Condoms instead of nature reserves

24 01 2011

Rob Dietz over at the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy thought readers would be interested in the following post by Tim Murray (the original post was entitled What if we stopped fighting for preservation and fought economic growth instead?). There are some interesting ideas here, and I concur that because we have failed to curtail extinctions, and there’s really no evidence that conservation biology alone will be enough to save what remains (despite 50 + years of development), big ideas like these are needed. I’d be interested to read your comments.

Each time environmentalists rally to defend an endangered habitat, and finally win the battle to designate it as a park “forever,” as Nature Conservancy puts it, the economic growth machine turns to surrounding lands and exploits them ever more intensively, causing more species loss than ever before, putting even more lands under threat. For each acre of land that comes under protection, two acres are developed, and 40% of all species lie outside of parks. Nature Conservancy Canada may indeed have “saved” – at least for now – two million acres [my addendum: that’s 809371 hectares], but many more millions have been ruined. And the ruin continues, until, once more, on a dozen other fronts, development comes knocking at the door of a forest, or a marsh or a valley that many hold sacred. Once again, environmentalists, fresh from an earlier conflict, drop everything to rally its defence, and once again, if they are lucky, yet another section of land is declared off-limits to logging, mining and exploration. They are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about, exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade after decade, winning battles but losing the war.

Despite occasional setbacks, the growth machine continues more furiously, and finally, even lands which had been set aside “forever” come under pressure. As development gets closer, the protected land becomes more valuable, and more costly to protect. Then government, under the duress of energy and resource shortages and the dire need for royalties and revenue, caves in to allow industry a foothold, then a chunk, then another. Yosemite Park, Hamber Provincial Park, Steve Irwin Park [my addendum – even the mention of this man is an insult to biodiversity conservation]… the list goes on. There is no durable sanctuary from economic growth. Any park that is made by legislation can be unmade by legislation. Governments change and so do circumstances. But growth continues and natural capital [my addendum: see my post on this term and others] shrinks. And things are not even desperate yet.

Here’s a thought. Stop fighting the brush fire. Stop investing time and effort in fighting for park preservation, and instead direct that energy into stopping economic growth. If the same energy that has been put into battles to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere. After all, what area is not “sacred?”

For most of us who care about nature, bypassing local fights would seem like driving by an accident scene without stopping to offer help. Environmentalism, after all, is typically born from passionate concern about a threatened treasure very close to our hearts. But as General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz concluded during the Pacific War, to achieve the long-term strategic objective, it is sometimes necessary to conserve strength by “island-hopping” over enemy strong points so that resources can be saved to fight the bigger, more decisive battles. Each of us has only so much time and energy to budget for the cause. The question is, are we deploying it to our best advantage? So far, environmental victories have been won at the cost of losing the strategic war. Environmental watchdogs bark, but the growth caravan moves on.

The practice of designating hallowed places as nature reserves must no longer be seen as “victories,” but rather as concessions. They are a permit issued to keep on growing as long as a small portion of the land base is left off the shopping list. The declaration by certain politicians to “protect” 12% of our land surface from exploitation is a permit to leave 88% unprotected. What they are really talking about, is licensed exploitation. It is like paying the mob not to rob your neighbourhood, so that they can ravage others. The Saxons called it Danegeld, and all it bought was time. What is magical about this 12%? Does 12% somehow represent the area of land necessary to protect wilderness and wildlife? Or is it a political figure designed to achieve a compromise between conservationists and developers? [my addendum: see my related post about reserve percentages for marine parks]

According to wildlife biologist Dr. Keith Hobson of Environment Canada, a veteran warrior of decades of battles to save habitat:

There is no biological basis to 12%. It came out of the Brundtland Commission and is a dangerous concept… …most biologists I know consider the number to be totally arbitrary and political, with no relationship to actual biology or conservation. As for abandoning the nature preservation schtick in favour of reduced human and economic growth, I emphatically agree. After all, what have been the true ‘victories’ of the environmental movement? Largely postage-stamp pieces of real estate, which, once designated, open the floodgates of development around them. And like you, I have absolutely no faith in the longevity of these designations.

Sir Peter Scott once commented that the World Wildlife Fund would have saved more wildlife it they had dispensed free condoms rather invested in nature reserves. Biodiversity is primarily threatened by human expansion, which may be defined as the potent combination of a growing human population and its growing appetite for resources. Economic growth is the root cause of environmental degradation, and fighting its symptoms is the Labour of Sisyphus.



14 responses

29 01 2011

“One change always leaves the way open for the establishment of others ” : Machiavelli.

From a famous proponent of realpolitik : it gives us hope for the future, I think, in spreading the SSE message.

Perhaps we are seen as unrealistic idealogues : now is the time to include the notion of self-interest, in the hope of persuading ‘the rich, highly privileged, predominantly white, heavily armed US of A’ that there is something in it for them and that business as usual is no longer a realistic option.

Machiavelli also wrote that “:Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”

We have our work cut out.


29 01 2011
John D.

You’re right, Neil. Maybe I should have said, “It’s like saying you should stop trying to get the city to put in a sign that says ‘Please try to slow down’ and work on getting the oil companies to quit producing gasoline instead.”

Actually, he did say (a direct quote): “If the same energy that has been put into battles to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased.” This is a nice thought but I think completely unrealistic. First, who would you lobby? Second, how would you compete with the well-funded and well-organized lobbyists for all of the interests that depend on continual compounding growth?

What I think he is leaving out of consideration is something fundamental to human nature. This is that even with all the necessary information about a serious future threat to well-being, many – perhaps most – people will still act in their own perceived short-term interests. I live in the US. We have a government dominated by elected officials who refuse to accept the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists? Why? Because their jobs depend on it. You know, I’m sure, of Upton Sinclair’s famous statement that it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.

One thing that I’ve thought would be helpful is a clear and easily grasped picture of what life might be like under a steady state economy. I don’t think most people have any idea about that. Would I still live in a nice house? Would I have a car? What kind of food would we eat and would I have to grow it myself? What about my annual vacations…would those be possible? One obstacle to gaining acceptance for the steady state idea or any notion of sustainability, I think, is that people just don’t know what it means. Here in the mostly rich, highly privileged, predominantly white, heavily armed US of A, we tend to think it means life would get a lot worse and we’d have to share everything with a bunch of lazy and undeserving Third World people, not an enticing prospect.

If you know a good writer who’d like to take on this task, maybe in the form of a novel, I think it would be helpful: a story about life in a steady state economy, set forty years in the future, say, at which point the members of the executive class in the financial industries – the ones who are still alive – would just be reaching the end of their very long prison terms. If they are lucky, they might qualify based on good behavior to retire to one of the many cooperative farms that would take the place of the industrial soybean and corn operations that now disfigure the American landscape, where they could perform a useful social function by serving as bad examples of what happens to people whose deluded greed gets the better of them.


28 01 2011

We need to promote the SSE programme as the only realistic solution available : the market, however regulated, will always trump all in its onward march and tinkering with ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ growth will never prevent the continuing destruction of the natural world, however inventive the plan.

A more inclusive approach is needed : the conservationists do their best and their efforts should be acknowledged, while at the same time we educate the wider public in the need to accept limits based on fairer distribution of resources . If people feel that they can have some sort of stake in the future, they will be more likely to cooperate; if not, they will compete for a shrinking share of the world’s resources.

Population reduction ; a concerted effort to challenge the dominant laissez-faire ideology and an end to the commodification of everything : we need to join forces and stop squabbling amongst ourselves if we are to have any chance of stopping the greedsters and giving our fellow creatures their due.


28 01 2011
Neil Dawe

First off, John D., it’s not at all like saying, “If you have a traffic issue in your neighbourhood, don’t bother trying to get the city to put in a stop sign.” If you put in a stop sign, normally about 99% of the drivers would stop at the sign and so you don’t need to go any further than that.

In the case of conservation, there’s a fundamental conflict between it and economic growth. So, we work to save species and secure habitats but the economic growth machine doesn’t stop at the stop sign; it continues to steamroll over more and more habitats. And in doing so it removes or otherwise degrades the remaining habitats and negatively affects the habitats we’ve already secured. More and more studies are now showing that biodiversity loss is continuing to grow, EVEN IN PROTECTED AREAS. If you’re an amphibian dependent on the micro-climate of the leaf litter and climate change is affecting that micro-climate, your protected habitat isn’t going to help you. And 65% of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 2000 is due to global economic growth according to a recent study in the PNAS.

And I don’t think Tim is saying that “development pressure everywhere would have ceased if we had put the same energy we’ve wasted in futile environmental struggles into lobbying for a steady state economy.” You’re thinking of the current situation, today. But imagine if EVERY environmental organization and conservationists on the planet for the past 50 years had been getting the information out to the general global public and lobbying the decision-makers on the fundamental conflict and that economic growth is the problem. The fact that it’s affecting the structure of ecosystems, their biodiversity, and the provision of ecosystem services, the life support services of the planet. And that there is a viable alternative: the steady state economy. Who knows where we’d be today? Perhaps we would have elected people (because they would see there’s a constituency of millions that would support a steady state platform) who understand that on a finite planet with finite resources we can’t have infinite growth of either our population or the amount of resources we consume, the two factors that facilitate economic growth.

And Stephen Michael, is partially correct in stating, “economic growth is the engine of development, that increases living standards and well-being for our species…” Or at least that’s the neoclassical theory. But not “…the earth over.” Sure, it’s true for some, like us. But over 70% of the global population currently lives on less than $10/day. Is he suggesting we can bring those people up to our standard of living?

According to ecological footprint analysis, we exceeded the global carrying capacity around 1980 and have been eating into the natural capital (ecosystems and biodiversity) since then. Our current population of 6.9 billion is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Today there are over 200,000 more mouths to feed than there were yesterday. If each of the humans on Earth were to live a sustainable life-style of an average European (4.5 global ha/person; the average Australian: 7.8 gha/p) we would have to reduce the global population to around 2 billion people. One thing we need to do is reduce our consumptive demands in the north so the south can continue to grow their economies to get out of poverty. And we need to reduce our population on a global scale (and let’s not get into the inane red-herrings of who’s going to be the first to go?). This is a serious situation and demands serious responsible actions. Conserving small patches of habitat that ultimately will be lost to adjacent development is not a serious action.

In addition, SM is suggesting we rely on market forces to enable us to grow and “we must grow, we must regulate that growth, and we must accept that the consequences of regulated growth will require adaptive management.” Neoclassical economic theory is what got us into this mess and I doubt very much it will help get us out. Economic growth is defined as an INCREASE in the production and consumption of goods and services so, even if we become very, very efficient at using our resources, thermodynamics precludes 100% efficiencies so by definition economic growth is not sustainable.

The UN recently acknowledged that economic growth and social development cannot be sustained with our current consumption and production patterns. Today, we use 50% more resources than we did 30 years ago to produce the increasing amounts of goods and services. We’re using these resources faster than they can regenerate and that’s not sustainable. Increased efficiencies actually accelerate economic growth, which further increases the demand for the resources. This is Jevons paradox and its implications have been known for nearly 150 years.

No, I’m afraid if we environmentalists continue in the direction we’re heading we’re going to get there! We’re still doing what we’ve always done; why are we surprised that we keep getting what we’ve always got? We need new tactics including one that gains a common groundswell of people that understands the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation and recognizes there is a solution: a steady state economy, the only sustainable economic model we have.


28 01 2011

An interesting response to Tim Murray by Tom Butler can be found here.


27 01 2011
stephen michael

this article should go straight to the toothless category. environmentalists pushing to stop economic growth are watermelons: socialists high-jacking the conservation agenda. economic growth is the engine of development, that increases living standards and well-being for our species the earth over. (if increasing the well-being of our species is not the ultimate goal of your brand of environmentalism then you may as well stop reading my comment now). however, as megan points out above, what we have currently is un-economic growth. ie we have growth that produces negative externalities that translate into social costs. when these social costs outweigh the benefits of growth we should regulate the market, but not seek to put an end to our wealth creation (which for most simply means avoiding poverty).

the difficulty lies in regulating a growing, market based economy without producing perverse outcomes. the neo-liberal economic paradigm that has dominated for the last 30 years holds that this is impossible: no one can know everything about the market (or the world) and so any attempt to plan what is right and wrong will lead to some people being unintentionally worse off, and leave loop holes for others to exploit. we were recently treated to an example of this when the federal government attempted to stimulate our economy and simultaneously deliver an environmental benefit through subsidising home insulation. it is demonstrable that the neo-liberals have a point.

however, as environmentalists we recognise that negative externalities represent long term wealth destruction. ie they are unsustainable. the solution is something conservation biologists have come to be familiar with: adaptive management. in order to distribute resources and continue creating wealth that raises the living standards of those in poverty, we need a growing economy that recognises the true costs of production through market regulation, implemented by institutions with the ability to adapt.

thankfully this is not as impossible as it might appear. an environmental consciousness is awakening in our species, as children are now learning systems perspectives as early as primary school, and even our political leaders are beginning to grapple with regulating negative environmental externalities beyond the simplistic ‘pollution control’ required by earlier environmental problems like acid rain and ozone depletion.

an australian example particularly relevant to environmentalists of a conservation mindset is qld’s wild rivers legislation. this legislation represents nothing short of a paradigm shift in australian environmental policy. no longer is northern qld seen as a wilderness to be exploited, with minimalist conservation parks locked up to protect a few precious furry critters, we are now witnessing soule’s conversion of a production matrix surrounding environmental values, to a conservation matrix facilitating sustainable development. the legislation represents a landscape scale approach, with layers of regulation that allow for economic growth that (ideally) does not degrade the environmental values of the catchments under protection; the very environmental values that will ensure wealth creation in the north is sustained for some of our nation’s most disadvantaged people.

that tony abbot has singled out overturning the wild rivers laws as the first act of a coalition government shows how deep the ideological divide is between neo-liberal thinkers and proponents of any form of market regulation. however, his contribution is not entirely unwarranted. qld’s wild rivers legislation (like any form of market regulation) will produce perverse outcomes.

the solution to our environmental problems, i think, is that we must grow, we must regulate that growth, and we must accept that the consequences of regulated growth will require adaptive management.


27 01 2011
John D.

The suggestion that it would be better to focus on “stopping economic growth” rather than just buying time by temporarily preserving bits of land here and there seems absurd and misguided. It’s a little like saying, “If you have a traffic issue in your neighborhood, don’t bother trying to get the city to put in a stop sign. Go right to the source: make the oil corporations stop producing gasoline! If there were no fuel available, you wouldn’t have a traffic problem.” And the suggestion that development pressure everywhere would have ceased if we had put the same energy we’ve wasted in futile environmental struggles into lobbying for a steady state economy instead is comical! Who exactly would you suggest we lobby? Some of the many legislators who owe their offices to the enthusiastic support of the well-funded alternative economics think tanks? The numerous Socialists in Congress? Everything in the entire economy is geared toward continual growth – everything. If there is a chance that this orientation can be shifted even a little, it will turn out to have been critical to preserve some undeveloped land, some species, some biodiversity, or there won’t be anything left to base a steady state economy on.


26 01 2011

Those who truly believe in preserving the environment by stopping economic growth should go all the way and have a vasectomy or tubal ligation. More people will either mean decreased standard of living without economic growth or economic growth. Using temporary birth control now so that they can contribute to the problem later makes them hypocrites.

Environmentalism is a luxury of those who are well off enough to worry about these things. Those who are desperate will use slash and burn techniques when those techniques offer the quickest way to meet their needs. If affluent countries full of environmentalists voluntarily weaken themselves by reducing their populations to small numbers of old people, other countries will use force to take their land. These countries will be too enamored of their new-found affluence to care about saving some woods.

Another idea would be forcible elimination of large numbers of people. This “final solution” would mean less human impact on the environment by eliminating many humans. If the environmentalists are honest, they better not be wearing those pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness because breast cancer is one way of accomplishing their goal. They better not be part of any “stop world hunger” efforts because starvation has always been a means of population control.

I recognize that an expanding population creates problems, but some solutions are a greater evil.


25 01 2011
Condoms instead of nature reserves | The Sticky Tongue

[…] You can read the full story HERE. […]


25 01 2011
Maria Zotti

These sentiments are shared by the main character in the novel “Freedom” by Johnathon Franzen – in it Walter, an environmental lawyer and activist who works for the nature conservancy spends decades fighting to protect areas ofenvironmental significance – in the end he gives up and instead sets up a project to try and get Americans to stop having kids by enlisting cultural icons and cool college kids to the cause.


25 01 2011
Megan Evans

As I said on the original post (, I wonder whether discussions “against” economic growth should ideally use the more-correct term uneconomic growth (see Also has the advantage of manouvering around the “green growth” and “sustainable growth” oxymorons – if they’re uneconomic they’re still not desirable. Probably also help to clarify that noone is arguing against development – if the benefits of growth outweigh the costs then economic growth is likely necessary and a good thing. I agree with Stephen that there is an understandable need for caution in the choice of terminology, which was somewhat lacking in Tim’s article.


25 01 2011
Kathryn Alexander

In Rewilding the World the author talks about the need to connect the various “parks” to ensure species viability. In a recent issue of National Geographic they looked at the island of New York before humans and after humans. We TAKE everything! We left only a small patch of green (Central Park) on the land that was once rich and vibrant. Concrete does not promote Life. The only way to save the planet is to stop! This is why sustainable values are so important. Today’s blog on Sustainable Intelligence was about the new plan by Dow Chemical and the Nature Conservency to figure out the monetary value of an ecosystem. Putting a price on things does not save them, witness the organ harvesting going on the some developing nations as the homeless are ‘harvested’ for their organs, becoming worth more dead than alive. We have GOT to STOP!


25 01 2011

While I agree with the premise, I fear your words may be used against you by quote-miners. Environmentalists and conservationists are often accused by non-conserving conservatives of being misanthropic – or, in George Will’s words, being a “green tree with red roots”.

Unfortunately, the complex issues of a steady-state economy in developed countries and sustainable development (as oxymoronic as that term has become) for lesser-developed countries are not easily condensable into a blog post, and drive-by viewers of your site are likely to focus on the phrase “stopping economic growth” and see a red mist.


25 01 2011
Steady State Stultification « Bottom Up Thinking

[…] ecological economics, natural capital, population, steady state economy. Leave a Comment So here’s another call for a steady state economy for an environmentalist, this time a respected blogger. I […]


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