Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Down the Road: Lessons from the Archives

I’ve spent my morning reading through old issues of the Fauna Preservation Society journal, Oryx (today this organisation is known as Fauna and Flora International; it was once the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire!).  Even in 1953 people were beginning to worry about the Polar Bear, although the threat was not any kind of planetary phenomena, but rather unregulated hunting and the need to set aside sufficient space for breeding populations.  Today, as we all know, the Polar Bear has become the very powerful poster-victim of campaigns to arrest global warming.  The use of what are often referred to as the ‘Charismatic Megafauna’ in environmental campaigns should be familiar to us.  There’s a reason why it’s the Giant Panda and not the equally-endangered Kauai Cave Wolf Spider which features as WWF’s logo. 

In 1953, the Editorial Board of the Fauna Preservation Society noted the difficulty in estimating the numbers of bears—whose protection was then a contentious issue in Norway—around Spitsbergen, a western isle in Svalbard.  “Statements about numbers from professional hunters are of doubtful value”, the secretary wrote, “for hunters are inclined to call the stock quite satisfactory, as long as they can get a few bears.  After that it may be too late to save the species”.*

This is not only the essence of the conservationists’ chief challenge then as now—that is, persuading people to anticipate developments, to act to avert problems, to think in long-term fashion.  It is also a problem with our politics, and cuts to the heart of right-wing arguments about governance.

If we were to adopt Republicans’ market-oriented regimes—whether for economic direction, energy and environmental policy, social services—we would be caught in the same trap in which people’s short-sightedness has long got us due to a short-sighted approach to all matters environmental.

In short, orienting our politics towards market management means that we will be forever reacting to crises, and that it will take a crisis—which has serious negative consequences for people’s livelihoods, their economic futures, the cleanliness of their water and air, the health of the land around them—to make us react.  A market-oriented approach to politics means that we eschew the use of our critical faculties to anticipate the consequences of a given policy or its actions, or of economic, social or consumptive trends.  It prevents us from acting in advance through regulation—whether financial or environmental—to ameliorate the effects of bad policy, overuse or economic irresponsibility.  We have, in other words, engineered our politics such that people have to suffer needlessly before we can fix problems.

It is the kind of thinking which has not only plunged countless animal and plant species to the brink of and into extinction.  It has allowed our government to be blindsided by the recession of 2008, it has led to the destruction of too much our natural environment, it has allowed us to act surprised when the Wild West economics espoused by neoliberals increases social and economic division and makes our communities less fair and less safe.

Self-correction comes, by definition, after a mistake has been made.  Markets do not self-correct.  Rather, they require a moral, political intervention to right the wrongs their handlers perpetuate when our politics leave the flight cabin and let proponents of the free market take over the controls. 

Now is the time to think about down the road.  And that thinking should be infused with a moral purpose.  Conservationists began to see this need almost immediately as they began to look into the causes of habitat destruction, species extinction and land degradation.  It makes sense to plan, to manage, to intervene and to protect, and we should be applying these lessons to the direction of our economy and the maintenance of our society. 


*   “Editorials” in Oryx: Journal of the Fauna Preservation Society.  Hertford: Stephen Austin and Sons, Limited, 1953: 73.

Today, Polar Bears are listed by the IUCN Redlist as ‘Vulnerable’, and are thought to number 20-25,000 worldwide.  Their numbers are in decline, and the combination of the shrinking ice-pack, intensified oil exploration, and over-harvest puts their future in doubt.  On Svalbard, the bears have been seen to spend more time on land in recent years.

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