Where neoliberalism subjugates the natural world and people to the commercial whims of markets and globalisation, sustainable use has ensured the international commercialisation of biodiversity, and determined that price and trade be the arbiter of what value each species holds.
One of many narratives since the outbreak of Covid-19, particularly among a sector within the status quo, tells us this pandemic has been an unforeseen crisis, a surprise, one that has caught the political and business community from the blind side.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This misinformation is an attempt by those with vested interests in the current systems to hide the shortcomings, failures and poor leadership, which in turn becomes a self-serving rationale for why fundamental change is not required.
Indeed, countless people and agencies have been paying attention, and they have issued stern warnings, some for many years.
In this regard, I want to draw attention to three notable contributions. One is a report that should have shocked the world into action, another an immensely insightful opinion piece that reflects on this report, and the third, a recent commentary on what the authors believe to be a pandemic of equal proportions to that of the virus itself. And when viewed together, they speak to a deafness that has existed from many within the political, business and environmental communities.
This unwillingness to hear is a strategic denial that ignores the links between current production and consumption paradigms, and environmental collapse, which includes the spread of zoonotic pandemics. They have also silenced the calls for far-reaching structural change.
In May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released the first-ever inter-governmental global assessment on the health of biodiversity and ecosystems. The most comprehensive report of its kind ever, the contents were alarming. In summary, approximately one million species are now threatened with extinction, all ecosystems are deteriorating at unprecedented rates due to unsustainable human activity and, according to the 145 expert scientists and countless researchers involved, the current global response to the declines and destruction has been “insufficient”.
So insufficient that they refer to the situation as an “ominous picture” and called for “transformative changes” to restore and protect the natural world.
While the data was shocking, it was not unexpected. The more telling aspects were the fact that the authors of a mainstream scientific body, so often constrained by academic protocol, felt compelled to speak out, reinforcing that transformative change meant “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”.
These are strong words, and they were taken even further when the authors went on to assert that the “opposition from vested interests can be overcome for the broader public good”. By recognising the power of vested interests, those individuals and sectors of society that oppose any change, highlight what may well turn out to be the most significant challenge we face.
The second contribution comes from Andrew Nikiforuk, an award-winning Canadian journalist and author. In response to the bleak news contained in the IPBES report, he published a perceptive piece asking: “Who, or What, Will Stop the Battle against Biodiversity?”
Nikiforuk goes further than calling the wider environmental and conservation effort as “insufficient”; in his assessment, our agencies, and the paradigms we follow, have simply failed us and the planet. In making this claim, Nikiforuk reminds us of the sentiments expressed by Austrian philosopher, Ivan Illich who pointed out that if environmentalism cannot force behaviour and paradigm change, then all of us involved are merely accountants to the carnage. Illich expressed this view in 1969, 50 years before the IPBES panel spoke out.
Nikiforuk also draws our attention to another prophetic sentiment of Illich; “the more we viewed nature as a disposable commodity or a convenient resource, the less we would worry about its degradation.” This comment encapsulates exactly where we are today in our development and relationship with the environment: unfettered growth at the expense of ecological sustainability.
And the third contribution picks up on this unstable relationship by relating our current disorder to neoliberalism, the ideology that in various manifestations, has been the driving paradigm over the last few decades. Reliant on free markets, deregulation and less government, the globalisation of capital, trade and labour, all factors that handsomely reward the so-called entrepreneurs that have free reign, Abhilasha Srivastava and Aseem Hasnain believe this to be the true pandemic we face.
Their thoughts are summed up in the notion that economic activity has become the primary consideration for all human endeavour. “This outbreak has shown how contemporary capitalism and its neoliberal ideology stands in direct opposition to nature and human life itself.” Or, the flip side of the same coin may well read; the natural world and people now exist merely as servants to the pursuit of growth, profits and other benefits to be gained from economic activity.
These three strands come together as a damning assessment. Highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, they speak clearly to the urgent need for change to our entire approach, “a system-wide reorganisation” in the words of the IPBES panel, to avoid future pandemics, another mass extinction and unstable societies.
And nowhere is this more applicable than in South Africa. With poverty, inequality and employment indicators prior to the current lockdown showing the majority of people being worse off today than in 1994, neoliberalism has brought its misery to this country as well.
But what about its conservation equivalent, the doctrine of sustainable use, particularly the way it is applied in southern Africa? As ideologies go, they are actually part and parcel of the same paradigm.
Where neoliberalism subjugates the natural world and people to the commercial whims of markets and globalisation, sustainable use has ensured the international commercialisation of biodiversity, and determined that price and trade be the arbiter of what value each species holds. And neither seems to understand the cultural and social complexity of our living systems, or the notions of ecological and ethical sustainability.
In addition, both gained real traction during the 1980s, a bygone era, one so different to conditions the world finds itself in today, which may have something to do with why they also suffer from the same fallacies: that somehow, through their application, “trickle-down” benefits will accrue to all.
In the case of neoliberalism, calls for deep tax cuts for the wealthy and business community along with lifting of trading restrictions are justified on the grounds that these immediate benefits to the elites will somehow trickle down to all citizens sometime in the longer term.
Sustainable use has a far narrower reach, but here in southern Africa, it relies on using the same sort of justification: If governments hand private land-owners control over wildlife through trade and markets, their commercial activities will somehow over time benefit conservation, the species being exploited, and take care of the state’s socio-economic obligations to rural development.
And both make claims to achievements that are increasingly challenged globally. With neoliberalism, adherents claim more people have been dragged out of extreme poverty than ever before. While that can be represented as a statistic, opponents question the general wellbeing of the people in this new stratum, and ask at what cost to cultural, community and environmental considerations. Have they been taken out of poverty, or have they merely been added to those already subjugated to the treadmill of dependence, cultural alienation and inequality?
In a similar vein, the sustainable use lobby goes on about the high volumes of wildlife found on private lands in South Africa as a benefit, but this too is a mere statistic that masks the detail; under what conditions and for what purposes have they bred all these animals? Most involved are farmers and businessmen breeding wild species under agricultural conditions. And they are doing so through human selection for characteristics defined by the highest prices paid for body parts; in other words, they are domesticating a range of Africa’s most iconic species. This is pure exploitation of these species, has nothing to do with biodiversity conservation and is certainly no panacea to the development of rural communities.
If we are truly going to heed the deep concerns expressed by the IPBES panel, as well as achieve equitable and sustainable societies within a healthy environment, then both neoliberalism and sustainable use need to be replaced as they appear in complete contradiction to these aims and objectives.
And this brings us back to the vested interests and the forces against change. The pandemic may well take care of neoliberalism, but it will take longer to rid sustainable use, one of neoliberalism’s more insidious tentacles, from policy-making. There is an entire group out there, environmental consultants, researchers, resource economists and more that have staked their body of work on the doctrine. They are part and parcel of the vested interest, unlikely at this stage of their careers to offer up that a lifetime of support may no longer be in the best interests of the environment.