BY EUGENE LINDEN
Monday, May. 24, 1993
HOW ARE AFRICAN ELEPHANTS SIMILAR TO MINKE whales? Neither animal is in immediate danger of extinction, but both are protected by international hunting bans because past efforts to exploit the beasts commercially have driven their populations into precipitous decline. Countries that have well- managed elephant herds, including Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, are eager to sell ivory, just as Norway and Japan want to kill whales. But conservationists are loath to exempt specific nations from the ivory-trade ban for fear that any traffic in tusks will bring a reprise of the rampant cheating that occurred before sales became illegal in 1989.
When it comes to exploiting nature, humans seem to be like alcoholics: either on the wagon or on a binge. The fashionable and optimistic belief that humans can reap nature's bounty in a controlled fashion -- an ideal known as "sustainable use" that has long been the prevailing philosophy of conservationists as well as many businessmen -- is turning out to be a chimera.
Though many of the world's fisheries are ostensibly managed on a sustainable basis, important species are in danger. Among them: bluefin tuna, cod and haddock in the Atlantic; certain varieties of grouper and snapper in the Gulf of Mexico; and sardines and anchovies in the Pacific. The United Nations and World Bank sponsored the Tropical Forestry Action Plan to sustain forests, but instead the plan spurred further deforestation. When asked by an environmentalist what he meant by sustainable, a World Bank agronomist replied, "Fifty years of timber production." Even the rubber tappers of Brazil's Amazon rain forest, who along with their martyred leader, Chico Mendes, became symbols of the sustainable use of tropical forests, overexploit their ecosystem. Writing in the journal BioScience, John Browder notes that in search of food and sources of cash, these seringueiros can kill off wildlife and cut forests as much as settlers do.
Sustainable use is not some fringe idea, but rather the central organizing principle for global environmental policy, a concept refined over two decades at international conferences. It is often paired with "sustainable development" -- the notion that economic development, if carried out in a careful manner, can proceed without exhausting the natural resources needed by future generations. As recently as last June during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments tried to forge an action agenda based on sustainable development.
Now, however, scientists are beginning to acknowledge that theories of sustainable use and development almost never work in practice. "What we are seeing is that conservation and development are not the same process," says the Wildlife Conservation Society's John Robinson, a leading revisionist on sustainable use. "If you are interested in development, you cannot get there by doing conservation, simply because the most diverse ecosystems are usually not the most productive in human terms." This means that development almost always brings losses of biological diversity. Instead of preserving the variety of a rain forest, for example, humans have the urge to chop down the trees and plant uniform crops.
What's good for society in the long run is of no immediate concern to people who use up natural resources. Given the high cost of modern fishing equipment, an individual fisherman is driven to catch every last fish rather than limit catches and ensure long-term supply. And no matter how good the plan to manage an ecosystem, some people will cheat.
Environmentalists cling to the idea of sustainable development because it enables them to present themselves as advocates of economic progress and, as Robinson puts it, "the concept allows them to play with the big boys and have an impact on huge development projects." If sustainable development proves illusory, environmentalists will be left with a huge problem: there is no big idea ready to fill the void. With human numbers expected to double in the next 60 years, policymakers must now find some new trail map that will enable humanity to walk the ledge between rising material expectations and the wholesale collapse of the biosphere.
Robinson believes environmentalists will have to embrace anew the politically incorrect concept of pure preservation for some vital areas. For their part, policymakers must try to guide development away from sensitive ecosystems and toward regions where inevitable losses of diversity are more "acceptable." An economics that accurately accounted for the costs of destroying species would also help. Most likely, though, a sustainable future will not come from policy wonks, but rather from a broad change in values as ordinary people react to ecological disasters around them.