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Biocultural Heritage: The Foundation of a Sustainable Economy

by Claudia Múnera

Claudia_MuneraPorta Palazzo in the city of Turin, Italy, is recognized as the largest open air market in Europe. Visiting this market provides a unique experience: vendors in all directions offer a seemingly endless supply of breads, pastas, meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, herbs, and olives. The kaleidoscope of colors and jumble of aromas threaten to overload the senses. Italians and foreigners alike gather here to find the foods they want – whether it’s a local ingredient for a traditional Italian dish or something exotic to summon the tastes of a faraway home.

Even though there’s such diversity, all the foods at Porta Palazzo share something in common. You can trace each type of food to a particular ecosystem and a particular way of life for the people who inhabit (or once inhabited) that ecosystem. Each food product in the market comes with its own biocultural heritage. Among all the products we buy and sell in today’s economy, food is probably the easiest to connect to biocultural heritage (assuming we’re not talking about a pre-packaged, frozen microwave dinner). For instance Colombians crave bocadillo veleños, the traditional confection made from guava and sugarcane. And Salvadorians keep an eye out for pupusas, which are made from a cornmeal dough that redefines the phrase “comfort food.” When living abroad, people from a given region often organize festivals in which traditional foods play a central role.

Biocultural heritage wraps a lot of concepts into one term. It’s about relationships between people and the natural environment. It consists of biological resources, from genes to landscapes. But biological heritage also consists of human history, from practices to pools of knowledge and the way humans shape their surroundings and vice versa. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, some 370 million indigenous people in the world depend directly on natural resources — they rely on their biocultural heritage for survival. Biocultural heritage also influences religious beliefs, sense of place (especially sacred places), and sense of self. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tangle of connections when considering the biocultural heritage of a good or a service — maybe that’s why food is a good place to start when trying to get a feel for it. But an astute observer can recognize that other goods and services, such as medicinal plants, tourism, or even health services, also flow from a rich biocultural heritage.

Scenes from Porta Palazza

Colorful vegetables, colorful meats, and even more colorful characters make up the scene at Porta Palazza (photo credit: Claudia Munera).

Throughout my career, it has become increasingly clear that conservation of biocultural heritage is the long-term key to maintaining both healthy ecosystems and healthy economies. As a conservation biologist, I could probably be accused of having a biased viewpoint — I have always believed that endangered species, tracts of wilderness, and other aspects of biodiversity are intrinsically valuable and worthy of conservation. As a result, I have spent a lot of time and effort on projects aimed at protecting ecosystems and the species they contain. I believe that maintaining parks and protected areas is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not enough. Drawing boundaries around biodiversity hotspots or cherished scenic areas will fail in the face of ongoing exponential economic growth and mounting pressure to turn protected areas into commodities.

My research on biocultural heritage at the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua aims to illustrate the point. Nicaragua is changing at a fast pace, trying to follow a European or North American model of economic growth at the expense of its rich natural capital. Deforestation is on the rise with forest cover diminishing from 42,340 square kilometers in 1994 to 30,440 in 2011. There are several causes, but the main one is to meet the demands of markets: cattle for dairy and meat, hardwood lumber, and crops such as palm oil, sugarcane, and peanuts. In short, forests are being transformed into commodity landscapes.

Poster for Chocolate Tours

Biocultural services: chocolate tours in Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve (photo credit: Claudia Munera).

The intense pressure applied by economic growth is threatening flagship species such as the jaguar and tapir, internationally significant wetlands, and the species-rich (not to mention carbon-sequestering) forests of this region in Nicaragua. In light of such pressure, the best way to conserve the natural areas is to recognize the value of the biocultural heritage of these areas. Local communities and indigenous populations are making a living and thriving by growing traditional crops, creating handcrafts, and preparing traditional foods that are founded on the local environment and framed in Nicaraguan history and culture. Several communities are embracing ecotourism (it’s a lot easier to entice a tourist to visit the Rio San Juan, Bosawas, or Ometepe Biosphere Reserves if they haven’t been converted to palm oil plantations or cattle farms). Farmers are also having a go at organic cocoa production. A certain amount and certain types of economic activity are compatible with the natural resources of the region, but if we fail to conserve the biocultural heritage of the region, the natural resources will eventually become commodities in economic activities that are incompatible with the landscape.

Other places around the world also demonstrate how championing biocultural heritage can produce desirable results for people and ecosystems. For example, the provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, China, contain rice terraces, mountain agriculture, and forests that have provided people with livelihoods for centuries. During the last three years, however, droughts have threatened the economy and local food security. Farmers have relied on their biocultural heritage to cope — planting traditional drought-resistant maize varieties and raising ducks in the rice fields as a pest control strategy. Farmers have accrued health benefits by eliminating pesticides and earned profits by selling their products in niche organic markets.

In Tuscany, Italy, the landscape has been shaped and preserved by centuries of human influence, but in recent times, the people have been engineering the landscape into a homogenized agricultural landscape of mechanized monocultures with no consideration of traditional farming and forestry practices. Consequences include biodiversity loss, erosion, and deteriorating quality of life for residents who have strong ties to their landscape. According to UNESCO, “Cultural landscapes originated by human action, as well as biodiversity connected to them, can only be maintained by preserving local cultural heritage. Abandonment of traditional practices can lead to reduction of landscape diversity with impacts on biodiversity, economy, and quality of life of rural communities. To overcome these problems, parts of the landscape have been included in the World Heritage Sites list (Medici Villas and Gardens). At the same time, ecological restoration of agricultural and natural areas has spurred tourism, revitalized local foods production, and led to the creation of markets for locally grown food that help preserve Tuscan culture.

Protecting the biosphere comes down to making sure enough ecosystems around the globe maintain their structures and functions. A strong appreciation of biocultural heritage is a key to doing this job, especially in the face of pressures from ongoing economic growth. Local economies in which people maintain a sense of place and a sense of their ecological and cultural limits provide an alternative, resilient model to the infinite growth paradigm.

Claudia Múnera is a conservation biologist and the director of CASSE’s Colombia Chapter.

Do We Have the Courage to Bring the 800-lb Gorilla out of the Corner?

by Jimmy Fox

Jimmy FoxThe planet’s ability to provide useful materials and absorb wastes (its biocapacity) is deemed essential to sustain human life. Yet consumption of those useful materials (our ecological footprint) per person is rising at an alarming and unsustainable rate. According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets worth of biocapacity per year. Stated another way, it takes the Earth 1.5 years to regenerate what we use and waste in a year. Here in the USA the average person’s ecological footprint in 2010 was approximately 8 soccer fields per person per year — the largest of any nation — while the global capacity in the same year was estimated to be about 2 per person. What this tells us is we Americans are not living within our means. In addition to deficit spending we are, in fact, deficit living. And other countries are not far behind.

ecological footprint scenarios

Our ecological footprint — which path will we take? (Image courtesy of Global Footprint Network).

Today this reality is a conundrum for anyone with an ecological conscious, particularly an American in the field of conservation. Current production and consumption of energy (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly create a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution. For conservationists, the 800-lb gorilla in the room is our society’s pursuit of economic growth fueled by conspicuous consumption. Quite simply our country’s gross domestic product (GDP) serves as a self-evident indicator for loss of nature and liquidation of our shrinking resource base. As conservationists, we need to bring this gorilla out of the corner and help friends and neighbors understand the problem. It’s time to have frank conversations about the need for intelligent consumption, recycling and reusing, and stabilizing human population.

Some will say this is too radical and not an issue a conservationist should be wading into. I would argue nothing is more important or in need of leadership. In the past Olaus Murie, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson spoke to the matter. In 1948, articulating the need for a land ethic, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” Approximately ten years later, Olaus Murie pressed for the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and believed it was emblematic of, “the real problem of what the human species is to do with this Earth.”

Today, Dr. Curt Meine (author of Correction Lines), Dr. Julianne Warren (author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey), and Dr. Brian Czech (author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train and Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) are Americans in the field of science writing and speaking passionately about the real problem. I encourage you to follow their work. If reading books isn’t your cup of tea or you’re short of time, check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s documentary, Green Fire and Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s call for a steady state economy in Enough is Enough, or if you’re into Hollywood entertainment, watch Wall-E with the kids for an exploration of where we could be headed.

Of course there are critics inside and outside the conservation community. The status quo is tenacious. Calling for change is uncomfortable. We have to be prepared for the allegations. Like Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to abolish slavery while being a slave owner, we have to acknowledge we own a piece of this mess while we move humanity forward. We must admit we conservationists are contributing to the problem with every aerial survey, vehicle, item of clothing, glass of wine, or electronic device we buy (even the six-year old MacBook Pro I’m using to write this post). Acknowledging our contribution to the problem isn’t enough — otherwise it’s just rhetoric. We must act and model the behavior we hope for ourselves and others. Consider these three broad actions to get started:

1. Break the problem down. Become familiar with what contributes to the problem of an oversized ecological footprint. There is a mountain of literature on the unsustainability of human population growth and consumption of natural resources. Figure out the myriad connections between the nation’s pursuit of higher GDP and the conservation challenges we face today.

2. Identify solutions. There are so many ways we can lessen our ecological footprint from the individual level to the national pursuit of a steady state economy. Start at home and the workplace. Make an inventory of the wasteful practices and figure out how to make life and work more sustainable. Don’t overlook local, state, national and international solutions that could use our support and advocacy.

3. Exhibit leadership. The solution to this problem will require all of us to adapt. There are no technical fixes that will save us, no easy remedies and no authority figures leading the way. Solutions will be found through our interactions and relationships with others. Find the courage to share your concerns about the current reality and speak passionately about your aspirations. Talk about what we can do to close the gap between our unsustainable lifestyle and a sustainable one — and do it.

I realize this issue isn’t much fun to think or talk about. It’s personal. It calls into question what we do and our devotion to nature. It forces us to think about how our actions today will negatively affect future generations. As a conservationist, it’s much easier and more socially acceptable to treat the injury than call for a cure. We can busy ourselves with species protections and habitat restoration. But if we value nature — if we value humanity — business as usual is unacceptable. As conservationists we are documenting the outfall of the problem and have a moral obligation to sound the alarm. Ask yourself, would Rachel Carson ignore the gorilla in the room were she alive today? Ask yourself, if we won’t act, why should we expect anyone to? Now is the time for leadership. Leadership means having the courage to address the ultimate source of our conservation problems.

Bringing the 800-lb gorilla into a public forum isn’t easy. But like most hard work, it’s useful.

Jimmy Fox advocates for intelligent consumption as a citizen of Fairbanks, Alaska. He is a Fellow of the National Conservation Leadership Institute and serves his country as a distinguished manager in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He also promotes leadership in conservation at cognizantfox.com.

Climate Change: The Wrong Top Priority for Environmentalists and Conservation Professionals

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechYou read that headline right, so let’s start with a disclaimer: Climate change is one of the biggest threats of the 21st century. Only idiots, ignorami, and certain categories of the insane dismiss the abundant science pointing to climate change, its causes, and its ongoing and future effects.

To stave off a pack of strawman-hungry wolves, let’s double down on the disclaiming: Climate change is an issue that warrants substantial attention. The crux of the matter is how much to prioritize it. Priorities have to be balanced, and the current balance is way out of kilter.

Environmental organizations and conservation agencies took a big gamble by putting all their beans in the top-priority pot. Yes, the perils of climate change are profound. And it’s true that planning for climate change is politically feasible, finally. The level of acceptance is “good enough for gubment work,” in the case of state and federal agencies. The same can be said for coffee-table conservation outfits like the National Wildlife Federation. Public acceptance of climate change is high enough to “work it.” Budgets can be built around climate change. Funding can be found and grants can be grabbed without a lot of political savvy or guts. Everybody can get credit for trying to save the world without having to deal with the harsh realities of what that really takes.

Some legitimate credit belongs to those who thought prioritizing climate change might unify an environmental conservation community that has long divided its efforts among such issues as clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife conservation, and wilderness preservation. The “envirocons,” to loosely lump all the environmental and conservation activists and professionals, have seldom reached critical mass to make a substantial difference in domestic policy. Some think climate change will rewrite the calculus of environmental politics by providing a unified front issue.

So what exactly is wrong with making climate change the top priority? First, although the political correctness of climate change is good enough for gubment work — that is, muddling around in the bureaucracy — it’s nowhere near high enough for effective law-making, and may never be. That’s because climate change is two degrees removed from the known reality of too many Americans. It’s not like the simple problem of overhunting during the early 20th century, when the passenger pigeon went extinct. Everybody saw it, either directly or in the papers. Laws were passed and the problem was solved, at least for the remaining species.

The next major conservation problem of the 20th century was habitat loss. Again it was easy to see: the bulldozers came and the wetlands were drained, forests were cleared, prairies were plowed, etc. The ducks and geese, most noticeably, disappeared from vast areas. Hunters (a much more prominent segment of society at the time), birdwatchers, and nature lovers in general got mad and lots of others were concerned. Laws were passed to keep the bulldozers out of the wetlands. The problem was solved, at least for the remaining wetlands, and to the extent the laws were upheld.

Climate change is different, and how. You might see its effects and sense it happening, but you don’t see climate change itself. And no matter how much you think you know about climate change, it requires dealing with a lot of uncertainty. You may have seen a hurricane, but was it caused by climate change? Maybe? To what degree? Prove it.

Even for those who can drink uncertainty with a fire hose, climate change requires connecting some challenging dots. It’s at least a two-step dance with an unwelcome partner. Step one is acknowledging that the climate is changing, and changing more rapidly than it normally might, whatever “normally” should mean. Just enough folks have taken this first step to put climate change on the political map.

But then comes step two, the connection of this abnormal pace of climate change to human economic activity. Now you’re messin’ with some minds. For starters, there are those who simply have a difficult time understanding the concepts, and don’t feel like making the effort to begin with. While the greenhouse gas effect is simple enough, and greenhouse gases readily identified, the combinations and permutations of causes and effects are complicated enough to lose readers by the score. Not everyone finds this stuff interesting, either. Americans love NASCAR and the Super Bowl, and find their news-hour attention riveted to mass shootings at home, terrorist activities overseas, and the latest scandal wherever. Who’s got time to read about emissions scenarios and climate modeling?

Then you’ve got the “religious wrong” preaching from evangelical pulpits that puny little man — proverbial dust in the wind — could never have an effect on God’s own climate. (Why only those godless liberals could offend God with such hubris!) We’re not talking about a handful of kooks here; the collective anti-science, anti-sustainability, holier-than-thou congregation is big enough to keep mean-spirited know-it-alls like Rush Limbaugh in business.

Then you have the millions who’ve been brainwashed into thinking that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. They’re a slightly more “sophisticated” crowd and more left-leaning than right. They haven’t been snowed by some pass-the-plate preacher at the big-box church, but by secular Big Money itself. Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and their parades of politicians have been selling the public a bill of goods for decades. Starting no later than with Ronald Reagan, economic growth was supposed to be unlimited, and if we really wanted to protect the environment, or the climate, all we needed to do was grow the economy. That way we’d have enough money to throw at the problem.

This cultural landscape of very odd bedfellows is like a minefield separating climate change talk from action. (And then, if we make it through the minefield, what action do we take?)

And what about all the regular old environmental issues we felt were so urgent before we prioritized climate change? Like clean air and water, wildlife conservation, wilderness preservation, soil conservation, invasive species, Superfund, the ozone layer, green space, threatened and endangered species, environmental quality and ecological integrity at large? We were already scrambling for scraps of funding for these issues, and now the collective scraps have been taken away to feed all the climate change research, modeling, planning, and a heavy load of education and outreach.

So then what should we prioritize to unify the envirocons and save the world? It should be obvious. The natural progression from market hunting to habitat loss was also a progression from a microeconomic issue to a meta-economic issue. The next stage in this progression is to the macroeconomic issue of economic growth. As the bumper sticker says, “Growing the economy is shrinking the planet.”

This isn’t the article to go into detail on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Numerous authors have described that conflict in impeccable detail. Probably one paragraph is in order, though…

Economic growth means a lot more than all the good things we hear about it in the news. It’s not a gravy train or a silver bullet. To put it in dispassionate terms, economic growth means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. Economic growth means a growing population and/or growing per capita consumption (aka “affluence”). It means growing GDP. It means environmental impact. It’s the underlying, overarching, all-encompassing cause behind virtually every environmental problem you can think of, including climate change in a fossil-fueled economy. Meanwhile society falls asleep to the tune of “green-growth” lullabies. The notion of replacing those powerful hydrocarbons with “clean” fuels to support ever-growing GDP is a dream, alright. It’s the kind of dream that turns into a nightmare as the realization hits that pulling out all the stops for economic growth is a handcart to hell.

Climate change is harder spot than the troubles of an overgrown economy.

It’s tough to spot the elevated levels of greenhouse gases on the left; it’s easier to spot the trouble with runaway growth on the right.

With one paragraph on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, the common sense should be engaged. Common sense can probably give you an inkling of the corruption of economics, too, and why economists on Wall Street and in the Fed tell you only about the benefits of economic growth without mentioning the costs, despite the fact that the costs are now exceeding the benefits for most Americans — and for virtually all their grandkids.

With the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection left to your common sense or further reading elsewhere, what’s left of this article should focus our attention on the properties of economic growth as a viable issue for government agencies as well as for NGO priorities and eventually public policy. At least five key properties separate economic growth from climate change.

First, just like market hunting and habitat loss — and unlike climate change — economic growth is readily observable. Look around you and wherever you see an environmental problem, note the cause. It’s not a mystery. It’s “human activity” as some like to say, but even that is an inadequate phrase, lacking policy implications. Humans and their activities should not be made to sound like a blight on the planet. It’s not spiritual activity, or family activity, or civic activity that threatens our water supplies, endangers other species, and changes our climate. To be precise, it’s human economic activity: the energy sector, agriculture, natural resource extraction, manufacturing, services. All the sectors — every single one of them in an integrated economy — plus all the infrastructure (roads, power lines, dams, etc.), plus the byproducts (pollutants including greenhouse gases) and incidental effects including climate change.

Second, economic growth can serve as an even better unifying front issue than climate change. Climate change doesn’t cause all other environmental problems or the vast majority of conservation challenges. Economic growth does. All those issues faced by envirocons prior to climate change were being caused by an increasing population and its economic activities. Now we can add climate change to that list of the effects of a constantly growing human economy. Fix the growth problem, and you go a long way toward fixing the climate change problem. Mountain-top removal and Keystone pipelines wouldn’t be so tempting if we weren’t hell-bent on GDP growth.

Third, economic growth is already entrenched in the American lexicon. The phrase itself elicits no immediate backlash from the pulpit, Wall Street, or conservative radio shows and politicians. Economic growth is expected to be in the news every day. It’s a welcome topic. Now when the dialog starts, with the rest of the story about the problems caused by economic growth, debate will begin of course. But that’s exactly what we need. At least economic growth is not a non-starter, as climate change is in many circles.

Fourth, when it comes to really doing something, economic growth can be dealt with immediately at a fully developed policy table. It’s not like climate change where plenty of well-intentioned effort has manufactured almost no policy machinery. No new conventions or treaties are needed for real effects on the rate of economic growth. At the economic policy table, fiscal, monetary, and trade policy is already being crafted, but always in pursuit of growth. This policy table is set and waiting for chairs to be occupied by experts better-informed than the usual lineup of Chicago School economists.

The need for well-rounded expertise at the economic policy table points to an immediate role for environmental bureaucrats and political appointees at the highest levels. For every economist from the Council of Economic Advisors, there should be an EPA administrator or conservation agency director explaining the costs of further growth. We need a long-overdue and ongoing discussion about the conflict between economic growth and: 1) environmental protection, 2) economic sustainability, 3) national security, and 4) international stability. Then lawmakers and presidents can make informed decisions about balancing economic and other goals. Hopefully in the coming decades we’ll be pursuing the establishment of a sustainable, steady state economy rather than unsustainable and increasingly destructive economic growth.

Fifth, addressing the threat of economic growth is a far more practical alternative than the wishful thinking about climate change action. This is easy to understand, but only when we remember that practicality is not a concept reserved for politics. Just because the acceptance of climate change is good enough for gubment work doesn’t make climate change a practical matter for spending taxpayer money or NGO dues on. Prioritizing climate change is like chopping at kudzu leaves instead of the roots. It’s not going to do a significant bit of good as long as the overriding policy goal is economic growth.

In short, climate change is the wrong issue for environmentalists and conservation professionals to collectively prioritize above all others. While climate change is a legitimate threat, prioritizing climate change was driven largely by (relative) political convenience and the constant jockeying for agency funding, NGO membership dues, and foundation grants. Meanwhile the failure to prioritize economic growth, the mother of 21st century threats, is driven by shallow political thinking and the personal interests of “leaders” getting paid the big bucks at the heads of conservation agencies and environmental NGOs.

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The Lurking Inconsistency

by Herman Daly

An earlier version appeared in Conservation Biology, August 1999, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 693-94.

Herman DalyEcological economics of course has roots in ecology and biology as well as in economics. Most of ecological economists’ and steady-state economists’ time has been well-spent correcting economics in the light of biology and ecology. And there is still more to do in this direction. However, we should be careful to avoid importing some deep metaphysical biases frequent in biology, along with its scientific truths.

According to biologists the existence of any species is an accident, and its continued survival is always subject to cancellation by the all-powerful process of random mutation and natural selection as it occurs anywhere in the interdependent ecosystem. This blind process, over long time periods, is held to explain not only the evolution of all living things from a presumed common ancestor, but also, in some versions, the “spontaneous generation” of the common ancestor itself from the “primordial chemical soup.” For human beings in particular, random mutation and natural selection are thought to determine not only such characteristics as eye color and height, but also intelligence, consciousness, morality, and capacity for rational thought. Neo-Darwinism has been extrapolated from a good explanation of many facts to the universal explanation of everything.

Powerful though it certainly is, the neo-Darwinist theory cannot explain consciousness and purpose. Even in the realm of materialism it faces some serious glitches. I refer to the problem of how it happens that many interdependent parts of a complex organ, each of which has no independent survival value, can both occur and be retained until the whole organ is assembled into a complete functioning unit, which only then can contribute to survival and thus be selected. Also there is the anomaly of altruism. Kin selection does not explain Mother Theresa or Oscar Schindler, and in any case is now disputed among biologists. But let me leave all that for future debate. My point for now is that biologists/ecologists who teach a materialist neo-Darwinist worldview to sophomores on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then devote their Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to pleading with Congress and the public to enact policies to save this or that endangered species are in the tight grip of a serious inconsistency.

Naturally the public asks the biologists what purpose would be served by saving certain threatened species? Since many leading biologists, as scientific materialists, claim not to believe in purpose (either in the sense of cosmic telos, or mere individual preferences that are independently causative in the physical world) this is not an easy question for them to answer. They tell us about biodiversity, and ecosystem stability and resilience, and about a presumed instinct of biophilia that we (who systematically drive other species to extinction) are nevertheless alleged to posses, encoded in our genes. But the biologists cannot affirm any of these descriptive concepts as an abiding purpose, or an objective value, because doing so would contradict the fundamental assumption of their science. For example, biophilia could be appealed to as a virtue, a persuasive value rather than a wishfully imagined part of the deterministic genetic code. But that would be to admit purpose. Instead, biologists try to find some overlooked mechanistic cause that will make us do what we believe we ought to do, but can’t logically advocate without acknowledging the reality of purpose. Absent purpose and value, the biologists’ appeals to Congress and the public for conservation are both logically and emotionally feeble.

Others have called attention to this problem in the past. The term “lurking inconsistency”, as well as its meaning, is taken from Alfred North Whitehead (Science and the Modern World, 1925, p.76) who expressed it in the following passage that repays careful reading:

A scientific realism, based on mechanism, is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and of the higher animals as being composed of self-determining organisms. This radical inconsistency at the basis of modern thought accounts for much that is half-hearted and wavering in our civilization… …It enfeebles [thought], by reason of the inconsistency lurking in the background… …For instance, the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved.

In other words, our scientific understanding of nature is based on mechanism, on material and efficient causation with no room for final cause, for teleology or purpose. Yet we ourselves, and higher animals in general, directly experience purpose, and, within limits, act in a self-determining manner. If we are part of nature then so is purpose; if purpose is not part of nature then neither, in at least one significant way, are we. Elsewhere Whitehead put the contradiction more pointedly: “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” Biologist Charles Birch, a keen student of Whitehead, has restated the lurking inconsistency in his insightful book On Purpose: “[Purpose] has become the central problem for contemporary thought because of the mismatch in modernism between how we think of ourselves and how we think and act in relation to the rest of the world”. Clearly, not all biologists are guilty of the lurking inconsistency.

The directly experienced reality of purpose or final cause must, in the view of materialism, be an “epiphenomenon” — an illusion which itself was selected because of the reproductive advantage that it chanced to confer on those under its spell. It is odd that the illusion of purpose should be thought to confer a selective advantage in the real biophysical world, while purpose itself is held to be a non-causative epiphenomenon — but that is the neo-Darwinist’s problem, not mine. The policy implication of the materialist dogma that purpose is not causative is laissez faire beyond the most libertarian economist’s wildest model. The only “policy” consistent with this view is, “let it happen as it will anyway.” Is it too much to ask the neo-Darwinist to speculate about the possibility that the survival value of neo-Darwinism itself has become negative for the species that really believes it as a metaphysical worldview? Does not this lurking inconsistency have lethal consequences for policy of any kind?

Teleology has its limits, of course, and from the Enlightenment onward it is evident that materialism has constituted an enormously powerful research paradigm for biology. The temptation to elevate a successful research paradigm to the level of a metaphysical worldview is perhaps irresistible. But materialism too has its limits. To deny the reality of our most immediately direct and universal experience (that of purpose) because it doesn’t fit the presuppositions of methodological materialism, is profoundly anti-empirical. To then refuse to recognize the devastating logical and moral consequences that result from the denial of purpose is anti-rational. For those of us who consider science a rational and empirical enterprise, this is extremely troubling. That people already unembarrassed by the fact that their major intellectual purpose is to deny the reality of purpose should now want to concern themselves deeply with the relative valuation of accidental pieces of their purposeless world is incoherence compounded.

One cannot rescue neo-Darwinism from the domain of purposeless and randomness by pointing to the role of natural selection. Selection may sound purposeful, but in the accepted theory of natural selection chance dominates. Random mutation provides the menu from which natural selection “chooses” by the criterion of the odds of surviving and reproducing in a randomly changing environment (consisting of randomly changing geophysical conditions, and other species that are also randomly evolving). It is a metaphysics of chance all the way down.

The relevance of the lurking inconsistency to conservation biology and steady-state economics should be evident — conservation and sustainable scale are, after all, purposes that are ruled out in a world governed only by chance.

If purpose does not exist then it is hard to imagine how we could experience the lure of value. To have a purpose means to serve an end, and value is imputed to whatever furthers attainment of that end. Alternatively, if there is objective value then surely the attainment of value should become a purpose. Neo-Darwinist biologists and ecologists, who deny the reality of purpose, owe it to the rest of us to remain silent about valuation — and conservation as well. If they simply cannot remain silent, then they must rethink their deterministic materialism. Distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel has offered to help them in his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. But his “help” requires more recantation than the naturalists can bear, and, even though Nagel is a fellow atheist, he has been excommunicated from the Church of Neo-Darwinism for heresy.

Economists, unlike many biologists, do not usually go to the extreme of denying the existence of purpose. They recognize purpose in attenuated form under the rubric of individual preferences and do not generally consider them to be illusory. However, preferences are thought to be purely subjective, so that one person’s preferences are as good as another’s. Unlike public facts, private preferences cannot be right or wrong — there is, by assumption, no objective standard of value by which preferences can be judged. Nevertheless, according to economists, individual preferences are the ultimate standard of value. Witness economists’ attempts to value species by asking consumers how much they would be willing to pay to save a threatened species, or how much they would accept in compensation for the species’ disappearance. The fact that the two methods of this “contingent valuation” give different answers only adds comic relief to the underlying tragedy, which is the reduction of value to taste weighted by income.

Economics too suffers from the lurking inconsistency, but not to the extent that biology does. Purpose has not been excluded, just reduced to the level of tastes. But even an unexamined and unworthy purpose, such as unconstrained aggregate satisfaction of uninstructed private tastes weighted by income — GDP growth forever– will dominate in the absence of purpose. So, in the public policy forum, economists with their attenuated, subjective concept of purpose (which at least is thought to be causative) will dominate the neo-Darwinist ecologists who are still crippled by the self-inflicted purpose of proving that they are purposeless. Consequently GDP growth will continue to dominate conservation.

Whitehead’s observation that, “it is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved,” remains true 85 years later. This willful neglect has allowed the lurking inconsistency to metastasize into the marrow of modernity. The Enlightenment, with its rejection of teleology, certainly illuminated some hidden recesses of superstition in the so-called Dark Ages. But the angle of its cold light has also cast a deep shadow forward into the modern world, obscuring the reality of purpose. To conserve Creation we will first have to reclaim purpose from that darkness. I say Creation with a capital “C” advisedly, and not in denial of the facts of evolution. Rather, if we think that our world, our lives, and our conscious, self-reflective thinking are just a random happenstance of matter in motion — a temporary statistical fluke of multiplying infinitesimal probabilities by an infinite number of trials — then it is hard to see why we should make any sacrifice to maintain the capacity of the earth to support life, or from where we would get the inspiration to do so. This is the lurking inconsistency’s bottom-line consequence for conservation biology and steady-state economics. Our problem is not just faulty economics or biology; it is deep underlying metaphysical and philosophical contradiction.

Economics as “Unusual” in Australian Politics

by Robert Lawrence

An important event has been hardly noticed in Australian politics. But it could be the start of a trend to recognize and address causes of social and environmental problems rather than merely to struggle with the symptoms. Until recently economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), has been the primary indicator of governmental performance, with alternatives virtually absent from the political discourse. At last one brave member of Parliament is changing that, unafraid to lead the way toward a steady state economy.

To understand the significance of this event, we need to get some perspective on the Australian political situation. There are two rival sides that differ mainly in rhetoric and in their strategies for winning support from voters. More than 90% of elected politicians belong to these two sides.

There are two houses of Parliament. One is the House of Representatives, which does the main business of government. The other is the Senate, which reviews the decisions of the House of Representatives. A group of Senators is elected to represent each of the six Australian states.

Voting is compulsory in Australia for citizens over 18 years of age. There is a preferential voting system in which every candidate must be ranked for a vote to be counted at all. Effectively this has meant that Australians ultimately had to choose between two political parties. In voting for the House of Representatives, votes for independent candidates and minor parties have rarely made an impact. The electoral system is built around the two parties. There is a review of electoral boundaries every seven years. Boundaries of electorates are redrawn so that there is a more even competition between the two major parties. The parties distribute leaflets on how to vote for their candidate, and these suggest an order of preferences for the other candidates.

The situation is different for the Senate, in which each of the six Australian states has its own set of candidates. This setup has given the minor parties and independent senators an opportunity to wrest some power away from the two main parties. This happened during the last national election when the Australian Greens and a small number of independents were able to cast deciding votes. This meant that citizens who voted for a minor party actually had a voice at last. A tax on carbon emissions commenced on July first as a consequence.

Australia has a free press. A common approach in the media has been to strive for a “balanced” view, which has generally been achieved by presenting extreme viewpoints on any given issue to contribute a public “debate.” The effect of this is to polarize the public, rather than to seek well-reasoned, informed decisions.

Another major factor in the political landscape is the opinion poll. Although polls can help politicians be more responsive to the electorate, they can produce undesirable consequences. Politicians become concerned about managing perceptions rather than governing from the best advice of their departments. Another consequence is that both the major political parties tend to become almost indistinguishable. One gives lip service to workers’ rights and the environment, while the other to business. In practice it is impossible to tell which is better in any aspect. Both major parties express disdain for each other and struggle to find ways to differentiate themselves for voters. Often “debate” deteriorates into personal attacks.

But one issue on which both major parties agree, as is the case throughout the western world, is the imperative of economic growth. Rising GDP is the unquestioned prime measure of success.

Conservationists have been dealing with the consequences of the growth-is-good dogma. They have taken the approach of running campaigns on specific, strategic issues that tend to address the symptoms of too much economic growth. One could argue that they have been afraid of being further marginalized as a lunatic fringe with no grasp of reality. At least population growth has recently made it onto the political agenda, but there has been near silence on economic growth.

Christine Milne understands the link between economic growth and environmental deterioration.

Christine Milne has been a Senator for Tasmania since the middle of 2005, and she became the leader of the Australian Green Party in April this year. There are currently nine Australian Greens in a house with 76 members.

Milne delivered a speech in late September in which she made some astute observations. She said that we can build an economic system that serves the needs of people and nature, both for today and for tomorrow. She quoted from a report of the World Economic Forum, “More with Less: Scaling Sustainable Consumption and Resource Efficiency”:

“Current trends clearly show that business as usual no longer works. Unless the present link between growth and the consumption of scarce resources is severed, our resource base, governance and policy structures are unlikely to sustain the standard of living societies have grown accustomed to or indeed aspire to. Action to decouple business and economic growth from resource intensity and environmental impact, has never been more critical to the long term success of business.”

Milne continued by suggesting that we reconsider who belongs to the lunatic fringe in our 21st-century economy:

“Surely it’s time that those who advocate economic growth derived from resource extraction and pollution as the major path be the ones labeled wacky, loopy, irresponsible, divorced from reality or connected to the CIA.”

She went on to question who actually benefits from pandering to mining companies while ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. Her full speech is worth reading.

Where is this likely to lead? The media and politicians are completely out of their depth in considering an alternative to the perpetual growth paradigm. Such a change even seems to be beyond the scope of thinking of conservationists. Even members of the Australian Greens may have underestimated the significance of this speech. Almost everyone seems content to ignore this speech and go on as they have.

But now that a prominent politician has publicly questioned the dogma of growth, we’ve moved a little closer to a much-needed turning point in Australian politics. Thanks to Christine Milne for saying what needed to be said. How refreshing to see true leadership taking root within the barren fields of the Australian political landscape.

Robert Lawrence runs Heritage Bushcare, a small business that removes weeds to improve the condition of areas of remnant vegetation. He is also secretary of the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia and the Native Orchid Society of South Australia. He is the author of Start with the Leaves: A Simple Guide to Common Orchids and Lilies of the Adelaide Hills.

Selecting “Surrogate Species” for Conservation: How About an 800-Pounder?

by Brian Czech

These days the American conservation community is abuzz with the “surrogate species” approach to conservation. That’s where certain species are selected to represent all the others. Older conservation biologists see it as another iteration of the “umbrella species” concept, where managing for a critter like the grizzly bear would automatically protect a long list of species, simply because the grizzly bear occupies a vast sweep of terrain and habitats.

The rationale for taking this approach is clear enough. State and federal wildlife conservation agencies are tasked with conserving thousands of species of concern, including threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, marine mammals, all sorts of fishes and other “aquatic resources,” and biodiversity in general. These species are under pressure from left and right, above and below. Mountaintop removal, shale oil excavation, fracking, helicopter logging, stern trawling, factory farming, manufacturing, road construction, dams, invasive species, air pollution, water pollution, BP oil spills, climate change, genetically modified crops… all greased by the information sectors. “It’s the economy, buddy.”

To protect the thousands of accosted species, one by one, entails dealing with threat after threat after threat, in place after place after place. For a while during the first decade of the 21st century, notions were entertained of doing precisely that! Theoretically we could have worked up some computerized flowchart of species’ population goals, converted all the goals into habitat objectives, melded them all together, and spit out maps identifying precisely which parcels on the landscape were necessary to conserve.

And then of course we would have had to actually go out on the land and protect those parcels. Details!

This whole pipe dream was impossibly complicated, and wouldn’t be possible in the best of fiscal environments. It’s not even close to feasible today as we encounter limits to growth and declining budgets. That’s why we’re back to the umbrella species approach, bottling old wine with a new label, “surrogate species.”

There is another, mostly unspoken rationale for the surrogate species approach. The alternative approach to simplifying conservation — the “coarse filter” approach of conserving various ecosystem types — doesn’t connect so well with publics and politicians. It’s a lot easier to generate political support for a real live critter with fur or feathers than for a “submontane broad-leaved drought-deciduous woodland” or a “succulent extremely xeromorphic evergreen shrubland,” examples of ecosystem types.

Yet either way amounts to basically the same thing. You identify some conservation target — critter or ecosystem — then go out and protect it from the onslaught. Sure, you might have a marginally easier time of it politically by saying you want to protect the bear, wolf, eagle, salmon, black duck, or even some cold-blooded fella such as a desert tortoise. But whether it’s a species or an ecosystem, you either have to stop the economic sectors in their tracks, or buy some land out ahead of the bulldozer and then hope to stop the sectors (and their pollutants) when they reach the gates. That turns out to be not so simple after all. You still have to deal with the mountaintop removal, shale oil excavation, fracking, helicopter logging, stern trawling, factory farming… you get the picture. It’s still the economy, buddy, and it’s getting more unwieldy every day.

It’s time for the conservation community to wake up and smell the notoriety it’s courting for fiddling while Rome burns. If there is a surrogate species in need of attention, it’s the 800-pound gorilla called the economy. It sits there in the corner, growing bigger and more menacing by the day, while conservationists either pretend it doesn’t exist, claim it can grow forever without impacting the environment, or say it’s too big to mess with. None of these three approaches is worth a taxpayer’s dime.

How can we keep ignoring the 800-pound gorilla of economic growth?

If we really want to conserve wildlife and protect the environment, we’d better do exactly the opposite of what we’ve done so far with regard to the 800-pound gorilla. We had better acknowledge the critter, explain to the public why it can’t be reconciled with biodiversity conservation, and not shrink at the thought of it. It is, after all, nothing more than increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It’s measured by the supremely secular GDP. It’s not God, Godzilla, or even (despite the metaphor) King Kong! There’s plenty of precedent in American history for questioning the merits of economic growth, with real effects on public opinion (the demand side of the economy). Real, bold conservationists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson played a part in this history, as did real politicians such as Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

Conservationists need to learn this history and add a new chapter. Somebody has to lead the way to a new paradigm, away from economic growth and toward the balance of nature. This leadership is just not going to come from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the World Bank. Big-picture leadership is required from conservationists — especially conservation professionals who get paid the big bucks — for developing clear and nuanced public understanding of the trade-off between growing the gorilla and conserving the rest of our fish and wildlife heritage.

Everyone knows that conservation professionals don’t make economic policy. They’re better off not even talking economic policy. But neither did Rachel Carson regulate DDT. Her leadership came in the form of telling the inconvenient truth about organochlorines. The policy implications were obvious. Likewise, leadership to address the 800-pound gorilla starts with rigorous public education. With enough such leadership, citizens will temper consumption from the demand side and economic policy engineers won’t be pulling out all the stops from the supply side. Together — conservationists, citizens, policy makers — we can get that surrogate critter on a sustainable diet!

Environmental Heroes Can Inspire Economic Reformers

by Brent Blackwelder

Each year in April, the Goldman Environmental Prizes are awarded to six activists, one from each of the six inhabited continental regions. This year’s winners have overcome tremendous odds and threats to their lives to lead effective protests and carry out brilliant strategies. The inspiring winners give me hope that, on the economic front, we can energize an enormous protest movement in the United States. The Occupy movement has provided a solid start on opposing the outdated, unfair, growth-dependent economic model — a model that drives unemployment, encourages casino-style financing, enlarges the gap between the super-rich and the rest of society, and sucks the blood from the life-support systems of the planet.

This year’s prize winners hail from Russia, Argentina, China, and Kenya. Their stirring stories offer ideas for those of us who want an economic paradigm shift — we can employ the same kinds of energetic activism and protests that have worked on tough environmental problems worldwide.

In Russia Evgenia Chirikova initiated what started as a typical conservation battle to save the federally protected Khimki ancient forest near Moscow from a proposed superhighway. Notwithstanding efforts by authorities to suppress the movement, the first rally drew 5,000 people. Subsequent beatings of journalists and activists did not deter the campaign, and a year ago, the effort mushroomed into record-size protests against Vladimir Putin. Chirikova’s small, but courageous conservation battle turned into a general referendum on the Russian government and its leader.

In Argentina, Sofia Gatica, a mother whose baby died as a result of pesticide poisoning, organized a successful “Stop Spraying” campaign against the indiscriminate aerial spraying of dangerous chemicals on soybean fields. Gatica mobilized local women to tabulate the illnesses that were plaguing their communities, and they found cancer rates 41 times the national average. Their campaigns and protests against powerful companies like Monsanto and DuPont led to a big victory in the Supreme Court, which outlawed aerial spraying near homes.

The odds of one person in China successfully challenging thousands of water polluters may seem miniscule, especially given governmental suppression of protests. Yet Ma Jun exposed over 90,000 pollution violations by Chinese and multinational companies. The exposure empowered citizens to demand justice. Ma Jun then went after leading transnational corporations for refusing to clean up their supply chains. When the Apple computer company failed to respond, Ma organized a “Poison Apple” campaign that, after a year and a half of organized protest, forced the company to clean up the polluting components of its supply chains.

 The world’s largest desert lake in Kenya is under threat from a massive dam upstream in Ethiopia. Ikal Angelei, a brave woman using the slogan “We won’t be silenced,” has led the effort to save Lake Turkana, a World Heritage Site. This effort also seeks to provide protection and justice for the more than 100,000 people who depend on the lake. The fate of this boondoggle has not been determined, but the protests have convinced major banks to refrain from funding this mega-dam.

The economic transformation agenda of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy is connected to the battles just described because the global economy facilitates and finances these environmental debacles. Current economic institutions largely disregard the destruction of natural resources and the depletion of fisheries, neglect the rights of the poor and tribal peoples, undervalue the natural world, fail to exercise precaution when dealing with toxic materials, and undermine the well-being of future generations. The grow-at-all-costs mentality that dominates in both the halls of government and the boardrooms of businesses is distorting the way we value human life, our own communities, and natural ecosystems around the world.

To hasten the switch to a steady state economy, we need to emulate the Goldman Prize winners and generate effective protests and mobilizations. For those times when it seems overwhelming to overhaul the economy, we can look to people like Evgenia Chirikova, Sofia Gatica, Ma Jun, and Ikal Angelei. They have shown us that the biggest changes in society can originate from humble beginnings.

The Fallacy of the Tragedy of the Commons

by Marq de Villiers

I grew up in a small South African town 16,000 kilometers and more than a hundred years away from America’s Wild West, but nevertheless watched many a cheap Saturday morning movie set in the mesquite and chaparral of that mythically violent but oddly honorable land. They mostly had similar themes — honest, hard-working homesteading family set upon by a variety of villains, whether cattle barons, railroad tycoons, “eastern” mining companies and more, each capitalist with armies of thugs for hire, ready to drive our hero off his land. One of the most common revolved around the hapless prospector (usually shown with pickax and mule to show his essential poverty) who finds a rich seam of gold, somewhere up in them thar hills, but never gets to stake his claim, either because he is killed by thugs on the way to the claims office, or because said thugs have raced ahead and filed ahead of him. All generally worked out by the end of the final reel; the prospector (or if dead, his deserving family) vindicated, and villainous mining corporation driven off, often with the help of a virtuous senator or otherwise honest politician. An oddly anti-capitalist saga, for the America of the post-Depression and I Like Ike years.

Unasked, in all this, was a simple question: who owns the gold in the first place? The answer would have been, of course, whoever finds it first.

Those days in the Bijou came back to me after an anecdote told me by Maurice Strong, who had recently chaired the Rio conference on the environment that had come to be called the Earth Summit. Maurice, and a company he controlled, had come into possession of one of Colorado’s historic cattle ranches, the 1823 grant to Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca and still known as the Baca Grande Ranch, in Comanche country near Crestone, looking out on the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Among its other assets, the ranch happened to sit on top of one of the west’s great untapped aquifers. Maurice’s company got into dispute with others about this water. First of all, his opponents suspected he wanted to “mine” the water and ship it north to Canada, a nice reversal of the conventional power politics between the two countries. Then, when it became clear that he really didn’t want to do anything with it, claims were filed by other parties demanding access. The legal rationale was simple: in much of the west, water rights operated under the “use it or lose it” principle. If you didn’t use the water, others had to right to appropriate it and use it themselves. There really couldn’t be a clearer anti-conservationist ethic.

Who owned the gold that the prospectors found in all those Westerns? Who owned the water under Maurice Strong’s Baca Grande ranch? The answer is, no one, everyone, anyone.

The question can be extended indefinitely. Who owns, say, the natural gas deposits that have lain, untapped, under the ocean near Sable Island, a hundred kilometers from my house? Who owns the Gorgon gas field under Barrow Island off Australia’s west coast? Who owns the methane hydrate deposits off the shore of New Jersey? Who owns the limestone deposits under California’s central coast (deposits that yield up some of the world’s sublime wines)? Who owns the great boreal forests of Alaska, Siberia, and Canada? Who owns the rocks of the earth? Who, indeed, owns the air? The birds of the air? The water? The oceans? Fish stocks? Who owns the whales?

Who owns nature?

And then another set of questions, about another kind of commonwealth: who owns culture? Who owns languages, science, the accumulated genius of technology? Who owns history? Who owns, in short, the human library? Who owns it, and who has the right to sell it?

In an empty world, these questions, or at least the ones about nature, didn’t much matter. Nature seemed inexhaustible. Still, natural philosophers, as scientists were once called, have wrestled with the issue for millennia, as have political authorities. In Roman times, the Senate put together a series of laws that classified several aspects of what came to be called “the commons” as explicitly owned by the people collectively. These res communes, common things, included water and the air, but also “bodies of water,” that is lakes, and shorelines generally. Wild animals, as opposed to domesticated ones, were included. After the Roman empire collapsed, overrun by what the Romans were pleased to call barbarians, some aspects of the res communes came into dispute — feudal lords, and then kings, claimed to control them.

The implications of a commons is that since no one owns it, anyone can use it, exploit it, and pollute it at no charge.

So where, in a well-ordered world, do private property rights stop? How best to treat the commons so it survives for the benefit of all? How best to allocate the profits that flow from what exploitation is allowed? Private property is the engine of prosperity. Common property is the backdrop before which private actors perform. Both are necessary. So an answer is critical. We have three economic sectors: the private sector, the public (or state) sector and the commons sector. Only the last has no body of law to protect it, and no accounting systems for its profits or losses.

So the question becomes: if the various natural systems of the earth, especially the air, the water, the land and its minerals, and the complex life systems they sustain, are indeed “the commons,” how do we guard against the “tragedy of the commons?” If no one owns the resource and anyone can use it, how do we protect it from depletion?

The tragedy of the commons as a phrase owes its origins to Garrett Hardin’s essay in Science magazine in 1968, though the notion of a social trap involving a conflict between individual interests and the common good goes back, at least, to Aristotle.

Here is Hardin’s description of the tragedy :

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is [obvious]. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction [of the burden] … The rational herdsman concludes [from this] that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another, and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit, in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin’s argument was widely accepted by economists and free-market enthusiasts. The solution to the dilemma, it seemed obvious, was privatization, the enclosure of the commons.

But it is not obvious. Hardin’s theory was the purest poppycock, and widely adopted only because it seemed to convey the essence of free market competition. It was a truly corporatist view.

The main error was to adopt a key proposition of the free market, and of Adam Smith’s, that man is a rational being who always acts in his own best interests, and then to assume that those interests automatically involved multiplication of personal assets. But what Hardin was describing was not rational behavior — it was the purest selfishness. And there is, after all, a crucial difference. A rational being, faced with a dilemma of the commons, would be able to calculate long-term prospects and conclude, quite rationally, that some sort of short-term limit, arrived at through negotiation, would be in his own interests. In other words, in the context of a limited commons, cooperation is a more rational decision than independence. Hardin derived his views from biology — he wasn’t an economist — and preferred a hard-line version of Darwinism called, not surprisingly, survival of the fittest. But “fit” was interpreted narrowly and stripped of its social context. Hardin simply assumed that when men came together without rules, violence or conflict ensued. He had no knowledge of the equally Darwinist view that natural selection could just as easily select for mutual cooperation as for continual family warfare, a view that has been gaining credence among biological evolutionists in the past few decades. He took no account, therefore, of the human ability to develop rules for accessing and using common resources.

Cooperation, when you look for it, is not hard to find. Fishermen in several places have banded together to set sustainable catch quotas. The same thing is true, as Jonathan Rowe pointed out in an essay for WorldWatch, in the rice paddies of the Philippines, in the Swiss Alpine pasturelands, the Maine lobster fishery, the Pacific haddock fishery, and many other places. The case could even be made that as long as settled communities remain intact, the commons flourishes. The community merely needs to be enabled to protect it.

Marq de Villiers is an award-winning writer of books and articles on exploration, history, politics, and travel.  He is also a graduate of the London School of Economics, and his latest book puts his training in economics to good use.  Our Way Out: Principles for a Post-Apocalyptic World offers a refreshing menu of economic options for an overly consumptive population living on an environmentally stressed planet.

Could Obama Be the First Steady-State President?

by Brian Czech

Could President Obama be the one who leads Americans to recognize the ever-growing conflict between GDP and the health of the nation? Could Obama be the first to hearken the steady state economy — stabilized levels of production and consumption — as the sustainable alternative? Could Obama be the “steady-state president” we’ve all (well not all, but many of us) been waiting for?

Alas, probably not. The time is not quite ripe enough. Yet it is not quite out of the question, either. Obama shows clear signs of steady statesmanship, and citizens show signs of wanting it.

In “Obama’s New Square Deal,” Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. described how “President Obama has decided that he is more likely to win if the election is about big things rather than small ones. He hopes to turn the 2012 campaign from a plebiscite about the current state of the economy into a referendum about the broader progressive tradition that made us a middle-class nation. For the second time, he intends to stake his fate on a battle for the future.”

That’s exactly the type of leadership needed to advance the steady state economy as a policy goal with widespread public support. In particular, we need a focus on “big things,” such as the long-run sustainability of the American and global economies. We need a president who will “battle for the future,” not for another percentage point in next year’s GDP growth.

The progressive tradition Dionne sees Obama adhering to is also conducive to the steady state economy, which is roughly indicated by stabilized GDP and a stable standard of living. Dionne rightly points to Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt as primary purveyors of the progressive movement, and sees signs that Obama could channel the Roosevelts into a 21st century New Deal for the middle class. TR and FDR were concerned with the middle class, for sure, but they were concerned with much more as well. They were concerned with truly “big things” such as the long-run sustainability of the nation.

Theodore Roosevelt was the father of the American conservation estate, establishing national forests and parks left and right, as well as establishing the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, Florida in 1903. This original icon of the Republican Party would be seen as an iconoclast today, as the Grand Old Party is the last in line to protect our great natural heritage. “Drill baby drill” is the iconic rhetoric of today’s Republicans. TR made an early escape from Big Money with his Bull Moose Party.

Meanwhile, FDR was the leader in establishing the broad sweep of progressive, professional natural resources agencies and programs we have today. The Soil Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management, among many others, were brainchildren of Roosevelt and his savvy secretaries of Agriculture and Interior. FDR and his Cabinet knew all about trade-offs, sacrifice, and “opportunity costs.” They knew you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too. They knew well the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. By contrast, today’s Democrats are more likely to muddy the conservation waters with the rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

But that brings us back to Obama. He is an exception, at least by today’s standards. He is a throwback to the heyday of smart, progressive politics. He doesn’t insult our intelligence with win-win rhetoric. In fact, Obama hardly even uttered the phrase “economic growth” until the recession made it politically impossible not to. He knows we need a paradigm shift in economic thinking and that sustainability is the watchword for the 21st century.

So perhaps the recession has Obama biding his time, waiting until the coast is clear enough for steady statesmanship. He needs some cover, political cover, in order to talk truthfully about the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection, economic sustainability, and national security. He needs academics, think tanks, bureaucrats, and a growing base of citizens, national and global, to describe the trade-off between economic growth and national wellbeing.

Otherwise, how can we expect Obama to be the first steady-state president?

Remembering History

Comment to Tim Murray and Tom Butler

by Lisi Krall

It is worthwhile to recall history as we ponder Tim Murray’s proposition that we direct our “energy into stopping economic growth” rather than saving “the environment piecemeal” through conservation efforts.  It’s enlightening to go back to Thomas Jefferson just to gain some perspective on what happened when the market economy was fertilized with the industrial revolution.  Thomas Jefferson, writing in preindustrial America, thought one of the attributes of our nation that would enable us to “become happy and prosperous people” was the fact that we possessed “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.”  Do the math, because it gives you some perspective on Jefferson’s world.  Apparently Jefferson thought we had a big enough unsettled country for agricultural expansion to take place for 20,000 years.   Clearly, Jefferson didn’t anticipate what was coming.  The pace and reach of economic expansion were beyond anything he could have imagined as he looked westward from Monticello at the turn of the 19th century.  Yet little more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words the country had become an industrial giant and most of the land had been given over to private ownership.

It was this pace of economic expansion coupled with a mostly wild country that gave rise to the conservation movement in the United States.  It quickly became abundantly clear that in the wake of our great economic experiment, nothing would be sacred and there was much to lose. In the United States, the conservation movement literally grew out of the rapacious speed and reach of 19th and 20th century capitalism and in this sense was very organic.  The preservation arm of the conservation movement became manifest in a wilderness ethos.  The wilderness ethos spoke to something foreboding about our so- called economic progress, the fact that we clearly had the capacity to put an end to the magic and pulse of a mostly untrammeled country in no short order.  The conservation movement, especially the preservation branch of that movement, helped us to think more critically about the meaning of progress and the place of humans on the earth.  Preservation was a cultural response to the most egregious impulses of capitalism.   It was a cultural meditation and institutional grappling with what a healthy human ecology should look like and when it was necessary to stop so-called economic progress for the sake of something more important.  It led John Collier to comment:

The profit-motive finds no use in Wilderness; and Wilderness can perish utterly in its remote silences, without bringing the profit-seeking temple down in ruin on men’s heads. Wilderness therefore, as a symbol of all in the human aspiration and caring which holds itself out from the profit-pursuing imperative, can safely be crushed down.  One after another of the absolutism of profit-pursuit has been somewhat tamed, somewhat restrained, during the century behind us.  There remains Wilderness, as a fact and an aspiration: Wilderness, which by its very definition says to the money-profit motive: You shall not enter here.

We might ask ourselves whether we would have the same impulse to stop economic growth were it not for all the preservation and conservation that has heretofore taken place.

I don’t think there’s any question that the form the preservation movement has taken has been historically conditioned.  Preservation has functioned on the basis of setting aside wild places and otherwise leaving the economic engine of capitalism in place. No one would disagree with the fact that we’ve reached a different historical moment where those involved in preservation and conservation need to be more vocal about ending an economic arrangement based on growth.  In fact, the limits to this historically specific preservation strategy have been understood for quite some time.  In the mid 20th century Aldo Leopold makes a “plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.”  Clearly he understood the limitations of this approach.  Yet it is one thing to acknowledge this and another to claim, as Murray does, that if our energy “to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere.”  Tom Butler is right, “there is no way to prove or disprove this opinion,” but I would offer that history tells us that preservation has made a remarkable difference, not only in the integrity of that which has been preserved, but also in extending a cultural ‘habit of thought’ and cultivating a wilderness ethos.

Tim Murray is correct in his sense that if we can’t stop the growth machine we are going to lose the war.  But as Tom Butler points out, what we preserve can at least provide “the seedbed of recovery for wildness to begin the long dance of evolutionary flowering again after this dark episode of human-caused extinction.”  And ending our efforts to preserve and conserve would be, as Butler also tells us, “an ethical breach with our fellow members of the biotic community.”   We stand a much better chance of winning the war by our preservation and conservation efforts, by retaining something of the pulse of the wild places on earth.  In the shadow of these places we continue to cultivate an awareness of limits and can at least measure the extent of our loss.  In a world where the when-to- stop rule is vague, these are not insignificant contributions to changing our path.

I would also add that we seem to have made little headway in our economic discourse on the issue of ending growth.  I doubt very seriously this has had anything to do with the time and energy spent on conservation and preservation. In fact, it’s likely that the efforts at preservation and conservation have had a more profound influence on our thinking about the limits to economic expansion than anything else has.  Rather than target our frustration about the lack of movement on the no-growth front at the conservation movement, we might do better to analyze why so little progress has distilled from our no-growth rhetoric.

I have no doubt the historical moment has arrived where the preservation movement needs to speak out more explicitly about the problem of economic growth in an effort to save what is wild.  But it is equally important that those who speak out against economic growth bring the loss of the wild and the need for a healthy human ecology to a central and pivotal focus in their discussions of scale.  No-growth discussions about optimal scale don’t elaborate on how much of what is wild should remain wild, instead, these discussions deal in the vague world of costs and benefits and promoting development without growth. These discussions evaluate whether we’ve gone beyond an optimal scale when “the cost to all of us of displacing the Earth’s ecosystems begin to exceed the value of the extra wealth produced” or when the benefits of growth are overshadowed by the costs. Without greater clarity on the true meaning of development and optimal scale we no-growth advocates might succeed in orchestrating a perfectly domesticated steady-state world, where we are all half crazy for want of a diverse and magical external world to resonate with our genome and our psyche.

Lisi Krall is a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland, a member of CASSE’s executive board, and the author of Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History.