The political and economic barriers to species protection

On October 15th Marco Festa-Bianchet, from the Université De Sherbrooke and a member of COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), gave a talk entitled ‘Scientific assessment and political listing: the conservation of endangered species in Canada’. Previous posts by Merle and Culture Kid have succinctly described the main themes of Dr. Festa-Bianchet’s talk. There are two points, however, that I’d like to discuss.
First, Dr. Festa-Bianchet noted that the greatest threat to most species is habitat loss. He also noted that when a species is listed under COSEWIC and protected under SARA (Species at Risk Act) the habitat upon which that species depends is often not legally protected. Though SARA recovery plans have increasingly been taking a multi-species approach, Festa-Bianchet claimed more emphasis must be put on habitat protection. This call for a Leopoldian approach to species protection and recovery, where the ecosystem as a whole must be healthy for its component species to be healthy, seems commonsensical in theory, but may prove futile in practice. A number of issues immediately come to mind: for the numerous migratory bird species listed under COSEWIC, where important habitat is located across national borders, it is highly unlikely that the necessary habitat would be, or could be, protected, because any legislation implemented under SARA applies to Canada only; many threatened species have ranges outside protected areas such as national parks, where legal protection of their habitats would likely conflict with the rights of private landowners and with corporate or public interests. These examples illustrate how difficult it can be for politicians and policy-makers, who represent the interests of numerous stakeholders, to implement necessary measures aimed at a species’ protection.
Second, I’d like to add to the comment by Merle about the economic barriers to species protection, especially if that species happens to be an economically valuable marine species. The idea of discounting, as Merle suggests, is a probable explanation for continued exploitation of already over-exploited species. It is, however, only half of the explanation. Neo-classical economics presents another ‘rationale’ for over-exploitation and eventual stock extinction: infinite substitutability. Namely, it does not matter if a species is fished to economic, or biological extinction (though this form of extinction is rarely considered by economists), because another form of capital will replace the exhausted capital. If one fish species is fished to extinction, then another species will take its place. Herman Daly, in his book ‘Beyond Growth’, clearly demonstrates how ludicrous and irrational this position really is. As the easiest-to-fish and tastiest fish are fished first, more human-made capital (fishing boats, nets etc.) will have to be created to maintain catch yields when fish populations are exhausted, and when harder-to-fish species replace those exhausted populations. The inevitable outcome will be an ocean full of boats, but empty of fish. In an ‘empty’ world (a world with a small human population), the idea of substitutability seems coherent, but in a world full of people infinite substitutability is an impossibility. Thus discounting and substitutability create a thick wall of economic resistance to the legal protection of commercially valuable species, because not only is it more valuable to exploit the last remnants of a population today, some other species will take the place of the exhausted stock, so protection, from the economic perspective, is really a waste of effort.

4 Responses to “The political and economic barriers to species protection”

  1. crocus says:

    I am glad that Jones has pointed out the difficulty with protecting the habitat of species at risk, as many animals have ranges outside of protected areas or on private land. Here I would like to draw in some previous discussions about participatory research and the role of lay people in these matters.

    In the Prairie Provinces, a species at risk is the Burrowing Owl. The minute birds do not fly and use abandoned rodent burrows as nesting sites. These sites are found in native prairie fields and this is in part why they have become a species at risk: loss of habitat to agriculture. Further, because they rely on rodents to dig their burrows, attempts by farmers to kill/control for rodents impact the owls (loss of burrow sites and death due to poisoning). Therefore the owls end up nesting in the small patches of remaining pasture land and over time their numbers have been declining. Since much of their habitat is on private pasture land, preservation of the habitat and the species must be done in conjunction with landowners. Programs that engage landowners and educate them about this species have had positive reception. Landowners take part in enumeration of the birds, they are educated about alternative methods of rodent control, and are encouraged to leave the corners of their agricultural fields uncultivated to increase habitat.

    It is true that many conflicting interests may need to be addressed when habitat of endangered species can’t easily be preserved. It could be argued, however, that by engaging more people in the process (i.e. helping farmers integrate the preservation measures) instead of putting red tape around the protected area will ultimately see more success as landowners are a part of the solution, not exterior to it. Our previous discussions have debated the role and validity of traditional ecological knowledge and questioned whether participatory research is as legitimate as scientific research and I suspect that many “pure” scientists would find it hard to say that it is. However I think it is necessary to engage lay people in discussions and decision-making centered on species protection (as well as more global environmental issues) as often, we are all asked to be a part of the solution. In this way, perhaps public engagement is not “research” but it is a valuable tool for moving forward on environmental initiatives.

  2. merle says:

    As Jones rightly pointed out, the idea of infinite substitutability is part of the neo-classical rational for not acting to protect harvested species that are at risk. What I don’t get, however, is why neo-classical economists would then oppose the protection of a species if we can so easily replace the benefits we get from harvesting it by harvesting another species? Why opt for depletion before moving to another species? Even within this neo-classical rational, it seems to indicate that they don’t really believe substitution to be total, that they believe that there is something which is lost when a substitution becomes necessary. Otherwise, we wouldn’t wait for it to be necessary…

  3. parasite kid says:

    I imagine the considerable investment and effort necessary to shift to harvesting another species is a deterrent from making this change occur. As long as there is discounting isn’t the cost of immediate change always going to be more than change in the future?

    Just out of curiousity what does the neo-classical rationale say about preparation for this change to the “substitute”? Should there then be an appropriate amount of current investment in preparation for this substitute before the inevitable occurs? I think this would require an estimate of when the substitute would be necessary, and investment in substitutes would be proportional to this time point. Given the incredible variability in estimates of when the substitutes will be necessary (eg. running out of fossil fuels), it seems that it is possible, in the neoclassical economics framework, to keep this idea of substitutability as a theoretical possibility…

  4. Jones says:

    The questions raised here are intriguing. Unfortunately I am unable to offer a rationale from a neo-classical perspective, partly because I am not well versed in this school of thought, and partly because what I do know I find utterly ridiculous.
    I think that, as in the case of fossil fuels, contemporary economic rationale would say that investors will invest in substitutes when the time is right for them to do so: namely, when it becomes clear that investing is (or will soon be) economically beneficial. I do not believe that contemporary economists fear the complete depletion of fossil fuels, because they believe that a rapid economic transition will be possible and inevitable once a fossil fuel economy becomes uneconomical; something will always and readily be available to replace that which has been fully exploited.
    It is still quite profitable for companies to invest in and maintain the fossil fuel economy, even though energy substitutes have existed for decades (though some, such as ethanol-based fuels, may be detrimental to the environment). From the neo-classical perspective, why worry about the rapid depletion of fossil fuels? When the time is economical, alternative energy sources can and will replace fossil fuels.
    Of course, from the ecological economic perspective, the current fossil fuel economy is actually uneconomical, dangerously so, indicating that a different (or modified) energy economy is urgently required.