Row over claim that wealth saves animals
A furious debate has split the world of wildlife conservation. Environmental damage is often put down to human greed, but a radical group claims that poor countries are the real villains.
Eat less food. Use less energy. Stop mining resources.
These should be among the human race’s top priorities, according to conservationists. The authors of a new report, called the Living Planet Index, say global populations of vertebrate animals fell by 58% between 1970 and 2012 — and governments must curb our demands to prevent a more shocking decline.
The capitalist global economic system, they argue, has reduced poverty but caused ‘culturally entrenched aspirations for material consumption’ which are ‘beyond what can be supported by the carrying capacity of a single Earth’. They call for ‘a new economic system that enhances and supports the natural capital upon which it relies’.
But are they right? Since it emerged, some have pointed out a correlation between affluent countries and booming wildlife. The populations of many large mammals in Europe and North America are rising quickly. Even struggling species are suffering because their predators are breeding.
In Africa, by contrast, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions and many antelopes are dying quickly. And whereas forests in rich countries are expanding, creating more habitats, poor countries are chopping theirs down.
Free-market advocates say these statistics support a controversial alternative thesis: making people rich is the best route to conservation.
‘The rich, not the poor, are actively committed to conserving wildlife, forest, seashore and ocean,’ says Peter Huber, a senior fellow with a conservative American think tank called the Manhattan Institute. His argument is that poor people must compete for scarce resources in order to survive. In contrast, the rich can afford to care.
So whereas stone age hunter-gatherers destroyed large mammals rapidly, more advanced humans have been able to protect them. And just as the rich ended slavery and the legal subjugation of women in the civilised world, Huber argues, they are ending environmental destruction.
A bit rich?
Excellent point, say some. When people get richer, they can move to cities and enjoy improved living standards; farm sustainably, with improved yields; and secure fuel and minerals without damaging forests. A poor family with little to eat is unlikely to care about the fate of the grey-necked rockfowl in Cameroon. With wealth comes opportunity, which humans use for good.
Wishful thinking, respond the conservationists. That argument is a licence for selfishness, based on questionable evidence. Our interconnected planet has limited resources, and many of the problems in poor countries result from unscrupulous behaviour in rich ones. We can only save animals if we eat less meat, take more care of habitats and fight climate change.
- Would you make more effort to conserve wildlife if you were rich?
- Is getting rich the best way to save wildlife?
- Think of an endangered species you would like to save. Make a list of ways in which you could help to keep its population up. Then discuss whether you agree with Peter Huber’s idea above.
- Write a one-page essay plan under the following title — ’Capitalism is good for the environment. Discuss.’ Make and support at least three points on either side. Discuss as a class.
Some People Say...
“Money is the cure for all the world’s ills.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I am not interested in wildlife. Why does this matter?
- Even if you do not care, the actions governments could take will affect you. If they try to curb people’s consumption, it could mean it is harder to get things you want: for example, you may have to pay higher prices. On the other hand, if governments make the wrong decisions, it could mean the extinction of many of the species you share a planet with.
- But I care more about humans. Would it affect them?
- Billions of people around the world are reliant on the natural world for their livelihoods. For example, if marine life dies out, those working in the fishing industry or as tour guides on islands can lose their jobs. This could have a knock-on impact on you: people may turn their demand for resources elsewhere, for example by migrating.
- The World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London wrote the report.
- By 2020, the report says, vertebrate numbers will have fallen by two-thirds since 1970.
- Capitalism promotes the freedom to make money with minimal regulation.
- According to the report, populations of animals such as deer, moose, otter and grey seals are rising across Europe. In North America deer, coyote, bear and cougar numbers are growing, and their habitats expanding; humpback and grey whales are breeding on the coasts.
- Such as Alaskan sea otters and British hedgehogs.
- Killer whales eat the sea otters; badgers eat the hedgehogs.
- For example, Britain has doubled its woodland in a century. Costa Rica went from 75% forest to 25% between the 1940s and 1980s. Its GDP per capita then passed $4,600; today it is again over 50% forested.
- In a letter to The Times yesterday, Dr Tom Oliver of the University of Reading wrote that ‘the historic patterns do not yet support’ the notion that economic growth is compatible with conservation efforts.