Wednesday, 3 November 2010

UN Biodiversity conference

I was going to write a fairly extended review and analysis of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan. This was a very important conference dealing with the issue of global and widespread biodiversity loss. The evidence for this is overwhelming; we are witness to a fourth mass extinction event similar in scale to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. The rate of species loss is vastly higher than the background rate across geological history. Fortunately this has not been going on long (again on a geological time period) so for the time being the tree of life is just getting a very vigorous pruning, but if this continues the branches are next. I read the front page article by the Independent on the conference and was initially swept up with all the enthusiasm. They hailed it as a landmark move. Yet when I probed a little deeper I was left disappointed. Now as I said I was going to write a fairly extended rant about the heavy emphasis on economic value, the poor number of leaders that showed up and the lack of any binding agreement signed. As it turns out the Guardian got George Monbiot on the case and he has beaten me to the punch. Read and enjoy/despair in equal measure.

I think he gets a bit over the top in places but the core message is exactly what I wanted to say. My favourite line is the following:

‘This approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the economy. In reality it's the other way round. The economy, like all other human affairs, hangs from the world's living systems’

I think this describes a great deal with what is wrong with this method of valuation. It strikes me that every time these evaluations are done the value placed on ecosystem services is phenomenal, billions or trillions of dollars, yet people do not really value them so. If they were worth billions in a classical sense large corporations and states would be desperate to maintain these services. Using currency to assess value of living things has been shown to give weird results. Take for example a paper by Clark (1973) that asked the question if it was economically sound to stop whaling to allow a stock to recover. This seems reasonable, save today and invest in tomorrow, more whales in the future means more profit. Alas his method showed the most economically rational decision was to harvest every single blue whale on the planet as fast as possible, then control the supply of whale based products carefully for maximum return and put the money in the bank (and live happily ever after...). Clark’s models have stood up to strong criticism and he was right to show the world its economic madness. Animals and plants have inherent value that does not depend on us, turning everything into money is part of a mindset that views the whole world as one giant resource pot to be used, abused, sold and traded entirely for our own human benefit. I want to live in a world where we desire to safeguard the planet because is the right thing to do, not because it happens to be the most profitable.

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