Conservation in our time!

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Alex Rowell as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol 608). Alex revisits a Lincoln University research area that looks at the value of biodiversity offsets published in 2009.

Is biodiversity offsetting a viable conservation strategy? Or does it simply distract us from the continuing destruction of the natural world?

“The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”
Aldo Leopold (1949), A Sand County Almanac.

‘Win-win’ situations are a politician’s dream. Decisions can be made which all interest groups can relate to and support. As such, a veritable smorgasbord of projects have erupted in conservation policy that are claimed to be win-win, from the REDD programme to ecotourism initiatives, often aiming to promote conservation through market mechanisms.

Biodiversity offsetting is one such proposal. It is a simple premise, Biodiversity loss from development is considered unacceptable by modern society. But continued development is deemed necessary in the prevailing view of a healthy economy, so moving said biodiversity elsewhere allows both aims to be reconciled. Developers make money, biodiversity continues doing whatever it was doing (but somewhere else), and everyone’s a winner.

It doesn’t take an overly skeptical mind to doubt the practicality of this approach, yet the idea was quickly pounced upon by governmental conservation agencies. A 2009 paper co-authored by the University of Lincoln’s Ann Brower, ‘Why Biodiversity Barter Fails’, argues that in their rush to do so, the feasibility of offsetting and the political motivation behind its implementation have been left unquestioned. Can offsetting be a useful tool in the conservation arsenal? Or is it at best struggling to cling on to the status quo, or at worst a method to stifle opposition to the bigger picture of biodiversity erosion? As the offsetting bandwagon rolls on, revisiting the questions posed by Brower and others has become increasingly pertinent.

CC image courtosey of ms neaux neaux on Flickr

But first, how can we trade a piece of biodiversity? It would need to be first measured, precisely valued and interchangeable with other bits of biodiversity. Yet all three of these factors are realistically impossible for such a complex subject. A six pack of biodiversity isn’t for sale down at the supermarket.

Thus if its true worth is inherently intangible, trade morphs into marketplace barter, ‘individuals haggling over goods and services with unique attributes’, according to Brower. The degree of offset is now a point for argument and compromise. Any exchange most overcome a feature of biodiversity that we often take for granted; that no places are exactly alike. That is, the new biodiversity site may have dissimilar species, will be in a different area and be of a different age. In ecological systems, this could result in a system of vastly different components and function. We are no longer trading environmental apples for apples.

But hold on, can’t we just create a regulatory system for offsetting that incorporates the ecological slipperiness of biodiversity? To those experienced in the workings of public governance, this displays a misplaced optimism in the political system. Indeed, Brower argues here that the barter between development and biodiversity will always be tilted in the favour of concrete over Kaka.  Developers will always be the more powerful and organised actor. And as a ‘rational actor’ performing in its own self-interest, environmental impacts will be consistently underestimated, though restoration efforts may be overestimated (even unconsciously). With offsetting decided on a case-by-case basis, the smaller environmental lobby will struggle to find the resources to dispute each situation.

Also, ecologists in the offsetting debate should not confuse the diffusion of conservation ideals into the public consciousness with a neutral or pro-conservation standpoint from regulatory officials. They are often much more inclined to follow their own interests, which are often sympathetic to those of economic development. ‘Liberating’ companies from the burden of regulation is a common mind-set.

It’s important to note that development is not actively seeking out the destruction of biodiversity, but it is more a by-product of their inherent processes. They will always achieve better results with a simple biodiversity currency, ambiguous restrictions and limited review. Yet Brower concludes that all these features will often contribute to a raw deal for conservation.

CC image courtsey of

This would suggest that however involved ecologists become in the offsetting process, their aims of ‘no net loss’, or even ‘net gains’ cannot be achieved. These may represent illusory goals based on the adoption of conservationist rhetoric to neutralize ecological concerns. That many have actively engaged with seemingly a purely symbolic policy has in some discussions been likened to a Faustian bargain of sorts. Compromises must be made, but I’m unsure that the conservation lobby is strong enough to influence where they are drawn.

For Brower, some ecologists are proposing answers to a question they didn’t phrase and as such have become actors in a process with institutional failings for biodiversity conservation. This leads to two long-term concerns. First, that a focus on short-term goals through a questionable process may distract organisations from reversing continual trends of biodiversity loss, their principal goal. Second, that public discontent is stymied through slogans which don’t reflect the ecological reality. Conservation has come a long way since 1949, but the age-old conflicts over the cost of progress seem to have remained the same.

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