More than the rare things

More than the rare things

Suppose you have a choice to make. It is not an easy choice but you have to make it nonetheless, and you only have a moment to think about it.

The choice is this.

You can either

  1. save an endangered plant community from extinction, or
  2. ensure that 1,000 pre-school children in Burkina Faso will not starve to death.

The plants or the kids? I’m guessing that without any context information you would go for the kids even though they are black, a long way away and of a different culture.

Now, let’s make the choice a little more personal.

You can either

  1. save an endangered plant community from extinction, or
  2. ensure that your granddaughter has a good education

The plants or your granddaughters future? Again, I’m guessing that your granddaughter is more important to you than an endangered plant community.

Now you might be asking, what on earth is an endangered plant community? A fair question for otherwise you would have no idea as to the magnitude of your choice.

Formally, a plant community is “a collection or association of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighbouring patches of different vegetation types”.

In more simple terms, plants that occur together often enough to form a recognisable grouping.

An ‘endangered plant community’ is a grouping of plants that is at risk of being lost, usually due to some change in conditions brought about by human activities. A typical example might be where a swamp is drained to extend a suburb. The wetland plants cannot survive without the water.

Now the problem here is a value proposition. How much do I value something I might know very little about over something that I can imagine (starving kids) or is personal to me (my granddaughter’s education)?

In the world today there are many endangered plant communities and there are starving children as well as those in need of a good education. The choice may not be explicit but it is actually part of what society has to do. We are going to have to make choices about how much of nature we can protect and save from our own use of resources without compromising human values.

I doubt this is how conservation is proposed. It is usually presented as a ‘we have to or else’ kind of decision and rarely as a choice between competing values. The reason being that if we thought about it in value terms, where human values are among the choices, the people would win every time.

The irony is that this would be a disaster for the people. We might be able to lose an endangered plant community here and there but we cannot lose them all for we cannot live without plant communities. They feed us, clean up our water, produce oxygen… well, you get the idea.

The conservation movement still sets the choice up as a loss of rare things.

Recently the Adani coal mine was approved by the Federal government in Australia. In the absence of any sensible climate policy, the only legislation to stop it was from environmental protection, in this instance some unique plant communities associated with freshwater springs and possible impacts on the Black Throated Finch (Poephila cincta) currently listed as ‘Endangered’ under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

So when the approval went through and the indignation from the conservationists begaan, they led with the plants and the bird.

What were they thinking?

Just the previous day Norway’s $US1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, tightened its investment rules to divest further from coal that meant they would pull out $1billion investments in a slew of Australian companies. They should have led with this news. It is hip pocket gold, just as good as choosing your granddaughter’s school over a bird with cute plumage.

Now, of course, cash of this size is about strategy and in the case of Norway the move out of coal into integrated energy companies is as much a hedge against future oil prices as anything to do with the climate. Only that is fine because the climate issue is addressed by the strategy option, numerous values win so the choice becomes less about nature versus people.

It is time we started thinking carefully about the trade-offs that are always present in these value propositions. The green movement really has to or history will record their passion for the rare things as misguided fantasy.