It probably won’t come as too much of a surprise that most of the people I know reasonably well (mates included) are also scientists of some description. I therefore think that I fall into the extremely normal and mundane category of associating the most with people at work. Sure, I’ve also got very good mates who are et alia plumbers, chefs, winemakers (I do live in South Australia, after all), mechanics, coffee roasters and farmers (I also live on a small farm), so at least a get out of the office a bit. In summary, I tend to befriend and hang around people who are for the most part making ends meet, but who are by no means in a position to spend oodles of cash on anything remotely related to the conservation of biodiversity.
From time to time, however, I do meet extremely wealthy people, but we generally do not operate in the same social circles (I know, another big surprise). Nonetheless, I keep finding myself in conversations with such people that start along the lines of the following question:
“What’s the most effective way to invest money to save species from going extinct?”
As the Australian saying goes: “How long is a piece of string” – in other words, it’s a difficult, multi-dimensional answer at best, or a confused non sequitur one at worst.
Those reading this might be thinking right now, “Oh, I know exactly what I’d spend it on if I had that kind of money”, but after a few moments of contemplation, you might not be so sure. This is the dilemma in which I’ve found myself now on more than a few occasions.
So, with the benefit of a little contemplation, here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.
The egocentric part of my brain is the first to step up and offer the helpful, if not translucent, suggestion that said wealthy person could reap universes of green kudos simply by investing in my research (heh, heh). Yes, I could claim with only a hint of barely contained glee that by investing in my research (i.e., me), I could save the world’s species from certain doom, to which my partner in conversation would almost certainly respond with a pensive grunt and a sardonic smile. Result: my research fund balance is not suddenly of a blacker hue, and I realise I should never contemplate an alternative career as a political campaign manager. But hey, if you are better at that sort of thing than I am, then go for your life; I maintain however that few scientists possess such skills and should probably think about a more constructive way of recommending investment.
Another thing that pops into my head immediately following the selfish fishing exercise is some sort of climate-change mitigation plan. Admittedly, this one is a little more ambiguous, but one can suggest anything from investing in (carbon) offset schemes (not biodiversity ones!) to setting up an actual REDD project (including insurance, of course – hint, hint, read my paper on iREDD). However, even the most do-gooder wealthy types tend to glaze over when I mention offset schemes, because despite their potential importance and the rising disaster that is runaway climate disruption, the immediate benefits are not tangible enough to get their philanthropic juices flowing. Failure #2.
“Aha!”, I subsequently exclaim, “I know exactly what you should spend your ill-gotten and planet-fucking riches on!” (note: I don’t actually express it quite that honestly). “You should restore a forest!”. Great idea, until you actually consider what that means. I know first hand what is required to restore ‘a forest’ – actually, a few small patches of growing experiments. It’s hellishly expensive, requires a massive amount of organisation and planning, and of course it needs someone to hand over large chunks of land to restore. It can be done, but it’s a long, laborious and slow process – a recognisable forest can take anywhere from 30 to 150 years to grow depending on where you are. Don’t get me wrong; reforestation is an essential tool in the conservationist’s toolbox, but to implement it to the satisfaction of a wealthy investor will require an extraordinary degree of patience and goodwill from the latter.
“Ok. Let’s get a bit more realistic”, I whisper to myself. You could just donate your money to the local green party, because they’ll save the planet, won’t they? Err … I’m not the sort of person who’s going to run out and recommend that anyone donates to any political party for the reasons I explain here. Yes, some parties are more environmentally responsible for others, but chances are that if you’re talking to a person who possesses enough money to wipe his own arse with cash, it’s not likely that it’s also the sort of person who supports the far left. Taking this tack will almost certainly end the conversation with a despairing “No. Wait. Come back …”.
Getting desperate, I’m nearly at the point of saying “Oh fuck it. Give it to any environmental NGO and be done with your moment of guilt-ridden financial weakness”. The point above notwithstanding, there are certainly a lot of great NGOs out there that do great things for biodiversity conservation (dare I say, a helluva lot more than most conservation scientists do), but again, it’s a bit of a throw-away suggestion that doesn’t demonstrate a strong sense of purpose for the money being invested. If these are the sort of people who would consider giving money to an environmental NGO, they probably would have done so already.
So, my friends – what does one recommend? The most obvious and slightly simplistic solution seems therefore to boil down to this: tell them to buy up some land.
What? They probably already own some land and have already built a few gaudy hotels or blocks of flats on it. Or they own a farm somewhere and pay a manager to run a (too-large) flock of sheep on it. What could possibly help biodiversity by buying (more) land? You’ve probably figured it out by now, but I’m not talking about buying the property next door or investing in some abandoned farmland so they can have that bucolic country escape on the weekends. I’m suggesting instead that they buy up some bushland (forest) (or analogous ecosystem) that isn’t already too buggered up to be of any conservation value. The same suggestion would apply to the sea, but I don’t think it’s too easy to go to the local real estate agency and look up what they’ve got on offer in the coral reef or continental slope department.
What type of land should they buy? Following the very well-established principles of conservation biology, the following attributes would ensure that some conservation value was maintained:
- Make sure the patch that they end up buying is huge. We’re not talking about 10 hectares of weed-invaded bush fragment isolated by farms for 100s of kilometres in all directions; I mean in the order of 100s or 1000s of hectares of forested land that hasn’t been too worked over.
- We know that isolation, like small size, is bad. If they can buy up bushland adjacent to existing reserves or protected areas, they effectively get the biodiversity benefits of all that existing land as well. Better yet, if they can buy up land between separated reserves and somehow link them, then they’ve created their own biodiversity corridor.
- If the land has an existing conservation covenant, or is co-managed for biodiversity values already, then you’ve already saved two birds with one reserve. Organisations like The Nature Conservancy and Bush Heritage regularly purchase land by tapping into responsible donors for just such purposes, so linking with groups like this is a great idea.
- There are many ways to ensure that the land is not developed following ownership. The worst thing that could happen is that the once-guilt-ridden investor suddenly becomes greedy again and cuts all the trees down for their timber value. There are many clever lawyers out there who have drawn up ‘in perpetuity’ clauses into land sales that effectively guarantee that the land can only be sold if the original values are maintained (in this case, for biodiversity conservation). In other words, if the owner dies or wants to sell, the subsequent buyer is required to keep the land as is.
- Like any REDD project, they can probably get some carbon offsets at least from the purchase, and implementing some sort of iREDD-like insurance policy is a good way to make sure it doesn’t all just burn to the ground or become a site for illegal logging or poaching. Some sort of investment in management is a great idea.
I’m certain a lot of people who are much more experienced with how to spend conservation money wisely have other ideas, and I’d be keen to here them too. Give me your thoughts, please.