Posted by: chrismaser | May 14, 2012


“Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money”.—Cree proverb

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 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, command-and-control political decisions ensure that desired economic projects are inevitable before any environmental studies can be made—or even 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 to someone else—thus assuming exploitation is inevitable. 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. Here, logging in tropical forests is illustrative.

Despite abundant evidence that both the damage to forests and the financial costs of logging can be reduced substantially by training workers in sustainable techniques, such as preplanning skid trails and directional felling, destructive logging practices are still common in the tropics. The principal reason poor logging practices persist in the face of potential cost savings is that lower-impact logging restricts access to steep slopes and prohibits ground-based yarding (= pulling) timber over wet ground. Both types of restrictions are probably seen as synonymous with reduced income because of the decreased number of trees that can be cut. Under such conditions, loggers likely opt for their old logging methods out of economic self-interest.2

Moreover, subsidies to large farmers in Latin America tend to be associated with low productivity of the land coupled with excessive deforestation. Government officials and those seeking such positions are prone to accept contributions or bribes and offer subsidies to farmers in exchange for their political support. However, the tradeoff is that farmers then adopt inefficient modes of production as a mechanism for capturing proffered subsidies. Land use in Latin America indicates that subsidy schemes have been counterproductive—they distort and constrain development and trigger excessive depletion of natural resources in at least nine countries.3

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 pearl oysters were replaced by the turkey-wing mussel. The oyster’s depletion was the result not only of overexploitation in a short period of time but also of the ecological stress the exploitation generated. Consequently, the turkey-wing mussel out-competed the pearl oyster and thus prevented its recovery.4

A similar situation has 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 twenty-six and sixty feet deep, the average number of species and individuals declined with every two-inch slice of a core from 150 individuals of twenty-one 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, while the loss of both species and numbers had not been recognized previously, they extended throughout the entire sixty-two-mile coastal area in the study. Given that various types of shellfish harvesting and other anthropogenic impacts are virtually ubiquitous for the coastal zone, but are not monitored for their effects, major losses in the current biodiversity of mollusks may be globally widespread—yet unnoticed and thus ongoing.5

Such overexploitation is based on the perceived entitlement of the exploiters to get their share before others do and to thus 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 no more sustainable biologically than is the turtle trade in China. Indeed, the exploitation of turtles and tortoises for today’s market in Asia contributes to a crisis in extinction of global proportions. Thus, it serves as a contemporary example of an unsustainable capitalistic venture based on a biologically renewable resource.

Although mainland Southeast Asia has long been regarded as a Mecca of diversity for turtles and tortoises, little is known about them in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (formerly known as French Indochina) because biological investigations were limited prior to World War II. Since then, decades of civil unrest, political instability, and military conflict have largely prevented fieldwork. Nevertheless, turtles and tortoises face continuing exploitation for food and medicinal markets in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where hunters in rural villages capture them for local consumption or to sell to traders who periodically visit villages to purchase wildlife. Although turtles are eaten locally and traded in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, most are exported through Vietnam to markets in southern China to appease the people’s insatiable demand for the turtles’ meat in soup and their shells for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

In China, there are over one thousand large, commercial turtle farms, collectively worth over a billion U.S. dollars.6 The scale of these lucrative operations, especially those pertaining to endangered species, pose a major threat to the survival of China’s diverse turtle fauna.7 This threat stems primarily from the fact that turtle farmers are the primary purchasers of wild-caught turtles. They buy them to increase their overall stock of adult animals and to secure wild breeders, which are important because successive generations of farm-raised turtles exhibit a marked decrease in reproductive capability. The reliance on individuals captured in the wild demonstrates that turtle farming is not a sustainable practice. As populations of wild turtles decline, it will become increasingly difficult to supplement farm stock from the wild.

Even with the inevitable crash in the farming of native turtles, the depleted wild populations will still face overexploitation because there is an entrenched cultural demand for wild-caught meat. The nutritional properties of wild animals are promulgated by the practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and are thus deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Consequently, wild-caught turtles fetch significantly higher prices than those raised on farms, and no amount of captive breeding will decrease the insistence on obtaining wild turtles for consumption.

China is being rapidly industrialized. Consequently, the escalation of turtle farming has followed the path of other capitalist ventures since the economic reforms of the 1980s. The fusion of China’s growth with the utilitarian attitude of the Chinese toward Nature clearly emphasizes the aforementioned fear of losing short-term profits, even at the cost of rendering long-term biodiversity unsustainable—as the history of economics has so often demonstrated. In the case of Chinese turtles, the farmers are grabbing the last vestiges of wild populations to process for the soup pot.

Even if the Chinese government could alter the unsustainable practices of turtle farming, it’s unlikely that black-market turtle farms could be effectively regulated because established, well-heeled farmers are continuing to purchase turtles secured in the wild whenever possible. In effect, they are opting to earn profits as long as they can, regardless of the ecological outcome. In the long term, therefore, turtle farms serve a single function—to generate profit for a few entrepreneurs, despite the social-environmental consequences.8


As with any renewable natural resource, the non-sustainable exploitation of turtles has a built-in ratchet effect, which works in this way. During periods of relative economic stability, the rate of harvest of a given renewable resource (wild turtles in this case) 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 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 or 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. 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.9 (I have used the term “capital investment” advisedly, although in reality there capital “re-investment” only—or more accurately, recycling. See Principle 3: The only true investment is energy from sunlight)

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. This 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 false 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, a concept that, on a global scale, was missed in the Kyoto Protocol of December 1997.

The Kyoto Protocol caps neither the emissions of greenhouse gas at a level that will achieve climate stability nor economic growth based on thresholds of biophysical sustainability.10 David Ehrenfeld, a professor of biology at Rutgers University, puts it this way:

Criticisms of globalization have been largely based on its socioeconomic effects, but the environmental impacts of globalization are equally important. These include acceleration of climate change; drawdown of global stocks of cheap energy; substantial increases in air, water, and soil pollution; decreases in biodiversity, including a massive loss of crop and livestock varieties; depletion of ocean fisheries; and a significant increase in invasions of exotic species, including plant, animal, and human pathogens. Because of negative feedback from these changes, the future of globalization itself is bleak. The environmental and social problems inherent in globalization are completely interrelated—any attempt to treat them as separate entities is unlikely to succeed in easing the transition to a post-globalized world.11

Then, because there is no mechanism in our linear economic models of ever-increasing yields that allows for the uncertainties of ecological cycles and variability or for the inevitable decreases in yields during bad times, the long-term outcome is a heavily subsidized industry. 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 over-exploiting 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.

Repairing Ecosystems:

• Six Lessons From History

• Restoration, As We Currently Think of It

• Why Restoration Is Not Possible

• Basic Considerations

• Biophysical Dynamics

      1. Composition, Structure, And Function

      2. Cumulative Effects, Lag Periods, And Thresholds

      3. Habitat Components And Animal Behavior

      4. Habitat Configuration, Size, And Quality

      5. Mending The Prairie Through Fire And Grazing

      6. Special Considerations

• Monitoring Your Efforts

Related Posts:

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship

• Principle 3: The only true investment is energy from sunlight

• Principle 6: All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops

• Principle 7: All relationships have one or more tradeoffs

• Principle 9: All relationships are irreversible

• The Self-Inflicted Cost Of Economic Myopia

• Current Crises: Our Inner Vs Outer Landscapes

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future—Instructions for Adults


1. Philip M. Fearnside. Deforestation and International Economic Development Projects in Brazilian Amazonia. Conservation Biology, 1 (1987):214–221.

2. Francis E. Putz, Dennis P. Dykstra, and Rudolf Heinrich. Why Poor Logging Practices Persist in the Tropics. Conservation Biology, 14 (2000):951–956.

3. Erwin H. Bulte, Richard Damania, and Ramón López. On the Gains of Committing to Inefficiency: Corruption, Deforestation, and Low Land Productivity in Latin America. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 54 (2007):277–295.

4. Aldemaro Romero. Death and Taxes: The Case of the Depletion of Pearl Oyster Beds in Sixteenth-Century Venezuela. Conservation Biology, 17 (2003):1013–1023.

5. 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.

6. Shi & Provincial Forestry Bureau for Endangered Species, Import and Export Management Office of China, July 2007, unpublished data.

7. Norman Myers. The Extinction Spasm Impending: Synergisms at Work. Conservation Biology, 1 (1987):14–21.

8. The preceding discussion of the trade in turtles and tortoises is based on: (1) M. D. Jenkins. Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles: The Trade in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, U.K.: TRAFFIC International, 1995); (2) Le Dien Duc and S. Broad. Investigations into Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Trade in Vietnam. (Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K.; Species Survival Commission, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1995); (3) M. Lau, B. Chan, P. Crow, and G. Ades. Trade and Conservation of Turtles and Tortoises in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, People’s Republic of China. In: Asian Turtle Trade: Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in Asia, ed. P. P. Van Dijk, B. L. Stuart, and A.G.J. Rhodin, Chelonian Research Monographs, no. 2, 39–44 (Lunenburg, MA: Chelonian Research Foundation, 2000); (4) P. P. Van Dijk, B. L. Stuart, and A.G.J. Rhodin, eds. Asian Turtle Trade: Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in Asia, Chelonian Research Monographs, no. 2 (Lunenburg, MA: Chelonian Research Foundation, 2000); (5) H. Shi and J. F. Parham. Preliminary Observations of a Large Turtle Farm in Hainan Province, People’s Republic of China. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 3 (2001):2–4; (6) R.H.P. Holloway. Domestic Trade of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Cambodia. Linnaeus Fund Research Report. Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 4 (2003):733–734; (7) H. Shi, Z. Fan, F. Yin, and Z. Yuan. New Data on the Trade and Captive Breeding of Turtles in Guangxi Province, South China. Asiatic Herpetological Research, 10 (2004):126–128; and (8) Haitao Shi, James F. Parham, Michael Lau, and Chen Tien-His. Farming Endangered Turtles to Extinction in China. Conservation Biology, 21 (2007):5–6.

9. 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.

10. Jon Rosales. Economic Growth and Biodiversity Loss in an Age of Tradable Permits. Conservation Biology, 20 (2006):1042–1050.

11. David Ehrenfeld. The Environmental Limits to Globalization. Conservation Biology, 19 (2005):318–326.

Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.

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