Extinctions: between economics and psychology

I also went to Dr. Festa-Bianchet talk titled Scientific Assessment and Political Listing: the conservation of endangered species of Canada. As Culture Kid explained in a previous post, the talk was mainly about the functioning of the COSEWIC and the political decision of putting the species it lists on the official list of endangered species ‘deserving’ protection under the SARA. In this post, I want to focus on two points Dr. Festa-Bianchet made: 1) Most species which are harvested by humans have a very low change of making it to the official list; 2) Since the creation of the SARA, when 233 species were included as a package under its protection, no marine species made it to the list despite being recommended by the COSEWIC.
1) Not making to the list means not being protected by the SARA, which implies increasing chances of extinction. That we do not strive to protect what we directly rely upon for food, revenues, etc. is strange, especially if we consider that we seem to find it easier to ‘mobilize’ in order to protect species we do not directly rely upon. What can explain such a paradox? Discounting is surely one reason: according to main stream economists, we value less the consumption of something in the future than the consumption of something today. Moreover, it might be worth it economically, in the short run, to sell all our natural capital, transforming it to ‘virtual’ money that grows at compound interest rates if its monetary value will increase faster this way (roughly, on average, doubling every 7 to 10 years) then by letting the species multiply while harvesting only the ‘income’ it produces, not the ‘capital’. Even if one could argue that within a very narrow view of value it does make sense to think and act this way, one can wonder what would happen if we all acted according to this framework? What will we be able to buy with our abundant money if there is no natural capital left? What good is a lot of money if the only thing left to buy is money? “Money”, as complex and elusive a concept it may be, can minimally be defined as a virtual currency used, in the end, to exchange material goods. We should not forget that the economy is not, despite the abstraction level of financial markets, independent of these material goods and the ecosystems that provide them in the first instance. Remembering this might help us finding a new path to avoid the above mentioned paradox.
2) Why marine species do not make it to the lists? What is so special about them that make them unworthy of being preserved? Dr. Festa-Bianchet did not say much about this. One reason could be that they are being harvested by humans and that there is hence a paradoxically good economical reason not to protect them. This could be a good hypothesis since Dr. Festa-Bianchet did not say if all endangered marine species were harvested species or not. However, he did imply that there was something else at stake: we, the majority, simply do not seem to care about a species (or ecosystem) when it is bellow water. For example, we care about clear cutting when it happens to forests, but not when it happens to ocean floors through bottom trawling. If this is true, then why is it the case? Is it because we, the public, are less aware of it, since we don’t get to see it? Is it because marine species appear to be less like us than a mammal on the land? Are we, consciously or not, afraid of what lives in deep water so that their extinctions could be wrongly perceived, consciously or not, as a step toward mastery of nature, a step toward making earth safer for humans?

3 Responses to “Extinctions: between economics and psychology”

  1. Culture Kid says:

    I think this notion of discounting is indeed central to government decision-making, especially in terms of conservation policy. It is a new concept to me, but this is an excellent way of epitomizing its theoretical base. Many politicians work within its purview, too, because immediate economic return is central to the livelihoods of the regions and people they represent. This is an incredibly frustrating to conservationists, but how does one bridge the gap between sustaining a way of life and sustaining a species? So far, the solution has been to choose one or the other. But choosing to protect the people instead of the fish is a dead-end endeavour; as marine species populations continue to dwindle, livelihoods disappear still. The notion of discounting must somehow be re-worked into a different kind of equation.

  2. Culture Kid says:

    I think that Dr. Festa-Bianchet did talk about the reasons marine fish are left off the list, and it is an important one: livelihood. The fish that are left off are the same ones on which people depend for economic and (sometimes) nutritional sustenance. He spoke specifically about clashes between the DFO and SARA, and the fact that mandates from the former negate any real effectiveness of the latter.

    Questions of out of sight, out of mind are valid, though. Marine fish do not generally catch public attention, particularly people who are far removed from marine environments. I have heard people cynically remark that animals without tear ducts are not considered important, meaning that animals not widely viewed as cute and cuddly are less significant to the public. Certainly this was disproven as Fest-Bianchet showed that most reptiles and amphibians make it onto the lists annually. However, I still think there is some merit to the notion that aesthetic valuation plays an important role in perceptions of and decisions about environmental policy. Perhaps I am being too cynical in positing that the superficiality of culture works its way into the means we relate to, anthropomorphize, use, or ignore other species.

  3. parasite kid says:

    In response to this post I would like to bring up two points. In the first point made by merle, the short-sightedness of our societal framework is highlighted. There are obvious consequences for our current predicament, which will require long term commitment to a solution (or range of solutions). So how do we readjust our vision? This is something that in itself will take a long time to change and I greatly appreciated the recent lecture by David Orr calling for immediate action to change our educational system to address this. How can we expect students to graduate with a far reaching vista when they have been groomed to cram for the next test? In their fixation on the end of the semester, the process of learning and the appreciation of learning seem to be lost – with obvious consequences for society as a whole.

    The second point that struck me in reading this post was the contrast between groups that rely on a species for livelihood and those that use it for recreation. Recreational sports people have created some of the best financed and strongest conservation groups (eg. Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited). They obviously value the ecosystem service that is provided to them however, since their income already comes from other sources, they are freed from the discounting trade-off that occurs for individuals that rely on these resources. So it seems that it is not only recognizing the use of these ecosystem services but also being freed from the immediate burden of financial need that is necessary to successfully protect these species.