will actually care for it. etc.
    monetizing nature is the wrong way to go.only a fool would think otherwise.

  11. Riverchurningclam

    It is disappointing to see Yves Smith and Louise Fabiani slinging cheap shots at a dead naturalist, in the service of beating a dead horse. Tom Eisner (deceased for over 10 years) was a pioneer in the study of how insects chemically defend themselves, and massively contributed to our understanding of interactions in the natural world. Back in the 1990’s, when Fabiani’s shakily remembered conversation evidently took place, he probably was indeed a backer of saving rainforests by discovering valuable drugs in them. At the time, “drugs from the rainforests” was seen as the most convincing argument against cutting them down. Along with Eisner, Paul Ehrlich, Tom Lovejoy, Ed Wilson, Peter Raven, and many others in the conservation movement felt that bioprospecting was the best argument for slowing down the chainsaws. Costa Rica and Merck became world famous when they signed a 5-year deal to develop Costa Rica’s rainforest drug potential while at the same time giving Costa Rica a fair access to the (assumed) subsequent profit windfall.

    The wheels came off the bandwagon of course, in the early 2000’s, for very capitalistic reasons. A good summary of how the windfalls failed to materialize can be found here. The Big Pharma types that tried industrial-scale mass screening for active compounds came up largely empty (Merck withdrew from Costa Rica after their 5-year contract was up). Some small companies, using the detailed study methods pioneered by Eisner, did better and identified several promising compounds. However the fever dream of huge conservation gains through “public-private partnerships” seems to have been largely abandoned for the last two decades.

    “Getting capitalism out of conservation” is another marvelous dream that can’t seem to get off the ground. Those same 1990’s that saw the surge of the bioprospecting idea also saw a surge “anticapitalist” viewpoints in Deep Ecology, rights for nature, animal rights, and biocentric writings. The biocentric view seems to be having a resurgence recently in the final days of massive climate change. But critiquing capitalism doesn’t seem to be driving any more concrete change than the dead horse of pricing nature.

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