Later is over

This may be the International Year of Biodiversity, but you wouldn’t have guessed as much from last week’s conclusion of the triennial Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference, which declined to add bluefin tuna and red and pink coral to lists restricting or banning their trade and export. On the back of the analysis that we are pushing species to the brink faster than they can evolve, I think back to high school biology and those ecosystem webs that link bugs to mammals to us, and what happens when you consistently punch hole after hole in that web, making the whole system more and more fragile and suspectible to shocks and jolts.

Long before toxic chemicals or climate change, international environmental policy began with species and habitat conservation, in national park creation and antiwhaling efforts. But despite this, the first environmental issue, stretching back into the 19th century, are there any real values about biodiversity and conservation that apply globally? I write this in the context of previous musings about the nature of our global norms, both shared and disputed ones.

Controversy at CITES stems from poorer countries being bought off by Japan, wanting to chiefly avoid restrictions on its import (and thereby consumption) of bluefin tuna. I can’t really blame them for taking whatever budgetary support or trade concessions that might have been offered, for a vote on an issue of marginal interest to their immediate national welfare. But the fact that they have done so is telling about what underlies their cost-benefit calculation and how you define ‘rational’ behaviour.

This is about more than money talking; it’s about money talking in a context where they’re happy to shrug off whatever criticism might come their way for doing so. That is, voting against a CITES listing is considered a ‘normal’ enough activity, or at least one that doesn’t come with too many costs (by comparison, think about what happened when the US withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol: the reasons involved might have been justifiable enough, but in a context that demands international agreement on climate change, it comes at great reputational and image cost).

Once upon a time, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, membership of international environmental organisations was seen as the thing to do, a demonstration of being a credible, stable member of the international community. This was the case for many newly independent states, and ratification of treaties is still waved about as a signal of commitment. If you wanted to show that you were part of the club, that’s what you did.

Not any more, it would seem. What poor countries face instead, is a situation where the normative pressures are finely balanced between voting for or against an endangered listing (ie. where there’s no strong consensus either way). In this situation money does indeed talk, because voting against a listing no longer puts you beyond the pale. Any apparent acceptance of the value of species conservation would seem to be alarmingly shallow.

And so, to borrow from Thomas Friedman (again), later is over. Biodiversity is one of those things we can’t repair later, because once it’s gone, it’s gone. And rebuilding any common standard on conservation might take a devastatingly long amount of time.


Of related interest is a report in the Sunday Times a week ago about the growing trend of fighting fire with fire – that is, attempting to stem, slow and stop poaching endangered species by arming park rangers and wardens with increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

That’s what you’d call a robust response, and in situations where the problem isn’t the law, but the enforcement and compliance capabilities, it makes sense enough. But it can’t possibly be a sustainable solution for the long-run – not when confronted with the risks of more weaponry floating around; and not when it ratchets up the confrontatio, has to be maintained, and at some point in the future becomes unaffordable.

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2 thoughts on “Later is over

  1. Nishma says:

    It’s the “It’s evolution – survival of the fittest” argument that hurts & angers me the most. And CITES has also failed on ivory. Again.

    And hey, isn’t the money situation just corruption?

  2. nickwkchan says:

    The money situation is indeed corruption, but not unique to Japan – NGOs themselves have, in the earlier days of the International Whaling Commission, helped to pay for the accession of smaller, poorer countries to the IWC for the purpose of creating a voting majority for a moratorium.

    It may have worked at the time, but they can’t compete with the resources that one of the world’s wealthiest countries can bring to bear when it decides that the expenditure is worth it.

    Having said this, it’s not all about the money – as the broad point of the post suggests, the positions of poorer countries is wrapped up in a broader current about what acceptable standards of behaviour. And Japan, by articulating this in terms of defending indigenous traditions and rights, appeals to this general sense of preserving sovereignty and the sustainable exploitation of resources that resonates more strongly with developing countries.

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