One-time payment for biodiversity raises ethical concerns

Sam Chapman

More than a decade ago today, as reported in Science Magazine, a conference of scientists with the calculatedly alarming name of “Defying Nature’s End” released a set of suggestions for world governments to follow in order to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. “Biodiversity,” like “sustainable,” is a word drained of meaning by overuse that nevertheless denotes an important concept under all the fluff: agriculture, the resource economy, and the spiritual and even physical health of the human population all depend on a planet with a wide variety of life.

On the surface, the conference’s advice appears far more reasonable than its name; upon closer inspection, however, their thesis ignites an ethical brush fire. The claim is thus: For a one-time payment of $30 billion, we as a species could cordon off 25 hotspots across the globe and preserve 60 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity. The proposed hotspots, located in California, the Amazon Rainforest, the islands of Japan, New Zealand and Madagascar, and many other places across the world, would cover as little as 1.4 percent of the earth’s land area.

It’s an audacious plan, and it makes a lot of sense. We are in the midst of what will come to be known as the Anthropocene Mass Extinction, the sixth of its kind in geologic history. While the Earth will certainly bounce back long years after we’re gone, it’s in the interest of our self-preservation to at least try and clean up the mess. However, the blueprint comes with a host of problems, the first of which being that these hotspots are not all distant wilderness areas.

In places like Japan and New Zealand: developed nations whose hotspots fall in areas unsuitable for long-term habitation: this doesn’t pose so much trouble; in the Amazon, Sahel and the Caribbean, where there is less of a dichotomy between people and the land, it’s more of a concern. This raises the question of exactly what will be done with these hotspots: in order to adequately protect them, must they be cordoned off completely?

It’s this question that causes an otherwise ideal scenario to chafe on me. First of all, what if there are native inhabitants in these places (which there are)? Can we justify forcing these people out of their home in order to protect biodiversity, especially if they don’t even have a hand in the crisis? The argument could be made that some of them: such as those in the Amazon: have been accelerating extinctions, but if somebody is faced with a choice between logging and starving, should an outright ban be enforced before any attempt to modernize local economies beyond subsistence?

The suggested method is to grant guaranteed jobs to displaced citizens on the edges of the protected zones; but, leaving aside the fact that no job is guaranteed, this ignores cultural and spiritual considerations. Furthermore, a complete cordon is a flawed approach to biodiversity. The 25 hotspots represent a majority of Earth’s species, but far from all of them: and the implication of the Defying Nature’s End report is that anything outside of the preserves will be left to die.

What is the purpose of protecting life if we’re going to keep it in the large-scale equivalent of a glass display case? The expectation of the report is that nobody without critical business in the hotspot would be allowed to enter. This plan, in its current state, will foster the sense of division between mankind and nature that is the reason we’re causing a mass extinction in the first place. What we must do is enact strict protections on the hotspots, but continue to allow people to live and work inside them. Perhaps then, humans across the world will come to understand exactly how interdependent they are upon the biosphere.