Monday, October 29, 2012

administering biodiversity

‘Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates. Every hour, three species disappear. Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct. The cause: human activities.’
- Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

The problem, again: The interconnected ecosystems that make up the biosphere are all dependent on the capture, conversion and distribution of the sun’s energy through the planetary cycling of carbon. The biosphere has proved to be fairly resilient. Within the constraining parameters of life on earth, however, changes in climate can have enormous consequences. Interventions, human or non-human, that impact ecosystems and the carbon cycle can result in irreversible losses of biodiversity and trigger abrupt and uncontrollable climate changes. The contemporary form of human society – the global social process we know as capitalist modernity – has initiated both a new mass extinction event and global warming. As a result, tens of thousands of life forms will be ‘disappeared’ and millions of people will lose, directly or indirectly, their lives, health or homes through famine, drought, illness and war. These processes are already unfolding. The urgent question is: how far will they go?

Put differently, the problem is the dominant social process and the difficulty in changing it. The social process, organized to maximize capital accumulation and channeled through a rivalrous interstate system, compels all individuals to compete for places in a national economy and compels all states to promote and defend one national economy against all others. Growth, measured in Gross Domestic Product, is a given. By this logic, capital and biosphere are caught in a relation of antagonism, setting up endless and dreary struggles between the claims of jobs and environment, profits and endangered species, consumption and biodiversity. Through this optic, climate change and mass extinction are simply matters of national security and risk assessment. It is taken for granted that science and technology will enable human adaptation to ecological degradation and the weather. The national security-surveillance state is oriented toward enforcing the current social logic, not changing it. The state’s concern is: who can dominate in the new climate scenario? Or in other words: what must be changed, in order to keep in place the current regime of accumulation and logic of domination? Seen from below, however, the problem is how to change that very logic.

Global governance, to use the current buzz word, is the interstate process tasked with administering the parameters for growth and accumulation, mediating conflicts and managing emerging threats and volatilities. Nominally democratic, governance draws on international law, negotiated and interpreted by states bilaterally, as well as through the UN and a vast array of supplementary multilateral forums and agencies, with inputs by NGOs and, sometimes, the popular pressure of social movements.

States abide by the fabled rule of law, except when they don’t. The weak accept what they must, as Thucydides put it, and the strong do what they can get away with. The rule of laws is the rule plus the exceptions, which makes for unraveling legitimacy. If it would be too reductive to say that capital simply and directly does what it wants, then it would also be too naïve not to see that capital dominates the process and that corporate and national powers generally achieve their aims either by the mediations of party and law or, that failing, by flexible mixes of corruption, coercion and war. As we know all too well, this systemic essence of domination actively corrupts and undermines democratic forms and impulses. Shaped since 1945 by the allied imperatives of capital, bureaucracy and weapons systems, so-called governance is by and large technocracy. As limits loom and contradictions intensify – as they have in the still-unfolding financial meltdown and as they are doing far more powerfully in the biospheric meltdown – the tendency is to favor security options and a de facto permanent state of emergency.

This is the context within which we need to reflect on the technocratic ‘science-policy interface’ where, presumably, the ‘from above’ responses to climate change and mass extinction are being generated. More than twenty years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established under the auspices of the United Nations, in order to provide governments with scientific assessments and advice on the causes and risks of climate change. The publications of this body have been the most authoritative articulations we have of the scientific consensus regarding global warming. Because the conclusions of the IPCC are disturbing to a model of global development dependent on the immensely profitable extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, a new industry of warming denial has emerged to smear scientists and sow public confusion. The climate scientists, painted by the Right as political radicals, are mostly good technocrats who have merely gathered and relayed the findings of their peers. Many scientists are being politicized, however, by the cynicism of the public attacks launched against them. This disjunction on the ‘interface’ may yet become a political factor. In the meantime, the repressed has returned as postcolonial reality: at high-profile summits in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011), policy has bogged down in disputes between governments representing ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ economies. Rebellions stirring in the Global South are being contained, but at the cost of no effective agreements being reached or measures taken. In Washington and other Northern metropoles, dominant politicians have simply brushed off the counsel of science as inexpedient.

In April 2012, governments from 90 countries established the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Intended to provide authoritative scientific assessments about biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, this body is meant to be analogous to the IPCC. Its first plenary is planned for January 2013, in Bonn.

The IPBES will inform, but remain independent from, the UN process initiated by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The eleventh Convention of Parties (COP 11) to the CBD has just finished meeting in Hyderabad, India. (The quote at the top is from CBD head Ahmed Djoghlaf’s opening statement.) While everyone agrees that a mass extinction event is a deplorable thing, the usual North-South fissures reopened when the discussion turned to financing conservation efforts. As with warming, so with extinction: the Northern beneficiaries of accomplished ‘development’ will not take responsibility for the history of conquest, plunder and containment that underwrites their power and privileges – and who is going to force them to? Nature is great, so long as someone else has to pay for it.

A decade ago, Edward O. Wilson estimated that spending $30 billion per year on a robust coordinated conservation effort could cut the extinction rate by half. (See my review of Wilson’s The Future of Life below, in the biosphere thread.) He argued that this ‘one-thousandth of world domestic product’ is ‘the best bargain humanity has ever been offered.’ In the run-up to COP 11, researchers writing in the journal Science revised Wilson’s figures: establishing and maintaining the reserves needed to save the world’s threatened species will now cost more like $80 billion per year. Meanwhile, with each passing hour the world becomes three more species poorer, and degrading ecologies edge that much closer to tipping points of collapse.

The shared technocratic assumption here is that growth (or more bluntly, capital) and the biosphere can be reconciled, and that an acceptable balance can be struck, under the unchanged sign of accumulation, between ‘lifting the world out of poverty’ and conserving nature. Critical theory, of course, rejects this as a false reconciliation and calls for a new social logic beyond that of domination and perennial misery. Short of that leap, however, we should push the vectors of conservation as far as they can go.

Among the responses to the crisis and the political impasses surrounding it, is the still-emerging field of ‘ecological accounting’. The idea here is to put values on all the ecological costs and benefits that are conventionally left off the books, from the untallied costs of pollution and species loss to the freely-used benefits of ‘ecosystem services’(the ES in the IPBES), such as clean air and natural pollinators. The sum of these estimates brings into view – and potentially into business plans, accumulation strategies and security budgets – the true carbon footprints of specific industrial processes, products and policies. Such a re-conceptualization amounts to a radical redefinition of growth and, possibly, a new economic paradigm. Limited to ‘carbon trading schemes’ and similar shell games, such an approach will remain easily corruptible. But if it takes hold more robustly and becomes generalized, then it may go differently. It seems very doubtful that current patterns of production and consumption can be justified under such criteria, rigorously applied. Whether ‘ecological accounting’ is radical enough to open an ‘immanent’ path out of the logic of capitalist accumulation remains to be seen, but is very much worth thinking about.

The following editorial from this week’s Economic & Political Weekly (Mumbai) reflects lucidly on COP 11 - with the requisite skepticism for the ideology of growth. In the South, too, governance is rife with antagonism.


Read the review of Wilson’s The Future of Life.

Editorial: Words not Deeds. The government's commitment to conserving biodiversity remains hollow.

Economic & Political Weekly, vol. XLVII, no. 44, 3 November 2012

The recently concluded 11th Conference of the Parties (COP11) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Hyderabad reminded us that not everyone is convinced that economic growth and biodiversity conservation are compatible. Although all governments, including ours, make the right noises at such conferences, reiterating their commitment to the environment and biological diversity, their policies suggest otherwise. The CBD has been around for two decades. It came into force on 29 December 1993, 90 days after the 30th country had ratified it. Yet over this period, it is evident that the sense of urgency that resulted in this important convention being formulated has not translated into the kind of actions that could have slowed down the rapid decline in biodiversity worldwide and in particular in biodiversity-rich nations like India. In the last two decades, one-third of all species of plant and animal life have become extinct in the world. Many more are on the endangered list as the juggernaut of environmentally unsustainable developmental policies proceeds to destroy precious ecosystem resources.

In poorer countries, and even those like India that are on a rapid growth path, the people most dependent on a natural resource base are also the poorest and most likely to be in the path of projects that destroy biodiversity. Mining is only one of the dozens of examples. In the last decade in India, close to one lakh hectares of forestland have been excavated for mines and more such land is being surveyed for mining. There is not a hint in official policy that the need to conserve ecosystems is as important as extracting minerals. The importance of the former has been recognised only when people dependent on these natural resources have fought to save them. A similar example is the fate of India’s coastline that is progressively being destroyed by scores of power stations, ports, jetties, tourist facilities, etc, that have been sanctioned. The consequent destruction of breeding grounds of the vast varieties of aquatic resources, taking place at an alarming pace according to recent surveys, is putting the livelihoods of fishing communities across the country at risk while at the same time destroying aquatic biodiversity.

Traditionally, farmers have been the conservators of scores of seed varieties. Their age-old methods of conservation are today under threat as agro companies aggressively push seed varieties, many of them genetically modified (GM), that promise bigger profits and more resilient crops. But as the virtual epidemic of suicides amongst farmers in many parts of India has shown, the promise of profits has been illusory and has led not just to debilitating indebtedness but also to the loss of precious diversity in seeds. In this context, the recommendation of the Technical Expert Committee, constituted by the Supreme Court in response to a petition asking for a ban on GM crops, is significant. It has recommended a 10-year blanket ban on field trials of GM crops, particularly in areas where India is the centre of origin of the seed variety. Predictably, industry has criticised this recommendation, considering it short-sighted. In fact, it might prove to be just the kind of far-sighted step that is needed to halt the worrying destruction of indigenous seed varieties.

In his speech at COP11, which India chairs for the following two years until the next COP is held in South Korea, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made all the right gestures including kicking off the fund for biodiversity conservation with a pledge of $50 million, a very small part of the estimated $8 billion needed to fund research and projects in the countries that are econo­mically poor but rich in terms of biodiversity. Yet the government’s recent policies expose the hollowness of much of what he said. For instance, in the last decades many significant environmental laws have been enacted, including the Bio­logical Diversity Act 2002. The law envisaged local communities maintaining bio­diversity registers so that they could intervene if development plans endangered these resources. The formulation of the Act itself, following extensive consultation, offered an important model of consultative law-making. Yet, even a law like this has not been implemented with any seriousness and many states have failed to involve local communities. In fact, the very people who are most vested in preserving bio­diversity are today being forcibly displaced in the name of economic development.

The real proof of commitment to the concept of conserving biological diversity will come if the economic growth model that a country adopts incorporates conservation strategies as an integral part of its developmental plans. This necessarily means trade-offs. But because environmental concerns involve issues that will affect future generations and cannot be measured in terms of short-term gains, policymakers have to embrace the vision of a future that incorporates such diversity. Unfortunately, the belief that somehow economic growth can offset all other losses, including those of ecosystem services, remains deeply embedded in the corridors of policymaking. As a result, the only time conservation of biodiversity is given a shoe-in is when those affected by its loss, the natural resource dependent communities, organise and make themselves heard.

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