Goldman Round 2

 I’m no expert on the pros and cons of hydroelectric power, but it seems like from an environmental perspective, there are strong arguments being made on both sides.  I’m still not sure however, how hydroelectric power would provide a solutions to many of the problems cited as being immediate threat to biodiversity in Nepal.  These included overpopulation, exploitation of fish and game animals, and unsustainable agricultural practices.  True, I think that development in general tends to reduce these kinds of issues, but is hydroelectric power the best way to go about this?  If the supposed goal is to benefit biodiversity, it seems important to take into account all of the new environmental threats (i.e. increased per-capita resource consumption) that come along with more developed nations.  Without taking these new threats into account, World Bank could easily get away with greenwashing the project – claiming the goal is to benefit biodiversity when that isn’t actually the case.  If there hasn’t yet been much of an attempt to conduct an in-depth empirical analysis of actual costs and benefits to biodiversity that would stem from the construction of these dams, it looks nearly impossible to assertively claim increased benefits one way or the other.  (I think I’ve been well-trained in biology because my first approach to any problem has become to demand empirical data.)  Of course it is probably quite costly to get decent approximation of the biodiversity loss from dam construction relative to the biodiversity loss from continued use of fossil fuels or forest wood in lieu of hydroelectric power.  But I’m sure World Bank has the funds to cope.  How we get them to actually use those funds is another matter.  Widespread demand has encouraged the bank to put up a more ‘green’ front for the public, but according to Goldman the actual amount of real positive environmental change that this has resulted in is most questionable.  Who is the much-needed watchdog for an organization as powerful as the world bank?

This week’s reading also left me once again questioning who is benefiting the most from development projects like the dams being constructed in Laos.   I’d hazard a guess that it’s not the people being forced out of their homes.  The story has an undeniably familiar ring to it.   The rich investors intending to profit from a region’s natural resources are such a powerful force that many people are left displaced and essentially voiceless. But hey, this isn’t actually the same as all those other times in history when a powerful group of people forced thousands off of their land; we can all rest easy, reassured by ADB director Noritada Morita’s statement “Don’t call it resettlement.  It is just migration.”

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Precious metal is hard to find

The Bebbington article really drove home for me the dangers of a purely neoliberalist approach to development.  The main impression I was left with was that were it left to its own devices, the guiding hand of capitalism would inevitably lead to one party benefiting at the expense of another, much larger group of people.  I have no idea if this is actually true but Bebbington seemed to present this to be the trend as far as mining development goes.  If mining stands a chance of effecting positive community development, it looks like it better be very well regulated.

One important point that the author brings to attention is the destructive nature of mining operations, especially open-pit mining.  This type of large-scale landscape destruction seems especially relevant to social justice issues.  A lot of the time it is a foreign party that is profiting at the expense of the local landscape, leaving the local people to cope with their newly-degraded environment after the resources are depleted.  I’m guessing people wouldn’t choose to initiate mining operations in their own backyards, and so it’s not surprising that the mine-owner is frequently not a local.  It’s the same old story of the people who are causing and profiting from environmental destruction are not the ones who have to deal with the consequences.

Another thing I found interesting was Bebbington’s example of mining communities being very attached to the same mines that were giving their children cancer.  I couldn’t really wrap my mind around that at first, but I guess it makes sense if mining is what you depend on for your livelihood and you are uncertain of the feasibility of switching over to another means of earning income.  And from what I’ve gathered from movies and books, mining communities definitely do seem to have a strong sense of identity and local culture.  But I wonder if part of this community-wide attachment to the mine itself reflects the fact that since mines are so destructive, if they shut down, they don’t leave many alternatives for subsistence.   It would be interesting to do an analysis of what happened economically to ex-mining towns.  We need that kind of information to evaluate mining’s effect on long-term prosperity, emphasis on the long term.  That is the issue I think we should be paying a lot more attention to here.

Bioprospecting

I liked this article because the author discusses a source of frustration I’ve experienced with several of the readings.  Some of these critiques I’ve read of various conservation practices closely resemble Castree’s descriptions of those critiques put forth by “university-based leftists” on the topic of bioprospecting, in that while they are interesting in an abstract way, they don’t feel like they actually accomplish anything.  While it is obviously important for people to think critically about how we approach conservation, I can’t have a great deal of respect for an argument that maintains a given approach to conservation is wrong without offering up alternative solutions.  An example of this from Castree’s article, is the critique that bioprospecting is simply “the further commodification of nature for profit purposes,” and therefore implicitly wrong.  Although I agree with this argument from a moral standpoint, and believe that in an ideal world every species would recognized as having its own right to exist above their economic value to humans, in the world we live in that is just not realistic.  So the idea that bioprospecting is wrong because morally speaking, a price tag should not be attached to life, has always seemed rather weak to me.  And reading Castree’s article made me realize that my frustration could be because this kind of critique largely lacking practical relevance.  Does it matter that we are profiting from nature, provided this profiting is being done in a way that ends up preserving it in the long term?  We need empirical evidence on a case by case basis regarding whether or not this bio-prospecting strategy is effective, or in Castree’s words; “practical judgement about specific contexts regarding particular bio-prospecting practices.”   Of course, the situation gets a bit hairier when you consider the slew of social justice issues that come along with bio-prospecting activities.  Like the second article discussed, frequently these countries don’t have a lot of bargaining power and so are essentially forced to adopt intellectual property laws that give foreign multi-national corporations ownership over their biological resources. Smells like neo-imperialism to me!

Climate change, education, and conservation in Nepal aka I forgot this post was supposed to relate to agriculture

Climate Change:             

Climate change, poverty and livelihoods: adaptation practices by rural mountain communities in Nepal –Popular Gentle

Adverse Impacts of Climate Change on Development of Nepal – Mozaharul Alam, Bimal Raj Regmi

People living in remote regions of the Himalayas are in general very poor and depend almost wholly on the land for subsistence.  The amount that these people, and Nepal as a whole, contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases is almost negligible and yet like other poor regions of the world, they are experiencing the brunt of global warming.  As a whole the first study found that the lower income people were much more vulnerable to the erratic weather and precipitation, melting glaciers and dwindling fresh water supplies, and resource degradation that all accompany rising global temperatures.  And these temperatures are rising faster in the Himalayas than most areas of the world, due to the high elevation of the region.  Nepal also has great potential for economic development in the form of hydropower; however these are in large part contingent on the persistence of rapidly disappearing glaciers.  These articles really draw attention to the fact that global warming can really be boiled down to an issue of social justice.  We, the people who are causing the warming are not the ones whose livelihoods are about to be devastated by its effects, at least for the moment.

Women’s Literacy:

A Longitudinal Study of the Effect of Integrated Literacy and Basic Education Programs on Women’s Participation in Social and Economic Development in Nepal – Shirley Burchfield

75% of females in Nepal were illiterate in 2002, and while this number must have increased in the last 13 years, it is still shocking when you consider that today that would amount to over 10 million people who can’t read.  According to this article, the disparity between the literacy rates of males and females in Nepal both reinforces and is reinforced by “a strong patriarchal system [that] dictates roles for women.”  This study found that an education in basic literacy allowed Nepalese women to have more control over their own lives, reproductive health, children’s education, and to take part in income earning jobs.  This study found additional evidence, as if we needed any, that investment in women’s education, comes down to more than a social justice and equal rights issue, but can be a huge boost to a country’s economy.

Conservation:

Local attitudes toward community-based conservation policy and programmes in Nepal: a case study in the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area – Jai N. Mehta

Nepal has some of the most incredible animals in the world on its threatened and endangered species list (think snow leopard and red panda).  The reason these species are endangered is almost always due to human activities.  However, like we talked about in class, ‘Preservationist’ approaches to conservation are ineffective and morally problematic, since they create bad feeling and distrust by excluding local people from land that was once theirs.  The third article I found was interesting in that it actually examined local community attitudes concerning a development/conservation initiative that was implemented in a region of Nepal, a perspective I’m guessing is not very often considered.  Since the preservation of biodiversity is, in the long term, to the benefit of a region’s people, the focus of the conservation initiative in question was to equip local people with the education and skills that would allow them to take conservation into their own hands, and not just be subject to the rulings of a central authority.  The initiative additionally focused on the development of an ecotourism infrastructure, and on creating citizen panels that would govern the region’s forestry practices.  This all sounded great to me, but the authors of this study found that not everyone responded to these initiatives positively.  For example, the benefits of ecotourism tend to exclude poor people and women; individuals who do not benefit directly from the influx of foreign money and so generally look up on the industry less favorably.  Poorer community members also were far less likely to prioritize wildlife conservation.  The authors included a great quote from a local leader on this subject: “an empty stomach will never respond to the slogan of wildlife protection.”

Intrinsic vs. Economic Valuations of Nature and Culture

I’d like to address Redford reading’s comparison between the anthropologists that attempt to justify the investigation and preservation of indigenous knowledge by valuing it in economic terms, and the biologists who trying to do the same thing with ecosystems or species.  I know this wasn’t the main focus of the reading, but I think the point he made here was interesting and valid, and yet something I’d have to disagree with.  In this article, Redford asserts that pushing for preservation/conservation on these economic terms is risky because a misguided calculation or easily refuted statement could completely undermine your argument.  The alternative approach would be using the inherent value of indigenous knowledge, biodiversity, etc. as justification for preservation.

However, as I see it, this inherent-value solution has about as many problems as the economic valuation approach.  First is the implicit assumption of a universal value system.  This false notion was brought up in several of our readings this semester; the one that jumps to my mind is Greider and Garkovich’s discussion of landscapes.  As these authors point out, a rancher might look at the same landscape as say, the president of the Sierra Club, and see something entirely different.  While I would guess that every human values biological and cultural diversity for its own sake, the problem is that many people value other things more.  And so when the preservation of a rare plant species clashes with an opportunity to expand grazing lands, although people likely value both things, they will naturally place a higher value on what most immediately affects them.  While there is surely no harm in attempting to bring about shifts in value systems through education and public awareness, in the end you can’t force your value system on somebody else.

This ultimately, is the reason for the second problem with the inherent-value approach to cultural or environmental preservation; that it doesn’t work.  Or at least that it doesn’t work nearly as effectively as we need it to.  As Nash points out, the economic valuation of things that are essentially priceless can be extremely dangerous.  However, I think that this approach can be very useful for communicating the importance of bio- and cultural diversity to people who place less of a value on life’s diversity than they do on money.  The inherent-value approach is a lovely thought, and in an ideal world, that’s all we would need.  But the fact is that trying to convince people of diversity’s inherent value just hasn’t worked as fast as we need it to, and it makes sense at this point –as cultures and species are rapidly disappearing from the earth- to use all of the tools we have at our disposal.

Who Runs The World!? Girls! …wait no, its World Bank.

I thought that the Goldman reading this week brought up some interesting points.  In the beginning of the reading, Goldman introduces the concept of ‘green neoliberalism,’ a modification of regular neoliberalism (essentially a movement towards abandoning economic restrictions and expanding the private sector), which the World Bank utilizes under pressure from various organizations to shift its focus to more, so called sustainable development.  Which seems fine and dandy until Goldman goes on to point out that this green development initiative is more or less a way for World Bank to prevent public outrage as it continues to capitalize, privatize, and advance the economic interests of wealthy nations.  Teaming up with conservation organizations to purchase reserves in the name of biodiversity while simultaneously making it possible for international giants to set up pit mines in the name of economic expansion may seem like working towards contradictory goals, but in Goldman’s view they are pretty much one in the same. This is because both of these investments apparently promote the world bank’s neoliberalist agenda; the purchase of panda reserves by some NGO is still a form of privatization, AND it makes World Bank look good at the same time, which allows them to pursue other, more shady agendas.

Generating public support, especially in wealthy nations is important if World Bank is to continue onward with its neoliberalist mission.  I was not too surprised to learn that this mission happens to be very profitable for the countries who hold a lot of sway over World Bank.  According to Goldman, this is because it forces poorer countries to agree to a lot of terms that don’t necessarily benefit them, but which they need to comply with if they want loans.  The modernization model of development is therefore very much in line with World Bank’s capitalistic goals of “spark[ing] expansion of commercial markets into previously community-managed uncapitalized lands.”  For one thing, Goldman points out that this theory doesn’t take into account any alternatives to “Western-style capitalist development.”  Hence, the only way to improve people’s lives is to industrialize their economy and privatize their resources.  What I found more interesting though, is Goldman’s take on this theory’s habit of overlooking the connection between the rapid industrial growth of the North and the relatively lack thereof in many places in the South.   It is very much to World Banks advantage that development is still being “interpreted as a gift of the North and any specific failures are attributed to the shortcomings of leaders or cultures of the South.”  This perspective obviously overlooks all historical context and resulting power imbalances, but to World Bank it says “Hey everyone! We’re developing the third-world so we must be a good thing; never you mind all of that thinly veiled exploitation!”  Goldman points out that this reasoning leads to the false assumption that the reason development in the rest of the world is not progressing at the same rate it had for the West is due to some flaw inherent in the rest of the world, instead of a fundamental flaw in a system that ends up exploiting people in the name of helping them.

While reading this article, I had to keep reminding myself not to agree too readily with everything Goldman was saying, though he lays out a convincing argument.  It is very easy to vilify enormous institutions like World Bank, but its activities have obviously led to many positive results around the world, which should not be overlooked.  This article certainly aligns well, however, with everything I’ve heard about World Bank from people it’s supposed to be helping.  The modernization model of development that Goldman outlined seems to me to have deeply integrated itself into the United States psyche over the last 70 years.  As a result we the public ignorantly continue to support this so called ‘development’ at the price of continued global imperialism by a few wealthy nations.

Conservation in the Anthropocene

While I found two of the readings this week to be interesting and engaging, I am choosing to focus my response on the “Conservation in the Anthropocene” article, because I found it to be kind of infuriating.  While the author’s main argument concerning our approach to conservation efforts did have merit, I found a significant portion of the evidence they used to back it up highly frustrating.  It seemed to me to be a good example of the kind of misinformed generalizations and jargon that do conservation efforts much more harm than good.

The authors of this article are clearly not ecologists, and yet they seem to think they are qualified to make claims concerning the supposed incredible resilience of ecosystems based on a few selectively chosen examples. Their assertion that “the data simply do not support the idea of a fragile nature at risk of collapse” is unfounded.   If they had gone to the trouble to do a bit of research, they might have chosen their words more carefully.  Not many people are saying that if we continue under the ‘business as usual model’, the world will definitely end in some apocalyptic explosion.  Human beings and other weedy species will no doubt continue to persist, but really, who wants to live in a world of cockroaches and rats?

I don’t know of a single ecologist who claims that “if a single species is lost, a whole ecosystem will be in danger of collapse,” (and based on the work in ecological theory being done in the 80’s, nobody thought that back then either.)  Of course it would be ridiculous to think that the loss of a single species will destroy an entire ecosystem.  If that were the case we would all be dead by now.  The authors also assert that “ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever.”  I wonder how the authors of this paper think they know more about ecosystem fragility or lack-thereof than the group of people who devote their lives to studying that very topic.  These statements are yet another example of the kind of extreme oversimplifications the authors repeatedly utilize in supporting their argument.  You would be hard pressed to find a single natural systems scientist who would claim that alterations to ecosystems make them disappear forever.  That’s just dumb.  But it is widely agreed upon that there exists a threshold for all ecosystems, and if that threshold is passed, I.e. if enough species disappear from a given ecosystem, the ecosystem will collapse because there is nothing more to sustain it.

The author’s claim that ecosystems partially recover following disturbance events does not take into account that the events in the study they cited are all small, isolated occurrences.  The ecosystems can recover because there are species in less disturbed habitat nearby that can colonize and repopulate the disturbed ecosystem.  This “evidence” of ecosystem resilience does not take into account the intensity and scope of the threats ecosystems are currently facing.  Global warming, ocean acidification, and anthropogenic habitat destruction are global-scale disturbances.  Ecosystems and species cannot recover if there is no available influx of individuals to take the place of those that died.

It’s true that the environment is resilient, often in unexpected ways.  It’s also true that “the history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.”  What the author fails to include in this statement however, is that when the global environment changes at the scale we now face in the Anthropocene, most of the species die. (76% extinct in Cretaceous, 80% dead in Triassic, 96% in Permian) We are changing environmental conditions at an unprecedented rate and species simply can’t keep up.

The authors claim we need a more optimistic approach to conservation.  But if optimism means overlooking established facts as they seem to be doing in this paper, then that won’t get us anywhere.  The authors main argument is important and valid – our current conservation strategies are not enough,and a more anthropocentric focus is necessary- but their argument is severely weakened by attempting to downplay the urgency of our current situation and belittling the science used to describe it.