February 5, 2011

Why conservation biologists should care about peace and justice

The events in Tunesia and Egypt have provided gripping images for those of us peering through the lens of CNN. It's a drama worth watching, from a political perspective.

I would also argue that conservation biologists should be paying attention. How do peace and justice relate to conservation, you ask?

It's a pretty simple answer. People worry about personal safety and feeding their family first. Our ethical response to our environment is shaped by our experience.

For example, it may seem so obvious to a person in a warm apartment in Lincoln, NE that rainforests are a critical habitat. But, if you're the farmer trying to eek out a living in that spot, the trees are going to come down to make way for a place to plant crops or graze cattle. Short-term needs create decisions made on the short-term time scale. It's the micro-economy, stupid (as a political campaign strategist once said)!

Ojasti* wrote: "The top administrators of developing countries face urgent
problems of economic development, politics, education, health, etc., and pay
attention to natural resources only when their productivity and monetary returns
are large."

Tunisia and Egypt are both in a biodiversity hotspot: the Mediterranean Basin. There are conservation efforts in each country, but their potential may be dampened by economic concerns. Certainly, Egypt has enjoyed support from the US and might not be classified as a 'developing nation'. Their reported unemployment rate of 9% in 2009 was much less than Namibia's rate of 50% (2008 figure). Tunisia's rate of 14% helped spark the uprising there.
Want an interesting fact? Economic inequality in the United States is actually worse than both Tunisia and Egypt! As a recent study from Duke and Harvard indicates, American citizens constantly underestimate the inequality in our country. Perhaps we have this jaded view that no matter what happens, we have to be better than the rest of the world. Perhaps.
Inequality is measured by the GINI statistic, shown in the map above (go here for original image). A score of 0 means perfect economic equality in a country, a score of 100 means perfect inequality--massive gaps between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.

What is the take-away message? Conservation biologists should pay attention to economic gaps, as we work in the context of individual citizen's daily decisions about how to use resources.

And, it's not just something to think about for developing countries. To bring this home to Nebraska, it should not be a surprise that water decisions along the Platte and Republican Rivers hinge around agriculture and conservation needs. When our legislature makes decisions about water this spring, I'll bet agriculture will win. Short term needs. Short term decisions. It's the economy, stupid.

Successful conservation biologists will figure out how to work in that landscape.

*1984. Hunting and conservation of mammals in Latin America. Acta Zoological Fennica, Vol. 172.


  1. And if you want another reason to care about inequality - it also affects international comparisons of how smart our children are (or conversely, how good the education system is).