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Thursday, 13 July 2017

The tragedy of the commons reloaded: now with better technology

Entry by: Guy Pe’er.

Disclaimer: This entry represents my personal opinion and should not be considered as an official statement of SCB-ES. I would like to thank Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley for her kind assistance in preparing and editing this entry.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as I was cycling along Cospudener Lake in Leipzig, Germany. The area was once an open cast mine for brown coal, and is now a restored environment and a popular leisure area. I put my bike aside and approached the waterline, enjoying the soothing wind and the murmur of the waves. I then sat on the soft grass, and… pulled out my mobile phone to read the news. Soon after, the calming effect of nature was gone once reading the news that the United States' President, Donald Trump, had resigned the Paris agreement. For me, this moment offered a powerful demonstration of our disconnection from nature.

While many world leaders and companies have already condemned this decision, we as scientists, and particularly as conservation scientists, should recognize the severity of the political discourse where science and evidence seem irrelevant or even undesirable, and where the most developed countries, who are the key contributors to the current environmental crisis, withdraw any responsibility to remedy it.

The United States is the world's largest national economy in nominal terms and second largest according to purchasing power parity (PPP), representing 22% of nominal Gross Domestic Product, and 17% of Gross World Product (GWP). The United States is also the world’s second largest contributor of Green House Gas emissions (14.34%; second to China with 29.51%), and this is without considering the global emissions the country is driving elsewhere. It is also the 5th leading country in terms of Ecological Footprint, and 2nd largest (after China) when multiplying ecological footprint (gha/person) by its population.

Ecological footprint by nation - source: Wikipedia

Despite this, the people of the United States have democratically elected a government which endorses environmental irresponsibility and the silencing of the scientific community as its official policy line. To put it straight, the question should not be whether climate change is happening because of us, but rather, why do so many people choose to deny climate change? While this question is likely best addressed by a social scientist, it seems plausible that accepting the fact that Earth has planetary boundaries forces all of us to call into question the freedom of consumption and the concept of limitless economic growth. Accepting that Earth has boundaries implies that we must limit our own consumption, yet without immediate observable benefits for doing so. With this in mind, there is plenty of evidence that Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States to bring economic growth at any cost, be it to poorer communities, the global South, our environment (both climate and biodiversity), but also costs to our children and future. All these costs in favour of achieving one digestible coin, namely growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is in fact a poor indicator of human well-being and can be achieved by just a few people getting exceedingly rich.

The collapse of global agreements and international responsibilities is in no way exclusive to the United States. Across many developed countries we see an ongoing struggle to enable the global economy to continue growing, against all odds. In Europe this is demonstrated by Juncker’s “Growth and Jobs” agenda (no environment mentioned), and the looming Brexit was largely motivated by economic grounds. Yet when nations take to themselves, they allow non-national actors to govern the global economy and global markets, guiding our society from consumerism to hyper-consumerism. 

This is nothing else but a revised form of the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals act to maximise their own short-term benefits by exhausting a common good (our environment) to a point of collapse – yet now we are shifting from mere exploitation to using increasingly-modern technologies for extracting more of Earth’s dwindling resources at a faster rate. As conservation scientists, we should therefore be alarmed by the years ahead of us, particularly because climate change takes the headlines anyway, whereas biodiversity is put aside; and beyond that, the mechanisms to reverse the biodiversity crisis remain weak or fragile.

So what can (conservation) scientists, as members of society, do to help us move away from this political lock-in? Here are ten ideas that came to mind.

1. Abandon wrong indicators and particularly GDP. We need an economy which makes sense, and which internalizes Earth’s natural resources. Neither growth nor “sustainable growth” should be accepted without questioning them. As scientists we should thus help a transition from speaking about incomes and the economy to focusing on well-being, health and tangible life quality, and accordingly improving the links between socio-economic and environmental (biodiversity) indicators.

2. Ensure that biodiversity is not put aside in the current discourse on climate, energy, water and waste. In contrast with the climate discourse, the biodiversity crisis is to a certain extent more tangible and cannot be denied, and likely there is also more room for facts and science compared to other discussions (e.g. climate) which seem to move ever deeper into the post-normal arena. Perhaps we should even ask ourselves: how can conservation science offer leadership in shaping the sustainability agenda?

3. Invest in bottom-up solutions. I believe this is particularly important, because ultimately, democratic leaders tend to respond to what the public wants. By putting emphasis on small-scale initiatives such as citizen science, outreach, and education, we can begin at the grass-roots level to engage with others and to share our passion and knowledge about our natural environment. Possibly, only bottom-up approaches can drive changes in our society and economy in the longer term.

4. Communicate conservation knowledge through social media. Humans as a social species seem to accept information based on where and whom it comes from, more so than if the information is (stated as) a fact. This suggests that scientists need to be as present as possible in public discussions regarding our environment, and the relation with the public may need to be tighter. Social media therefore offer key avenues for building these connections.

5. Ask hard questions, and write clear statements. It is our responsibility as scientists to unravel the processes underlying not only Earth’s ecosystems but also the mechanisms driving the ever-worsening human-Earth conflict – be it at the individual, community, national or international level. As individual scientists, we may also need to train ourselves in identifying and combating false-evidence and false-narratives, such as the unsupported claims that “we need to produce more” , the belief that “technology can save the environment” , or statements such as “…always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection” (D.J. Trump, 22.4.2017). Factually, activities relating to economic growth inherently come in conflict with nature conservation, and there is no evidence that we can decouple consumption from material- and space-use. Along these lines, we also need to be aware of opportunities to leverage our roles in societies, like the Society for Conservation Biology, to produce official position papers such as an immediate statement against Trump's myriad policy decisions both against climate change mitigation and the environment in general.

6. Leverage opportunities for action. The United States resignation from the Paris Agreement opens the opportunity for other nations to lead the dialogue and actions to drive change, and design more robust and equitable environmental policies. Actions to come, likely in the contexts of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (or Brexit), can offer opportunities to raise awareness to the severity of the biodiversity crisis and the risks of deregulation. Consider how you could use such events to contact your elected officials, and encourage them to take leadership on progressive policies that explicitly value the environment and human well-being.

7. Work with economists, policy-experts, and environmental lawyers. We need to identify what constitutional, legal and economic adaptations can be achieved and how. While natural scientists can point at the problems, the solutions require finding the paths to mainstream public opinion, setting the economic tools and incentives, and developing the necessary legal instruments to ensure that the fate of our natural capital – and our future - will not be put at the hand of one person or a short-sighted political constellation.

8. Live by example. Socio-economic changes can be practiced by each of us: Scientists have an above-average CO2 footprint, so a good place to start is by taking actions to reduce our own footprint. Also, the impacts of consumption on biodiversity are often indirect or difficult to avoid, so raising our own awareness about impacts of certain goods and consumption patterns, and taking efforts to reduce those impacts, is another good start. If we expect society to change, we too need to reflect on our own habitat, and drive changes from within.

9. Ensure own sustainability. By this I mean support your own mental and physical well-being so that you are prepared for the science-policy dialogue, and not to burn yourself out. Be mindful of the fact that diverse values sit at the science-policy table and interface, and that acknowledging other's values, whether you agree or not, is important. Along these lines, remember self-care. You can't always be present or address all critical topics. There are many of us in conservation, and we should support one another and sustain ourselves and presence jointly to ensure we are continuously present, expressing our concerns and offering solutions where possible.

10. I leave it for you to propose your observations and suggestions. What should we, conservation scientists and members of SCB, do?


Guy Pe’er is a "Catalyst post-doc" at the sDiv, the synthesis Centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ.

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