From Biodiversity to Policies to Politics

dandelion-clockDenis Couvet examines the political issues brought on by the question of biodiversity preservation.

My chapter from the newly published Handbook of Biology and Politics explores major present political issues inherent in the issue of biodiversity preservation. I will mention each in turn. The chapter is undergirded by the assumption that biodiversity should be an important goal of environmental policy.

Decision procedures should integrate the diversity of possible biological interactions, while respecting the diversity of values and stake-holders involved. Such diversity means that biodiversity configurations vary with policies. A trade-off might appear as a synergy with another option, leading to acceptable alternatives to all parties. For example, the possible conflict between mega-carnivores and animal farming depends on the livelihoods considered.

As a result, the set of credible, attractive, policy options should be large, to respond to the diversity of human preferences, and taking into account possible interesting biodiversity options. Such options ought to consider the often neglected dimensions of human development for which biodiversity preservation is an asset: health, security, quality of life and social relations, esthetics, ethics and so on. They should consider the many different ways to coexist with biodiversity, to avoid false dilemmas, like presence or absence of carnivores. In other words, costs and benefits should not be considered in only one dimension, like money or jobs, for example. Biodiversity benefits are multi-dimensional, and should include food production, extent of green areas, expected pathogens prevalence, among others.

We also suggest that public arenas where collective decisions are taken should be conducive to numerous, multi-dimensional policy options. Monetary valuation methods and markets overemphasize biodiversity values associated with private goods, the present socio-economic context, and allocation of property rights. Representative political bodies might give too much importance to this present socio-economic context, without properly considering long-term and collective issues associated with biodiversity.

Fair access to biodiversity

Another important biodiversity issue is justice in regard to the access to biodiversity, hence managing what is a public good in biodiversity. Due to the necessity to cap, and even reduce, the human impact on biodiversity, ‘ecosystem’ people (i.e. whose consumption is rather local) in developing countries might not be able to have as great a biomass or energy consumption as ‘biosphere’ people (i.e. whose consumption has origins coming from all regions of the world) in developed countries. As a consequence, we suggest that fair access to biodiversity, whether a public or a private good, associated with environmental justice, should become a major political question.

Capping Human Activities

We suggest that such capping is necessary to avoid policies leading to ‘rebound effects’. These effects occur when biodiversity preservation at some places leads to an increase of human impacts in other places. For example, protected areas have slippage effects, or enhanced human pressures on neighboring areas. Capping might be necessary especially to avoid further habitat change.

Major political difficulties arise because capping might impair economic growth, as growth is highly dependent on the increase of the use of natural resources, human population size, consumption and productivity. A further problem for capping that must be confronted is the drive for competition among individuals, groups and societies. This drive can account for much of the growth of production and consumption, the creation of new markets. In turn . this leads to higher environmental impact. In other words, on a more optimistic view-point, economic competition, markets and capitalist innovations might be compatible with the absence of economic growth. An important prerequisite might be for affluent people to accept trading their productivity gains for increased leisure time.

Axiological neutrality in exploring the relevance of Technological, Social and Ecological Innovations

Future likely issues concern the identity of green economics and its use of market-based instruments, the merging of biodiversity with other environmental issues, in particular climate change and human development.

The relevance of technological, social and ecological innovations to minimize human impacts is a major issue. Ecological innovations, around agro-ecology, and more generally nature-based solutions (NBS), considering that the at least ten million extant species can be a source of many social novelties, might suffer from a social organization not conducive to the benefits of such innovations, rather private than public. At the opposite end, adverse systemic effects can especially arise when collective costs and benefits occur usually on larger spatial and temporal scales than private benefits, which are rather short-term and local. Thus, democratic procedures to assess and anticipate unintended innovation effects have to enforce a fair representation of private and collective stakeholders, of preferences and scientific disciplines. Uncertainties might lead to divergent conclusions among experts and disciplines, because these have different representations of science–society, world-views. Controversies around biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and geo-engineering exemplify such difficulties, where expertises are value-laden.

In short, there needs to be vigorous dialogue across competing perspectives and the adoption of changed ways of thinking about biodiversity issues. The variety of values must be considered in the development of biodiversity policy.

Dr Denis Couvet is Professor at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.


Read more in Denis’ chapter From Biodiversity to Policies to Politics from the Handbook of Biology and Politics edited by Steven A. Peterson and Albert Somit.
Read Chapter 1 – What is Biopolitics? free on Elgaronline



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