The purpose of this blog is to explore and extend new ideas in conservation. Sometimes we will post short articles that reflect our current research, thinking and work, at other times we will comment on current issues and debates. We hope you find this blog interesting and we welcome comments and feedback

Richard J. Ladle

Friday, 22 January 2010

Conservation in the New World Order - what to do?

One outcome of Copenhagen is the realization that global geopolitics has changed: China and the other big developing countries (Brazil, India, etc.) are now major international players. One prediction in our new book is that the influence of China will transform the basis of international conservation.

We suggest that international conservation is approaching the end of a golden-age when it was able to piggy-back on western political and economic power overseas. Developing countries in need of investments had no choice but to look to western countries which typically attached various ‘conditions’ to their low cost loans and grant aid. Conservationists have been adept at using this technique to ‘pyggy-back conservation and sustainable resource management on development aid, and this has enabled them to create partnership and build influence (welcome or otherwise) with developing country governments.

The phenomenal growth in the Chinese economy and the need to find the raw materials to fuel it means that China’s influence in developing countries is increasing. China doesn’t do development ‘aid’ in the western sense; instead its big state companies negotiate joint venture deals with state-owned companies in developing countries. These deals commonly involve the construction of infra-structure (e.g. roads and railways) in return for resources and/or a stake in resource extraction companies.

Such investment will undoubtedly benefit the poor of these countries, but improved access is also likely to hasten the demise of wildlife and forests. For instance, the last relatively untouched forests of the Congo are likely to be utterly transformed in the next 30-40 years. What’s more, developing countries now have access to a new major source of development investment - and one that doesn’t come with the same environmental strings attached.

In our view, the economic rise of China poses a major future challenge for international conservation. In the 1970s Max Nicholson astutely identified the need for a new generation of conservation bureaucrats with the skills to graft conservation onto the logics and agendas of international development. The type of person international conservation will need in the future is less easy to discern – mandarin speaking corporate managers, maybe? The point is we need to start thinking about this now, and about how international conservation can adapt to the new geopolitical realties.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Copenhagen conundrum: time to talk social vision?

bnm/.zxIn our minds Copenhagen has confirmed the inability of our political leaders to raise above backward looking self-interest and lead us towards a vision of a better world. Perhaps we need to change the way the climate change issue is framed.

In 2004 we responded to newspaper headlines claiming that climate change would cause 1 million species to go extinct by 2050” with the argument that sensationalist reporting of science risks tuning people off and undermines the credibility of scientists (Link for papers). Each year we debate with our students the merits of ‘over-egging’ science in media reporting and the related issue of fear-based messaging.

The arguments for and against are finely balanced. Overall we’ve moved to the view that headlines of impending doom help push an issue up the political agenda and attract people’s attention. However, we also argue that doomsday messages of future catastrophe and social collapse do little to bring about meaningful and lasting social change. This is because most people are focused on the everyday and block out (or worse dismiss) issues that are distant or beyond their control. A recent study by Saffron O'Niel and Sophie Nicholson-Cole in Science Communication link supports this premise and argues for more research on how to promote a 'deeper personal concern and lifestyle engagement with climate change'.

Maybe the lesson from Copenhagen is that fear-based messaging can bring politicians to the table but struggles to create the atmosphere for a solution. When faced with a serious problem we instinctively look after our own. Perhaps in order to move forward, we need to finds ways to articulate future visions for society that frame low-carbon futures as something we'd all aspire to because they hold the prospect of better and more fulfilling lives for ourselves and our children. I short we need to balance the ‘hurt to avoid bigger hurt’, narrative with a ‘building for a better future’ narrative.

To do this we should look to broaden the diversity of actors actively debating climate change of solutions. We need to move beyond the climate scientists-NGO-activist-bureaucratic nexus and their deployment of anxiety to mobilize and legitimate political action. Instead, we need to encourage and look to scholars from other disciplines - from psychology, philosophy, sociology and politics - to enter the fray and along with artists, writers, film-makers, religious leaders to engage publics in discussions on visions for low-carbon societies that we’d all want to be part of.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Conservation needs to emphasize nature's cultural services

Over these two weeks 100’s of conservation executives, lobbyists and campaigners will be in Copenhagen for the UNCFF COP 15. For sure they’ve gone there to pressure, inform and add to the collective zeitgeist that hopefully will lead governments to strike a deal on climate change. However these conferences are also spaces where new discourses on conservation and the environment take form and our conservation organizations need to be part of this to keep pace with the policy and funding game.

The concept of ecosystem services is moving to centre stage as conservation logics seek to align with those of climate change mitigation and adaption. The REDD mechanism is all about maintaining and restoring the contributions of forest to global carbon budgets and everything else is a ‘co-benefit’. All this means that ‘biodiversity’ is starting to look very 1990s. Conservation International, for example, has re-orientated its strategic plan to make ecosystem services a2 headline cause 1.

A focus on ecosystem services is nothing new. Indeed Richard Grove (1992) traces the origins of conservation to 18th century scientific societies in the colonies who established the link between man-made ecological change, agrarian failure and social unrest. In simpler days when scientists were part of colonial governing elites and when decisions were made by scores rather than thousands, their advice had influence. Watershed forests were established across the colonies and a set of utilitarian value-arguments for conservation and rational resource management took root within the inter-sate polity.

So is the renewed emphasis on ecosystem services actually keeping conservation true to its roots? We would argue yes and no. Managing nature for the benefit of humans has long dominated government support for conservation agendas. However, the origins of conservation as a popular concern and cultural force can be traced to suite of moral and aesthetic value arguments promoted by the founders of many of our household-name conservation NGOs. Notably among these are values such as i) humanity has a moral duty to not knowingly cause the extinction of other life forms; ii) monuments of nature that prompt aesthetic, spiritual and intellectual engagement of part of cultural heritages, and; iii) access to nature promotes mental and physical well-being.

A key question for us is where should 21st century conservation NGOs be focusing their talents, energies and resources? Should it primarily be on ecosystem services (including climate change), poverty alleviation and livelihoods or should they also be investing heavily in reinvigorating the cultural relevance and value of conservation?

We find Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs a useful concept for thinking about this question. It reminds us that governments derive their public legitimacy from assuring and providing the basic necessities of life. Many civil society organizations gain theirs through helping individuals and collectives to meet the ‘higher’ human’ needs. The conservation movement has been hugely effective in this endeavor. Among other things it has contributed to the creation of national identities, produced recreational practices that enrich lives and helped build respect and compassion for non-human life forms. However, as conservation NGOs engage with government and accept lucrative service-delivery contracts they are pressurized to move their activities down the hierarchy, especially in less developed countries. This may be a mistake. Getting the public on board for actions to tackle climate change may be more difficult than getting world-leaders to agree a policy framework. One lesson from biodiversity efforts of the 1990s is that technocratic words and anxiety-based messaging turns people off. Maybe conservation should re-visit its successes of the turn of the 19th century and the 1970s when it was a key voice in mass movements that were all about aspiration and about ways of life that delivered more than basic human needs. The ecosystem services agenda is subdivided into: (i) Provisioning services, (ii) Regulating services, (iii) Supporting services, (iv) Cultural services.  Perhaps conservation should reverse the order of importance in their strategy and communication.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Towards an Unatural Nature

Two of our colleagues, Kathy Willis and Shonil Bhagwat, recently published a fascinating article in the journal Science in which they argue that the capacity of plants and animals to acclimatize to changes in the climate and inability of large-scale models to capture the effects of different topographies mean that some of the forecasts about future changes in biodiversity may need to be considerably revised.

However, what really caught our interest was how they finished their commentary: “Furthermore, with the combination of climate change and habitat destruction, novel ecosystems are going to become increasingly common. Their conservation will require a whole new definition of what is ‘natural’”.

But what is natural? Most conservationists would associate the term ‘natural’ with habitats or communities that are: (i) largely or completely unaffected by human actions, and/or; (ii) largely or completely unchanged from some point in the past (normally pre-industrial or pre-human). In terms of practical conservation this often means attempting to recreate or maintain the fauna and flora of some point in the past. This ‘compositionalist’ approach to conservation has become enshrined in targets and policies and, in many parts of the world, is the only way that conservationists think about conservation. A good example of this approach is the Dorset Heathland where great efforts are required to mimic the pre-industrial agricultural practices that helped the habitat flourish in the middle ages.

Heathland now only exists through human intervention

Strictly speaking there are probably very few, if any, habitats that are unchanged and unaffected by human action. This is mainly because of the enormous scale of biological invasion has radically altered the composition of nearly all communities but also because of wide-scale species loss and the extension of human presence into even the remotest areas of the planet. Perhaps the whole idea of the ‘natural’ habitat or ecosystem is past its sell-by date and what conservation needs is not so much a new definition, but to completely move away from the ideas, language and embedded philosophy of ‘naturalness’.

To an extent this is already happening, as many influential voices in the conservation community are moving away from asking “what lived here?” to asking “what could live here?” Indeed, the currently popular concept of ecosystem services almost completely ignores ideas of naturalness in favour of function.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Reining in dogs and cats

Nowadays the conservation-minded citizen is expected to do more than simply support their favorite conservation charity. Increasingly the message is to ‘become an environmental citizen by making life-style choices that reduce your personal eco-footprint’ by such means as reducing air travel, offsetting carbon emissions, buying local and so forth. But would people be willing to include pets in this list of life style choices?
A recent article in New Scientist argues that we should (www.newscientist.com No 2731:46 24/10/09). It reports a New Zealand study which found that an average-sized pooch fed on common brands of pet food has an eco-footprint more than the average Vietnamese citizen and more than twice that of a 4.6 litre Toyota Land cruiser! These uncomfortable comparisons were independently confirmed by scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute. What’s more, the environmental impact of our pets extends beyond the amount of land needed to feed them. The number of wild animals killed by UK’s 7.7 million cats is projected to be somewhere in the order of 188 million (Mammal Review 33 p174 http://up.picr.de/2379461.pdf). Moreover, areas frequented by dogs support 35% less bird diversity (Biology Letters 3, p611) – not to mention the undesirable consequences of feces, particularly in urban areas.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Koalas last stand?

The BBC reported today (11th November 2009) that “Australia's koalas could be wiped out within 30 years unless urgent action is taken to halt a decline in population, according to researchers”. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8352107.stm).
The report goes on to describe how “development, climate change and bushfires have all combined to send the numbers of wild koalas plummeting” and that “many have been killed by the sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia”. Not a nice fate!

The report is well written, factually accurate and has impeccable sources (The Koala Foundation and one of the World’s leading biogeographers, Professor Hugh Possingham). But is it right? Will koalas go extinct within 30 years?

To try to answer this question we need to first ask what is meant by extinction? In this case, although not stated, extinction probably means extinction in the wild as there is a relatively large global breeding population in zoological parks.