If Rome Is Burning, Why Are We Fiddling?


To conservation biologists, the world can seem like a vast tragedy unfolding. The “folly our grandkids are least likely to forgive,” as E. O. Wilson put it, is well underway. We can put it in dramatic terms, such as the “sixth great extinction crisis,” or we can dryly refer to dwindling habitats, more endangered species, and a general loss of biodiversity. In whatever terms we express it, our lament begs the question, “What can we do about it?”

The scientific literature provides few answers. In the traditional format of scientific articles, our answers would presumably be found in the discussion section or the equivalent thereof. What do we find there? Typically, the focus is on the ecological aspects of the decline. Then, in a paragraph or a sentence, responsibility is assigned to “human activities.” Finally, there are some additional questions identified and a pitch for more research funding. In general, our cumulative discussion section has been impotent in the policy arena, especially in the macroeconomic policy arena, where fiscal, monetary, and trade policies are developed with great impact on biodiversity.

To enter, inform, or in any way affect the macroeconomic policy arena, conservation biologists will need a basic familiarity with the technical and political issues of economic growth. Fortunately, they will readily “take” to this subject. After all, conservation biologists and ecologists in general are the “economists of nature.” They deal with the same processes of production and consumption, niche analysis, and population dynamics that economists do; they just use different jargon. This helps explain the development of academic programs that combine ecological economics and conservation biology at a growing number of outstanding institutions. Nevertheless, at this point in the development of conservation biology, much progress is yet to be made, and some of the basic concepts of economic growth and biodiversity conservation are worth noting here.

Economic growth is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population and/or per capita consumption, where consumption refers to the consumption of materials and energy by firms, households, and governments. Economic growth is gauged by gross domestic product (GDP) or gross national product (GNP).

The GDP as an indicator of human welfare is under attack from the left and right. Yet, we need to take great pains to avoid the mistake of claiming that GDP is not an indicator of economic growth or that GDP should be scrapped as an accounting tool. An obese person needs to lose weight, not throw away the scale. A good doctor uses not only the scale but also the stethoscope, the blood pressure cuff, and other instruments to monitor health. Likewise, while monitoring the fattening of the economy with GDP, we should also encourage the development of true indicators of welfare, such as the genuine progress indicator (GPI).

It is important for conservation biologists to be aware that even conventional, “neoclassical” economists acknowledge a conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, but with a deal-breaking disclaimer. Neoclassical economists argue that the conflict can be overcome via technological progress. They defend this argument by focusing on the singular technical prospect of producing more goods and services per unit of material and energy input while ignoring the complex dynamics of technological progress.

For the conservation biologist perhaps no technical issue is as important to get right as the relationship of technological progress to biodiversity conservation. If the neoclassical economists are right, then conservation efforts should focus on advocating technological progress more than limiting economic growth. If they are wrong, then conservation efforts should focus on alternatives to economic growth as national policy.

The nineteenth-century economist, William Stanley Jevons, noted in “The Coal Question” that every increment of additional efficiency in coal extraction and utilization was met with an increment of additional coal extracted and consumed. “Jevon's Paradox” helps illustrate the chicken-or-egg nature of economic growth and technological progress. As long as economic growth is the goal, technological progress will not result in biodiversity conservation; rather, an expansion of the human niche and the consumption of more natural resources will result.

Yet, conservation biologists would be castigated as Luddites if they called for an end to technological progress. Instead, we must walk a fine line by acknowledging that it is possible for a moderate amount of technological progress to occur without the research and development generated from economic growth. In the same breath we need to cite the wisdom of “all in moderation” and note that technological progress in an economy that is not expanding (one in which biodiversity is conserved) is likely to ensue at a much slower pace.

Other arguments for unlimited growth are essentially variants of the technological progress argument. These include the “information economy,” certain theories of “human capital,” and all notions of “dematerializing” the economy or “decoupling” economic growth from natural resource consumption. As long as these arguments continue to hold sway in the policy arena, biodiversity will not be conserved. It behooves us to encourage invention and innovation, but only if it is decoupled from the goal of economic growth.

Now back to the question, “What can we do about it?” We have a partial answer already: bring the principles of ecology into the economic policy arena, establish that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, and advocate an alternative to economic growth. The two big remaining questions are “How do we enter the economic policy arena?” and “What do we advocate, once we get there?”

The second question is yet a technical issue, so let us start with that. We have already defined economic growth as an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. Economic growth is not synonymous with capitalism, democracy, or apple pie. It is a purely mechanistic, quantitative process aided in most countries, capitalist or socialist, by a variety of policy tools. Therefore, the alternatives are simple. In fact, there is but one basic alternative: not growth. Of course, there are two highly relevant subsets of this alternative. One is recession; the other is stabilization, or a steady state economy with stabilized (or mildly fluctuating) production and consumption of goods and services. The steady state economy ultimately entails stabilized (or mildly fluctuating) population multiplied by per capita consumption, and is roughly indicated by stabilized GDP.

In the economic policy arena, the steady state economy is the only feasible alternative at this point in political history. In Europe the steady state economy has been discussed since the nineteenth century, most notably under the rubric of the “stationary state” by John Stuart Mill. In the United States the steady state economy has been staple fare in discussions of “limits to growth” since the 1960s, although it has lost currency since the 1980s. One might wonder why, and that provides a segue to our final remaining question: “How do we enter the economic policy arena?”

Individual biologists can give seminars on the subject, they can write letters to editors, and most effortlessly of all, they can cease the fruitless finger pointing at “human activities” in their discussion sections. When these human activities are analyzed, they are seldom found to constitute, for example, spiritual activities, family activities, or political activities, at least not directly. Rather, human activities that impact biodiversity are almost invariably economic activities that have byproducts (i.e., pollution) and incidental effects (e.g., global warming in a fossil-fueled economy).

The need to properly frame our language to achieve policy relevance is not simply a semantics issue. If the public and policy makers see that “human activities” are the problem, where do they turn? There is no policy arena devoted to “human activities,” and therefore nothing to reform. Conversely, every politician on the planet is fully aware of the policy arena devoted to economic growth. Let us take away the mystery for the policy maker and start making a difference by using the phrase economic activities or at least human economic activities.

Individual efforts, although important, will not suffice. The time has come for professional societies to take policy positions on economic growth. A good place to start is with the position being suggested by the Society for Conservation Biology's (SCB) Working Group for Ecological Economics and Sustainability Science. This position identifies the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation and identifies the steady state economy as a more appropriate policy goal for our times. Nevertheless, it also recognizes that such a position is untenable, unjust, and inappropriate for nations with widespread poverty. Therefore, the working group's draft position is that the movement toward a steady state economy should begin in the large, wealthy nations of the world, especially the United States.

What good would such a policy position do? There are numerous examples, but one powerful case should suffice. In the spring of 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Kelo v. New London. Residential landowners Kelo et al. argued that the city of New London, Connecticut, was unconstitutionally exercising eminent domain to develop a commercial district. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London, largely on the grounds that economic growth was a legitimate “public purpose.” The conservation community, represented by, for example, Environmental Defense or the Natural Resources Defense Council, could have issued an amicus brief, calling for the Supreme Court to reanalyze economic growth as a public purpose in light of the conflict between economic growth and the environment, a public good. All that was needed was a foundation of professional positions to stand upon, with an SCB position as a cornerstone along with positions by The Wildlife Society, the American Fisheries Society, and perhaps the Ecological Society of America.

Kelo v. New London was front-page news for weeks. An amicus brief would have garnered substantial attention, with the potential to strike a nerve in the body politic. Perhaps the single greatest opportunity in American history to educate the public and policy makers on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection was missed. Yet many related opportunities await because of the precedent Kelo has set.

For either the technical or the political aspects of this issue, we cannot count on the Council of Economic Advisors, the Federal Reserve, Congress, or the President, all of whom will be followers, not leaders. If leadership does not start with professional scientific societies, it is not going to start. The SCB has the perfect opportunity to cut its teeth in the policy arena, carve a unique niche among professional societies, and establish itself as the leader among professional societies on the biggest challenge to biodiversity in the policy arena: economic growth.