The reach of the global economy, and its commodity chains, is not limited by border or distance: there are no blank spaces on the map, no territories beyond the reach of human production or consumption. This year, a paper in Nature quantified the ways in which threats to 25,000 endangered species on IUCN Red Lists were linked to the production of 15,000 commodities in 187 countries via more than 5 billion supply chains. The authors argued that global trade in quite ordinary products such as tea, coffee, palm oil, sugar, and textiles was responsible for around a third of the threats to endangered species. Biodiversity loss, they concluded, is ‘a global systemic phenomenon’.
The economic machine that consumes biodiverse habitat has its foundation in the world economy. As that economy grows, demands made on the biosphere increase. Particularly in the rapidly industrialising countries of Asia, the standard economic growth model is having some success in helping people to escape poverty, and others to become rich. This is admirable but also, for a conservationist, very disturbing. Global consumption of raw material and energy (and production of wastes) has risen inexorably. Poor countries pursue the model of the rich, and poor people, understandably, dream of becoming wealthy. The problem is that biodiversity shrinks before the combined onslaught of people and wealth. The Western model of consumption is unsustainable for any but a few, and the model has to change in rich and poor countries. Focusing conservation efforts on residual pristine landscapes is a way to treat symptoms not causes. It is displacement behaviour: the real issues are elsewhere.
But how do we go about changing the global conservation model with its focus on the exotic and pristine? How do we find new approaches to the very real problems we face in managing our relationship with nature?