Exploitation pays, conservation costs

It is okay if the dominant world system fails. It has failed more people on this planet than it has assisted. It has exploited them and their world and offers them no hope beside vague promises of trickle down wealth, crumbs from the half percent of the worlds population that own nearly half of the world’s resources.

Sometimes we become depressed by the sheer weight of the onslaught against our global ecosystems and feel that this production line of problems — climate change, rainforest destruction, urban sprawl, species loss, genetic engineering, nuclear power, extinctions, chemical proliferation, nanotechnology, agricultural destruction of topsoil and many other greater or lesser ills assailing our planetary integrity — are collectively insurmountable.

But as with all problems, there are myriad aspects to the conundrum we face.

If we continue to commodify everything on earth, in an attempt to wring ever more globalspend out of a theoretically infinitely increasing global production — itself an inherent contradiction — then yes, perhaps the problem is insurmountable. But as Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

We would certainly be ill-advised to rely on the dominant global financial and commercial systems to provide any respite or refuge.

Yet there is a brightening glow of hope as more of us recognise the massive problems we create by continuing down the exploitative route that we are on. We know we must change our behaviour. We humans are not made great by our wealth or the illusory abundance we surround ourselves with, but rather for their love and respect we show for both our world and our fellow travellers, human and otherwise, on planet Earth.

A good point of departure is to understand that exploitation pays, conservation costs. Hence under the acquisitive, capitalist system there is little hope for our collective future, unless it can pay its way. But we cannot simply assume this to be the case, especially in light of the widespread global concern with the degradation of our planet.

So how do we deal with the inherent problems of our extractive, exploitative pattern of modern existence? How do we shift our lifestyles in order to provide a planetary home for our descendants, for our children and future generations?
Clearly the biggest problem is dealing meaningfully with the lifestyles of the developed world.

At the moment we have a world where exploitation — of the minerals, plant life, oceans, agricultural land and people — defines how we approach our existence, how we earn a living. Our commercial system, our very economy is based on exploitation of natural resources that have no inherent value in their natural state but can be manufactured into “resources” that are given a market value. We could say that we make our living by making a killing, killing the matrix of life that has for so long sustained us.

Some natural habitats are conserved under the prevailing economic order in what are known as game reserves and national parks but again, these have to provide some sort of returns in hard currency or they are sidelined as encumbrances rather than assets.

The result is the institutional neglect of high conservation value regions, the Amazon basin being a prime example. Small areas are conserved but the march of agriculture and timber extraction, driven by the market economy is far more powerful forces than any conservation ideology.

In the Amazon this manifests in attacks on smallholders and native tribes by soy and cattle barons. These powerful, exploiters have shown they will stop at nothing, even killing activists and supporters of tribes and peasants in what is effectively a war against people and the environment, fought in the name of international commerce.

This is how exploitation simply crushes conservation. Even if officials move to protect endangered natural resources, market forces — legal and aboveboard or illegal and illegitimate — actively undermine any attempt at conserving economically valuable resources.

We can safely pronounce that extinction appears to be a paying proposition under our capitalist economic system. If this appears to be a confusing statement, allow me another example as illustration: Abalone is a seafood delicacy, especially favoured amongst Chinese connoisseurs. It is globally endangered, mainly because of this pressure and has consequently been protected to varying degrees in its natural habitat. However, this slow-growing mollusc is under unprecedented threat. In South Africa, gangs affiliated to international underground networks such as the Chinese Triads are trading drugs for abalone in an exchange system that is rapidly forcing the local variety of abalone to the verge of extinction. Similar problems face abalone around the world.

Sharks too are a sought after Chinese delicacy, particularly their fins. As sharks are increasingly targeted for their fins, numbers of many species have dropped by up to 90%. While limited efforts have been taken to curtail this trade — that involves sharks being caught, having their fins cut off and thrown alive back into the sea to die, in a practice known as finning — sharks of all varieties continue to be targeted.

Even the gentle giants of the shark industry, the serene whale sharks are being targeted. They are trapped in nets, finned dried and sold. Whale shark fins were advertised in a Beijing restaurant last year for US$20,000 each. Shark fin has no taste, all of the flavour being imparted by the stock of the soup rather than the sharks fin. It really seems to be an appalling waste all for a ritual started by a Chinese Emperor a few centuries ago. With the increase of wealth in China, the threat of the growth of that economy becomes self-evident.

As with living things, so too with inanimate resources. Just as the fish and forests fall in the name of the economy — a misnomer if ever there was, should we not call it a consumption instead of an economy? — so too we are drawing to the end of an age of cheap oil. Increased global growth has traditionally managed to stay in synch with its energy supply but the boom in China is changing all of that. The amount of oil that we can extract is in excess of the amount of new oil being discovered. To put it plainly, supply outstrips demand. Oil, a cornerstone of our economy has been over-exploited to the extent that it too is headed toward inevitable extinction.

Just as a wider public is beginning to grasp the fact that our oil reserves are unlikely to drop much below US$50 per barrel for the foreseeable future and the news is getting out that several economists now predict oil to crack the US$100 per barrel level in the foreseeable future — eminently suiting the oil corporations.

As with oil, so too all of the other finite natural resources on planet earth are headed inevitably in the same direction.
Our global trading system is at a dangerous remove from the biological and practical limitations of our planetary reserves. So here is my central point for this essay: Abalone, oil and shark fins are each becoming ever more valuable as they become rarer. As long as the demand outstrips the supply, to place things in the parlance of our economic paradigm, the price will rise. Market demand, legal and illegal is driving abalone to the brink of extinction, as it becomes ever more valuable. So with sharks. So too with oil, our tropical and boreal forests, the great woodlands and lungs of the earth, all being exploited for money money money.

In South Africa we have seen collectors from the developed world plundering our succulents, reptiles and insects to supply wealthy collectors of increasingly rare species. The more endangered a species becomes, the more valuable it becomes. Our system feeds on itself, a system out of control, a system that consumes itself in a manner indistinguishable from cancer, a plague eating the land and all on and below it, even our very atmosphere above.

Only by recognising and diagnosing a problem, by examining it, naming it and by proposing therapy to deal with the malaise, only by giving the beast a name and a face, can we deal with its consequences.

We cannot shy away from the collective impacts we each have on our earth. We cannot deny that the world is under unprecedented threat, losing species at a rate that some scientists estimate to be to the order of hundreds if not thousands of species, daily.

We live in an abnormal time. In many developed nations the ownership of one or even two cars is taken for granted in a thirty of forty-something family. Never before in the history of humanity has such mobility, such excessively luxurious mobility, such energy-hungry mobility, been available to a generation.

We are not only the first, and possibly last, generation to expect to own a car from when we are born until we die. We are also the first to have multimedia entertainment supplied on tap, to have massively powerful computing systems at our fingertips, to have fresh food all through the year, to have whatever we can afford and whatever we desire.
Clearly this privilege is a wonderful thing to have but it is an equally awesome power we hold and awesome responsibility we bear to have this privilege.

The collective strains that the motor car industry (which counts amongst itself some of the biggest corporations on earth, whose economies are larger than many nations) and the oil industry, those handmaidens of excessive consumption, carry a massive share of the burden on our planetary resources.

So too does agriculture.

We have to remember of course that those of us that have all of these things sit at the upper few percent of the human food chain. We cannot forget that 40% of the people on earth go to bed hungry every night, that 60% of our fellow humans die before they reach their half-century, devoid of health care or proper nutrition, eking a living on our planetary margins. In the final analysis it is we, the privileged few, that are primarily responsible for the damage that is being wrought on our environment, on the space that we all need to exist.

Fish, nay crayfish, used to be the food of the poor. Fish oil, the oil of the poor is now a health food, available only in chemists. Abalone used to be free to collect. The oceanic fish species are at 10% of their original levels. Pirate fishing fleets are busy scouring the seas of their last remnants of increasingly rare and accordingly more valuable white gold: seafood.

To replace this we are being fed farmed fish, grown with massive environmental damages, using chemicals and antibiotics, fishmeal and grains that could feed people far more efficiently. The rich eat empty, cheap fast food that will kill you if you rely on it for a significant proportion of your diet while the poor are denied sufficient food, caught as they are in producing food to market to the rich. We are caught up in a treadmill of insane exploitation that cloaks the portends of gloom hovering in the wings of our reality. Our economic system is creaking. Infinite economic growth is a fools equation, an illusory dream, a mistake that is starting to make its results clear to any who care to notice.

Some feel that we should sit back and wait for either the global economic system crash. But if we do so we abrogate all of our power by putting ourselves in the position of mere observers of our doom.

This is not a time to sit back, or on a fence; it is a time to stand up and be counted. To build alternative economic systems, using barter, local trade and community bonds. To re-establish a system of feeding ourselves from our backyards as most people do. To turn away from reliance on a system that is clearly an accident waiting to happen. It is up to us to envision and build the future anew.

And I am really optimistic that this is happening to an unprecedented degree. We see a robust global justice movement, typified by the World Social Forum as a powerful counterweight to the World Economic Forum.

We see urban agricultural co-operatives starting to build themselves up into self-sustaining organisations. Every week I find a new local initiative that is engaged in not opposing the system that we appear to be stuck with, but is instead building a new system around the bones of the dying dinosaur of greed.

It is okay if the dominant world system fails. It has failed more people on this planet than it has assisted. It has exploited them and their world and offers them no hope beside vague promises of trickle down wealth, crumbs from the half percent of the worlds population that own nearly half of the world’s resources.

Only by giving a name to the evil that is legion, the force of money, of greed and of acquisitiveness, of aggressive male energy, can we properly perceive the reality of our situation, shivering on the brink of change, too afraid to leap.

Well people, leap, put your trust in the alternative world we all wish to build. Washington does not call the shots. We do. If we all think local, create our own reality of a better world, begin to live consciously, without fear and in love and respect for one another, only then have we a hope to succeed in making a better world.

I truly believe we sit upon the cusp of change. Embrace it from the local to the global, from the inside to the out.