Published in Business Day, 19 November 2012
THE other day, I spotted a small flurry of activity just outside my front door. A gecko had died and its body was covered in black ants. Within days, the ants reduced it to a shell of crumbling skin.
The world is full of beings and processes that support us in ways we take for granted, just as some take for granted their domestic workers. Yet this symphony of all life on Earth, “biodiversity”, is profoundly threatened. The word is almost designed to sound inconsequential. Yet biodiversity is the sum and wonder of all species on Earth — perhaps all species in the universe.
Last month, the Convention on Biological Diversity met in India. The world barely noticed, which is amazing compared with the attention given to climate change, because the biodiversity crisis is more advanced than the climate crisis.
Consider all we take for granted: every dead creature is returned to the greater ecology by other creatures; plants and plankton make every breath of oxygen.
For millennia, trees, plants and shell-forming creatures have removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, sequestrating it as coal, oil and limestone, reducing the overall greenhouse effect and creating the stable climate window that has made agriculture and civilisation possible. Living organisms purify air and water, pollinate crops, break down waste, create food, materials for construction and medicine, and absorb toxins and pollutants.
We have destroyed a safe living space for humanity more than we realise. Hurricane Sandy’s effects, for example, were worsened by the destruction of the oyster reefs that once protected the shores of Manhattan.
If you were on a spaceship and somebody started turning off support systems, you’d probably freak out. If someone fired all the municipal workers in a city yet expected the roads to self-repair and the bins to empty themselves, you’d consider them stupid and dangerous. Yet we are applying this magical thinking to the systems that make human life possible. Through crowding, pollution and reckless development, we’re “turning off” the systems that make our lives possible.
As the great biologist James Lovelock wrote in 1988: “The presence of a sufficient array of living organisms on a planet is needed for the regulation of the environment. Where there is incomplete occupation, the ineluctable forces of physical or chemical evolution soon render it uninhabitable.”
We bemoan South Africa’s underinvestment in infrastructure, but the deficit is as acute when it comes to biodiversity — our planetary infrastructure. The Department of Environmental Affairs didn’t answer my questions about South Africa’s progress on the Aichi biodiversity targets negotiated at the Convention on Biological Diversity, but since we’re among the lowest performers on the global Yale Environmental Performance Index, it’s probably not good.
Few people realise that in our lifetimes we have passed unprecedented thresholds, not just in human historical terms, but also in biological and geological terms. In the past three decades, we have moved from mostly consuming only the products of biological systems to consuming the systems themselves. We are creating the sixth-greatest extinction event in Earth’s long history. But it is just not happening fast enough to trigger panic in brains still more attuned to threats with big teeth.
Faced with this crisis — and by the world’s complete lack of alarm — technocrats have racked their brains to find new ways to preserve biodiversity.
Often, with the best intentions, they head down a path that resembles trying to secure the rights of women by selling them into brothels. I refer to “payments for ecosystem services” and “market-based instruments” for preserving forests, watersheds and other ecologies.
South Africa has endorsed this approach. At the Convention on Biological Diversity’s meeting it was announced “South Africa will advance positions that support a move towards implementation of economic instruments, including, where appropriate, market-based mechanisms for biodiversity conservation”. But the department won’t answer questions about market-based mechanisms not being “appropriate”.
What are the problems with this approach? It exists within a paradox. Often intended to make up for weaknesses in governance and regulation in highly unequal societies, it can properly succeed only within the context of confident government and regulation. It enshrines the western view at the expense of others.
This hill, its birdlife, and the spirits I believe live here are priceless to me, says an indigenous person. Nope, it’s worth R5m, says a technocrat. It forgets that our ignorance of the complexity of living systems often makes attempts to value them little better than guesswork, and we can never assess their full value to future generations.
It can complete a process of seizure that has in many places started through war and colonialism and continued through force of legal and illegal appropriation.
It forgets that in countries with genuinely strong democracies, the security of the commons is assured by an empowered citizenry that won’t assent to having it despoiled by special interests. So it is an approach that diverts attention from the need to strengthen democracies.
It ignores the movement towards inter-subjectivity, recognising that other species have an intrinsic right to exist and are not just “resources” that we can endlessly exploit.
A well-regulated market can be a wonderful vehicle for efficiency, freedom and creativity. But a market that puts a price on everything is economic cancer.
“Civilisation depends on regulation,” says British Conservative grandee Lord Michael Heseltine. Philosopher Michael Sandel says: “The question of markets is really a question how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”
Economist Ha-Joon Chang says: “If you try to create a world in which everything is driven by money and the market, the world will be a much poorer place.”
What is the responsibility of business in all of this? Don’t assume just because you’re not seeing much panic over biodiversity loss there is no reason to panic. Perhaps you agree with our ancestors and indigenous people that some things are sacred. Perhaps, like many in civil society, you think public goods are public goods. Perhaps you respect scientists who say we don’t understand ecosystems well enough to mess with them.
Perhaps you’re one of the principled businesspeople not scared to say some things in life should remain beyond the reach of the market. If so, it’s time to stand up. South Africa needs a business alliance to fight the threats to biodiversity — habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, overpopulation (best stabilised by securing the rights of women) and overdevelopment. There should be more money for biodiversity research, total commitment to stopping climate change and energetic support for better governance, and democracy, which in turn are dependent on economic equality.
Earth jurisprudence sees the principles of ecology as a broader source of law that acknowledges the intrinsic rights of other living beings and systems. Bolivia has written these principles into its constitution, as should we. Only by securing the rights of all life can we truly protect our own.
• Le Page is a sustainability journalist.