According to a song popular some years ago, freedom is equated with having lost everything and thus having nothing left to lose. In a peculiar way this sentiment speaks of an apparent human truth. When we are unconscious of a material value, we are free of its psychological grip. However, the instant we perceive a material value and anticipate possible material gain, we also perceive the psychological pain of potential loss. This sense of potential loss affects governments in virtually all nations at all levels, not just individuals, as can be seen in Brazil.
Economic projects in Brazilian Amazonia share many common characteristics that lead to severe impacts on the region’s natural ecosystems. Top-down political decisions ensure that desired economic projects are inevitable before any environmental studies can be made—despite negative tradeoffs that are already known. In addition, government officials frequently renege on commitments to protect natural habitats and tribal areas. Thus, environmental measures are often merely symbolic and serve to tranquilize public concern during a project’s period of vulnerability prior to its becoming a politically irreversible fait accompli.1
The larger and more immediate the prospects for material gain, the greater the political power used to ensure and expedite exploitation because not to exploit is perceived as losing an opportunity for monetary gain to someone else. And it’s this notion of loss that people fight so hard to avoid. In this sense, it’s more appropriate to think of resources managing people rather than of people managing resources.
Historically, then, any newly identified resource is inevitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction. Such was the case in the sixteenth century with the pearl-oyster beds off the coast of Cubagua, Venezuela, where the turkey-wing mussel replaced the pearl oysters. The oyster’s depletion resulted not only from overexploitation in a short period of time but also from the ecological stress the exploitation generated. Consequently, the turkey-wing mussel out-competed the pearl oyster and thus prevented its recovery.2
A similar situation occurred in near-shore benthic assemblages of mollusks in southeastern Tasmania over the past 120 years. Based on data collected from sediment cores at thirteen sites in water ranging between 26 and 60 feet deep, the average number of species and individuals declined with every two-inch slice of a core from 150 individuals of 21 species in 1890 to just 30 individuals of seven species in 1990. The decline corresponded with the rise of dredge fishing for scallops, which ultimately forced the fishery to close.
Here, the major concern is that, although the loss of both species and numbers had not been previously recognized, they extended throughout the entire 62-mile area of coast in the study. Given that various types of shellfish harvesting and other anthropogenic impacts are virtually ubiquitous for the coastal zone, but not monitored for their effects, major losses in the current biodiversity of mollusks may be widespread globally—yet unnoticed and thus ongoing.3
Such overexploitation is based on the perceived entitlement of the exploiters to get their share before others do and to protect their economic investment. Moreover, the concept of a healthy capitalistic system is of one that is ever-growing, ever-expanding, but such a system, and the capitalistic ventures that fuel it, is not sustainable biologically.
Every renewable natural resource has a built-in ratchet effect, which works in this way. During periods of relative economic stability, the rate of harvest of a given resource tends to stabilize at a level that economic theory predicts can be sustained through some scale of time. Such levels, however, are almost always excessive because traditional economists take existing unknown and unpredictable ecological variables and convert them, in theory at least, into known and predictable economic constant values in order to calculate the expected return on a given investment from a sustained harvest.
During good years in the market, in the availability of the resource, or both, additional capital investments are encouraged in harvesting and processing because competitive economic growth is the root of capitalism and the enhancement of personal profits.4 But when conditions return to normal or even below normal, the individual or industry, having over-invested, typically appeals to the government for help because substantial economic capital is at stake—including potential earnings. If the government responds positively, it encourages continual overexploitation.5
The ratchet effect is thus caused by unrestrained economic investment to increase short-term yields in good times and strong opposition to losing those yields in bad times. The opposition to losing yields means there is great resistance to using a resource in a biologically sustainable manner because there is no predictability in yields and no guarantee of yield increases in the foreseeable future. In addition, our linear economic models of ever-increasing yield are built on the assumption that we can in fact have an economically sustained yield. This contrived concept fails, however, in the face of the biological sustainability of the yield,6 a concept that, on a global scale, was missed in the Kyoto Protocol of December 1997, which neither caps the emissions of greenhouse gas at a level that will achieve climate stability nor economic growth based on thresholds of biophysical sustainability.7
Then, because there is no mechanism in our linear economic models of ever-increasing yields that allows for the uncertainties of ecological cycles, the novelty of change, the variability of tradeoffs the accompany all decisions, and the inevitable decreases in yields during bad times, the long-term outcome is a heavily subsidized industry—such as agriculture. Such an industry continually over harvests the resource on an artificially created, sustained-yield basis that is not biologically sustainable. When the notion of sustainability does arise, the overexploiting parties marshal all scientific data favorable to their respective sides as “good” science and discount all unfavorable data as “bad” science, thereby politicizing the science and largely obfuscating its service to society.
Oceans in Crisis:
1. Philip M. Fearnside, “Deforestation and International Economic Development Projects in Brazilian Amazonia,” Conservation Biology 1 (1987): 214–221.
2. Aldemaro Romero, “Death and Taxes: The Case of the Depletion of Pearl Oyster Beds in Sixteenth-Century Venezuela,” Conservation Biology 17 (2003): 1013–1023.
3. The previous two paragraphs are based on G. J. Edgar and C. R. Samson, “Catastrophic Decline in Mollusc Diversity in Eastern Tasmania and Its Concurrence with Shellfish Fisheries,” Conservation Biology 18 (2004): 1579–1588.
4. Russ Beaton and Chris Maser. Economics and Ecology: United for a Sustainable World. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 2011.
5. The preceding two paragraphs are based on Donald Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters, “Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lesson from History,” Science 260 (1993): 17, 36.
6. Russ Beaton and Chris Maser. Economics and Ecology: United for a Sustainable World. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 2011.
7. Jon Rosales, “Economic Growth and Biodiversity Loss in an Age of Tradable Permits,” Conservation Biology 20 (2006): 1042–1050.
Note: This blog is excerpted from my 2009 book, Earth in Our Care
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.