CONSERVATION: by Professor Walter StarckNews Weekly
Conservation vs. environmentalism
, July 30, 2005
Farmers, fisherman and hunters are by nature conservationists, argues scientist Professor Walter Starck. But today they have been unfairly maligned by a powerful but ignorant urban minority which controls the environmentalist agenda.Fishermen, farmers and hunters are by nature conservationists. Their own well-being requires a sustainable relation to a healthy natural world. They not only appreciate the beauty of nature; they see themselves as a part of it and it as an important part of themselves.
For most of the past century their views and concerns played an important role in conservation.
Over the past few decades, however, a new vision of conservation has emerged with a quite different constituency. It's called environmentalism.
Like other "isms", it has assumed some of the aspects of a religion. In this view, nature is something pure and perfect while humans are separate and apart from nature, by definition not natural. Any detectable effect of humans is unnatural, undesirable, a desecration.Fundamentalism
For its more extreme adherents it has become a form of fundamentalism, with all of the righteousness, narrowness and even hatred that so often accompanies that form of belief.
Environmentalism reflects not so much a connection with the natural world as a disconnection from it.
It has arisen from the modern urban lifestyle where necessities come from shops and nature is a distant romanticised ideal known chiefly through television, books and magazines.
Although consumers of vast quantities of natural resources from all over the world, most urbanites have little real awareness of the effect they have beyond the store or the garbage bin. They live a blameless existence, shielded by middlemen from most of the effects of their lifestyle.
Environmentalism has a lot going for it. A righteous cause offers purpose and direction to life along with a delicious sense of moral superiority. Why feel guilt or gratitude when you can feel righteous superiority instead?
For politicians it has become a constituency they can't ignore. It also affords an ample supply of political cheap shots. Promises to "save" things or prevent "threats" are widely popular and cost little.
Closely following public and political concern, the academic community has found environmental issues can provide generous access to government funding. Bureaucracy too has found this to be a rich vein of budgets and authority with little accountability for results.
For the media it is a rich source of drama, abounding with dire threats, conflicts, controversy and attractive suggestions of wrongdoing. Finally, it is big business.
Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and various other environmental organisations are in fact multinational corporations. Their logos and brand names have global recognition rivaling their commercial counterparts.
They have also borrowed useful bits from religion. Like churches and charities, they are tax-exempt. They offer attractive career opportunities and lifestyles. Though not as lavish as those afforded by commercial companies, they are more secure and less demanding of ability or performance, more in fact like a church.
Unlike old-style conservation, which was outcome-oriented and celebrated its successes, environmentalism is problem-oriented and seldom speaks of success other than with suspicion. Any suggestion that a problem may not be as serious as proposed, or that a simple solution may be possible, is greeted with hostility, not interest.
Little distinction is made between the real and apparent vs. the hypothetical. Invocation of the precautionary principle justifies all possibilities, so long as they are detrimental.
Indisputably, we live in a finite world and human influence is increasing. Environmental problems do exist. Some are growing; some are being successfully addressed. Determining what is happening and what to do about it is not so easy.
Recognising and assessing problems are important. But confusing a difficult task with misinformation, exaggeration and outright lies not only makes the task harder; it squanders resources and leaves important problems unaddressed.Thrive on problems
Environmentalism has come to embody an unholy coalition of disparate parties whose main commonality is a vested interest in there being problems. Followers and leaders of the movement, politicians, bureaucrats, academics and the media all thrive on environmental problems.
Farmers, fishermen and hunters do not; but they are a minority with little voice in an agenda overwhelmingly determined by the urban majority. They also make attractive scapegoats for problems, both real and imagined.
Over the past four decades, hardly a year has passed without some dire threat to the Great Barrier Reef being declared. Crown-of-thorns starfish, over-fishing, tourism, anchor damage, pesticides, fertiliser, cattle, cane, oil shale, coastal development, roads, marinas, shipping, global warming and sundry other menaces have been repeatedly declared and "experts" trotted out to support them.
None of these things have been dealt with in any effective manner, yet the reef remains much as it has always been. Credibility, however, never seems lacking for another threat, nor for more expert opinions.
The truth is, scientific understanding of reefs is still only patchy and highly specialised. Only a handful of persons have the scientific background, plus widespread and long-term experience necessary to make reasonable judgments of reef conditions.Highly variable
Even then, assessment is difficult owing to the highly variable nature of reef communities. What is often seen as evidence of human detriment is either a natural condition of reefs in a particular situation or the result of natural events such as storms, floods and population fluctuations of various organisms that appear unnatural to those of limited experience.
Although reefs in many places have indeed been damaged by human activities, the extent of such damage has been considerably inflated by the prevailing assumption of detriment and a focus on information and interpretation that support this while ignoring or dismissing that which does not.
Even accepting recent reports, that about one-third of reefs have suffered noticeable damage, it still means that two-thirds have not. Of those affected, damage is often patchy and how much is from natural causes that will repair is unknown.
Regardless of what may or may not be happening on some heavily impacted reefs elsewhere, that is there and the Barrier Reef is here. You don't board up your house in Townsville because a hurricane threatens Florida.
The Great Barrier Reef is among the most pristine of reef areas. Distance, weather and a relatively small population mean most of the reef is rarely even visited. Of the 2,900 reefs in the complex, only a few dozen are regularly used for tourism, and the total annual fish harvest per square kilometer is less than one per cent of what reefs elsewhere commonly sustain. Solutions appropriate to the problems of heavily impacted reefs are at best uncalled for and may even have undesirable results here.
No-take areas have proven effective where fishing pressure is very high and breeding stocks have been reduced to low levels. Their benefit has not been demonstrated and would not be expected where substantial breeding stock is already widespread as on the Great Barrier Reef.
The benefit from closed areas here is undemonstrated and unlikely. Their effect should be monitored and evaluated on an experimental basis before applying them on a large scale. The proposed re-zoning will concentrate fishing pressure by about half as much again in the areas left open. It amounts to wholesale environmental meddling for no good reason and no idea of what the effect will be or even a plan in place to monitor it. Calling this a precautionary measure defies common sense. It is indeed just the opposite.
Threats to the reef from siltation, pesticides, and fertiliser are equally ill-founded. Their extent and detriment are unmeasured and undemonstrated. Their threat is almost entirely assumed and hypothetical.
Abundant reason and evidence to the contrary are ignored. Still, threats and problems, no matter how uncertain, receive all the attention; and good news remains no news, regardless of how well founded it may be.
So, what can farmers and fishermen do against the arrayed power of the media, urban voters, politicians, bureaucrats, academics, eco-freaks and self-appointed saviours of the environment?
Getting the matter before a court is the only way reason and evidence can prevail, uncertainties be exposed, and answers to questions be demanded. Laws regarding defamation, discrimination, vilification, environmental protection, negligence, and even consumer protection all provide possible grounds for litigation.
In the legal arena, the questionable, exaggerated and false claims that are being repeatedly made would be very difficult to defend; and damage, both financial and to reputation, could be shown.
The media readily and often one-sidedly provide prominence and credibility to such claims without the exercise of due diligence or concern. They then purvey such material to consumers as factual "news". This is consumer fraud of a particularly dangerous kind as it not only damages individuals, industries and the economy; it weakens the very foundation of democracy which is an informed electorate. As with any other faulty product, the media should be held liable for damages and subject to penalties if neglect or fraud is apparent. Appropriate consumer protection laws already exist; they need only be applied.
A few such lawsuits against key individuals, organisations and media companies could do wonders for bringing about a fairer, more considered, honest and balanced public debate in place of the one-sided publicising of unsubstantiated claims with little or no opportunity of rebuttal.
If a large majority of fishermen and farmers, plus like-minded concerned citizens, contributed only a small amount each to a non-profit association set up for the purpose of demanding honesty in environmental issues, a war chest quite adequate to pursue such legal action would be available with little effort or risk to anyone - anyone, that is, but those so ready and willing to decide for us all, regardless of the evidence or how little they themselves really know.
- Walter Starck has a PhD in marine science has had some 50 years worldwide experience of coral reefs. Currently, he is editor/publisher of Golden Dolphin Video CD Magazine, a bi-monthly CD-based publication on diving and the ocean world.