Tuesday, October 30, 2018

3060. China Reverses Ban on Rhino and Tiger Parts in Traditional Medicine

By Javier C. Hernández, The New York Times, October 29, 2018
Tiger farm in China. They are raised to be slaughtered for their body parts.

BEIJING — The Chinese government, reversing a 25-year ban, announced on Monday that it would allow the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine, a move that environmentalists described as a significant setback for efforts to protect the animals from extinction.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a policy directive that it would legalize the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for “medical research or in healing,” but only by certified hospitals and doctors, and only from rhinos and tigers raised in captivity, excluding zoo animals. While such remedies are highly profitable, they have no proven benefits to humans.

Environmentalists said the decision would likely help fuel a black market for wild rhino and tiger parts, which are revered in traditional Chinese medicine for supposed healing powers, and could lead to increased poaching of the fewer than 30,000 rhinos and 3,900 tigers still in the wild.

“It’s a devastating decision,” said Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. “I can’t overstate the potential impact.”

With only around 3,900 left in the wild, every tiger counts. But China’s latest move to lift the ban on tiger bone trade threatens to put a dark cloud over the world’s wild.

The announcement on Monday threatened to undermine President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote an image of China as a responsible environmental steward capable of tackling global issues like climate change and air pollution.

“A small number of individuals stand to make a lot of money perhaps at the price of the species,” said Peter Knights, chief executive of WildAid, an environmental advocacy group based in San Francisco. He added that the decision “comes completely out of the blue and with no rationale.”

In 2016, China, along with the United States, announced that it would ban the sale of ivory. China’s domestic ban, which went into effect earlier this year, was widely applauded as a critical step in ending elephant poaching in Africa.

Now, just as prices for rhino horn are decreasing and populations of tigers seem to be stabilizing, the environmental advocates say, China threatens to hurt that progress.T

Chinese officials on Monday did not draw attention to the reversal of the rhino horn and tiger bone bans, put in place in 1993, nor did they explain the decision.

Experts said the move was probably related to the government’s efforts to encourage the growth of traditional Chinese medicine, an industry valued at more than $100 billion, with more than 500,000 medical practitioners.
While leaders of traditional Chinese medicine have officially discouraged the use of rhino horn and tiger bone for years, an underground trade has continued.

Rhino horn is used in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of conditions, including fevers, gout and food poisoning. Tiger bone, often turned into tiger bone wine or so-called glue, is thought to boost health, cure a range of ailments and increase virility for men. Endangered animal parts are not widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, but folk remedies incorporating them form a small but profitable market.

Mr. Xi has used Chinese medicine as a way to expand China’s overseas influence, and his government has promoted it in places like Zimbabwe and Nepal. The government hopes Chinese medicine will win global acceptance alongside Western therapies.

The Chinese state media sought to portray Monday’s policy announcement as an effort to help protect rhinos and tigers by improving oversight. The regulations said that trade of rhinos, tigers and their related products was illegal, except for a handful of purposes, including medicine, scientific research and “cultural exchanges.”
The State Council said in the announcement that the medical use of rhino and tiger parts would be strictly monitored. Only doctors certified by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine would be allowed to administer the medicines.

China is estimated to have 6,500 tigers in captivity as of 2010, according to the World Wildlife Fund, though the number of rhinos in captivity is unknown.
Experts said the number of animals in captivity that could be used for medicinal purposes would likely not meet the demand in China, potentially leading to increased poaching and a thriving underground trade.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

3059. Recent Find Suggests Neolithic People Demonstrated Advanced Skills

By Live Science, October 27, 2018

This undated photo provided by the Hochbaudepartment Zurich shows a 5,000-year old door that archaeologists in the Swiss city of Zurich have found and may be the oldest ever found in Europe. Photo: AP/Hochbaudepartment Zurich, Handout.
Archaeologists think they've spotted traces of social inequality in a 5,000-year-old village that was buried on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland.
The prehistoric settlement was uncovered during the construction of an underground parking garage near the Parkhaus-Opéra in Zurich.
"When the construction started, we expected only minor archaeological remains if at all, but were suddenly confronted with the largest excavation with waterlogged preservation in the area for 30 years," Niels Bleicher, an archaeologist with the city of Zurich who led the excavation, told Live Science. [Photos: 4,000-Year-Old Artifacts Found in Swiss Alpine Pass]
During the Neolithic period and Bronze Age, people lived in pile dwellings (homes on stilts) along bodies of water in the Alps. Hundreds of these villages have been found across Europe. The waterlogged sites often have ideal conditions for the preservation of organic materials such as wood and textile, which typically don't survive in the archaeological record.
Over the course of nine months in 2010, about 60 workers dug at the site in Zurich, which covered an area nearly the size of two football fields. They found thousands of artifacts, from ceramic pots to wolf-tooth pendants to the wooden remains of walkways and houses that once stood on stilts over the marshy shores of the lake. They also found an astonishingly intact, 5,000-year-old wooden door that may be among the oldest in Europe.
In a new report published Oct. 26 in the journal Antiquity, Bleicher and his co-author describe how this village wasn't exactly a fixed place but something that shifted and moved over time.
"Every eight to 15 years or so, these settlements were abandoned and the house groups reorganized to form new settlements," Bleicher told Live Science. Between 3234 B.C. and 3060 B.C., the groups of houses tended to be arranged in quarters within a settlement.
"These were strictly organized with parallel houses in rows," Bleicher said. And the zones had some significant differences. For example, during one phase of the settlement, a zone the researchers labeled Sector A held the largest houses. Sector B did not contain any bear-fang pendants or high-status axes like the other zones did. Sector A and Sector B were also separated by a fence of thin poplar posts.
"We were very surprised to find that within one settlement, people built a fence to segregate themselves from the adjacent quarter," Bleicher said. "Such ostentatious social segregation is something nobody really expected in the late fourth millennium B.C."
The door was found inside a phase of the settlement that was used between 3176 B.C. and 3153 B.C.; Bleicher said its construction is impressive.
"It is important as a source of information on technical skills of Neolithic people, which are still often seen as some dumb brutes," Bleicher said. "I don't know many people today who could come up with such a wonderful technical solution to make a wooden door without planer, screw and nail or water-resistant glue."

3058. The World’s Richest Got 20% Richer in 2017

By TeleSur, October 27, 2018

In 2017, more than 2,000 billionaires around the world became even wealthier, pushing their collective fortunes to historic levels. According to a report recently published by Swiss bank UBS and accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), no other year in recorded history, including the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age, has seen such a massive increase in wealth of the global elite.

Just over 2,150 people have seen their wealth increase by 20 percent, many doing so through various forms of inheritance and asset transfers.

“The past 30 years have seen far greater wealth creation than the Gilded Age” the UBS Billionaires 2018 report states. “With wealth set to pass from entrepreneurs to their heirs in the coming years, the 21st-century multi-generational families are being created.”

About 200 of the new billionaires on the list are entrepreneurs. Nearly 90 of them are from China, which has seen the greatest increase in individual wealth, unrelated to GDP. 

In 2006 there were 16 billionaires in China. Now that number has climbed to 373. Many of the companies of entrepreneurs making the list are based in Shenzhen.

Almost 2,000 persons on the list have inherited their wealth with some families having kept hold of their massive fortunes for five to six generations. 

According to the report, over the next 20 years, $3.4 trillion dollars in assets will be handed down to various family heirs. That figure represents twice the total value including interest of United States' student loan debt or a decade of medical insurance coverage for 27 million uninsured citizens in that country.

Those figures are based on the average life expectancy, as 700 of the billionaires are over the age of 70. Their wealth would transition their heirs and to philanthropic interests. 

“A major wealth transition has begun,” the report said. “Over the past five years, the sum passed by deceased billionaires to beneficiaries has grown by an average of 17% each year, to reach $117bn in 2017. In that year alone, 44 heirs inherited more than a billion dollars each.

“The calculation is simple. There are 701 billionaires over the age of 70, whose wealth will transition to heirs and philanthropy over the next 20 years, given the statistical probability of average life expectancy.” The 30 richest septuagenarians or older have a combined net worth of more than $1tn.

The richest one percent own about 50 percent of the world’s wealth.

Friday, October 26, 2018

3057. Could Restoring Large Mammals Help Combat Climate Change?

By Science, October 23, 2018

Restoring reindeer, rhinoceroses, and other large mammals could help protect grasslands, forests, and tundra from catastrophic wildfires and other threats associated with global warming, new studies suggest. The findings give advocates of so-called trophic rewilding—reintroducing lost species to reestablish healthy food webs—a new rationale for bringing back the big grazers.
Rewilding offers “solutions to some of the important problems arising from climate change,” says ecologist Jens-Christian Svenning of Aarhus University in Denmark, an editor of a special issue on the topic published this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. “The scope for … beneficial spin-offs for human society is tremendous,” adds co-editor Elisabeth Bakker, an ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen.
Rewilding is often associated with an ambitious proposal to restore large mammals, including even ice age mammoths, to a huge park in Russia. But mammoth resurrection is still just a dream, and most rewilders are focused on restoring animals including giant tortoises, dam-building beavers, or herds of grazers.
Now, it seems rewilding could offer a climate bonus. As the planet has warmed, fire seasons have become 25% longer than they were 30 years ago, and more areas are experiencing severe blazes, notes ecologist Christopher Johnson of the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. He and his colleagues combed the literature back to 1945 for data on habitats around the world that have lost or gained large grazers, to see whether they experienced change in fire frequency or intensity. They found studies of 14 ancient landscapes up to 43,000 years old that used fungal spores associated with dung as a proxy for herbivore abundance, charcoal as a proxy for fire frequency, and pollen to reveal past vegetation. In about half of the landscapes, fires increased and the vegetation changed after the herbivores disappeared, they report. The other studies saw no clear effect.
The researchers also examined records from three modern landscapes, including the 100-year-old Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park in South Africa. There, data show larger and more frequent fires occurred after managers culled or moved large grazers, including white rhinos, wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, and impalas. (Rangers moved the animals as part of tsetse fly eradication efforts or to reduce overgrazing.) In the case of white rhinos, fires averaged just 10 hectares when the animals were present—because they kept plants closely cropped, and their paths created fire breaks—but increased to an average of 500 hectares after the rhinos vanished.
Similarly, in Australian grasslands, Johnson’s team found that herds of feral swamp buffalos have helped control wildfires by similar means. When the researchers examined the herbivore and fire history of the southwestern United States, other grazers—including pronghorn antelopes, desert bighorn sheep, bison, and even domestic cattle—seemed to have helped starve fires by eating the grasses that serve as fuel. Modeling studies, meanwhile, suggest some grazers reduce fire risks by disturbing the soil, which buries leaf litter and other flammable material. The bottom line, Johnson and his colleagues write, is that “vertebrates can have strong effects on fire regimes,” and restoring large grazers could be a fairly effective control measure at a time when risks are growing.
Other studies suggest grazers can also help maintain tundra—the semifrozen, treeless ecosystem found in the Arctic and on high mountains. In the Arctic, rapidly warming temperatures are enabling trees and shrubs to invade the tundra. The woody plants amplify Arctic warming by absorbing heat and trapping a layer of snow that insulates the ground, keeping it warmer. The result is that the soil thaws and releases even more stored carbon and other warming gases.
Reintroducing large numbers of herbivores to browse on the shrubs could help stop this vicious cycle, write ecologists Johan Olofsson at Umeå University in Sweden and Eric Post at the University of California, Davis. The more species—muskoxen, moose,  bison, or caribou (also known as reindeer)—the better. But they say the biggest benefit might come from rethinking existing hunting and development rules to create the densest and most diverse herds possible. Rewilding might be “one of the few ways humans in the Arctic can mitigate global warming, or at least its consequences,” Olofsson says.
Others are skeptical. Like any ecosystem re-engineering effort, the long-term effects of rewilding are hard to anticipate, warns Joseph Bump, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Some modeling, for example, suggests increased Arctic grazing will lead to greater carbon release, not less. And creating Arctic herds big enough to make a difference could be difficult, says ecologist Andrew Tanentzap of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. They could become “a drop in the bucket in the sea of melting permafrost.”
Even the strongest rewilding advocates concede its limits. “It would be overly optimistic to claim rewilding as ‘the solution’ to climate change,” Svenning says. “But [it] clearly can play a role.”

3056. Tiny Doses of Magic Mushrooms Could Unlock Creativity

By Science Daily, October 25, 2018 

The use of minute doses of magic mushrooms and truffles containing psychedelic substances could induce a state of unconstrained thought that may produce more new, creative ideas. "Microdosing" in this way may allow people to experience the creative benefits of psychedelic drugs without the risk of the so-called "bad trips" that often come with high doses of such substances. This is according to a new study in the Springer-branded journal Psychopharmacology which is the official journal of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society (EBPS). The research was led by Luisa Prochazkova of Leiden University in The Netherlands and is the first study of its kind to experimentally investigate the cognitive-enhancing effects of microdosing on a person's brain function within a natural setting.

Taking a tiny fraction of a normal dose of psychedelic substances is becoming a trend in some professional circles because this is thought to stimulate brain function and enhance mental flexibility and creativity. However, experimental research that moves away from anecdotal evidence is still rare.

In this study, Prochazkova and her colleagues investigated how a microdose of a psychedelic substance affected the cognitive brain function of 36 people who were present at an event organized by the Psychedelic Society of The Netherlands. During the experimental phase, participants were set three tasks before and after they consumed on average 0.37 grams of dried truffles. The tests assessed their convergent thinking (the identification of a single solution to a problem), their fluid intelligence (the capacity to reason and solve new problems) and their divergent thinking (the ability to recognize many possible solutions). Afterwards, the researchers analyzed the active substances present in the truffles consumed by participants.

After taking the microdose of truffles, the researchers found that participants' convergent thinking abilities were improved. Participants also had more ideas about how to solve a presented task, and were more fluent, flexible and original in the possibilities they came up with. Microdosing with psychedelic substances therefore improved both the divergent and convergent thinking of participants.

These findings are in line with earlier studies that found high doses of psychedelics can enhance creative performance. The fact that participants' intelligence scores and general analytical abilities did not change suggests that the effect of the truffles is rather selective, and more to the benefit of a person's creative domain.

"Taken together, our results suggest that consuming a microdose of truffles allowed participants to create more out-of-the-box alternative solutions for a problem, thus providing preliminary support for the assumption that microdosing improves divergent thinking," explains Prochazkova. "Moreover, we also observed an improvement in convergent thinking, that is, increased performance on a task that requires the convergence on one single correct or best solution."

Prochazkova hopes that these findings will stimulate further research into the beneficial effects of microdosing psychedelics. "Apart from its benefits as a potential cognitive enhancement technique, microdosing could be further investigated for its therapeutic efficacy to help individuals who suffer from rigid thought patterns or behavior such as individuals with depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder," she explains.

3055. Why Sex Is Not Binary

By Anne Fausto-Sterling, The New York Times, October 25, 2018
No single biological measure unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories — male or female. 
Two sexes have never been enough to describe human variety. Not in biblical times and not now. Before we knew much about biology, we made social rules to administer sexual diversity. The ancient Jewish rabbinical code known as the Tosefta, for example, sometimes treated people who had male and female parts (such as testes and a vagina) as women — they could not inherit property or serve as priests; at other times, as men — forbidding them from shaving or being secluded with women. More brutally, the Romans, seeing people of mixed sex as a bad omen, might kill a person whose body and mind did not conform to a binary sexual classification.

Today, some governments seem to be following the Roman model, if not killing people who do not fit into one of two sex-labeled bins, then at least trying to deny their existence. This month, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary banned university-level gender studies programs, declaring that “people are born either male or female” and that it is unacceptable “to talk about socially constructed genders, rather than biological sexes.” Now the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services wants to follow suit by legally defining sex as “a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.”

This is wrong in so many ways, morally as well as scientifically. Others will explain the human damage wrought by such a ruling. I will stick to the biological error.

It has long been known that there is no single biological measure that unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories — male or female. In the 1950s the psychologist John Money and his colleagues studied people born with unusual combinations of sex markers (ovaries and a penis, testes and a vagina, two X chromosomes and a scrotum, and more). Thinking about these people, whom today we would call intersex, Dr. Money developed a multilayered model of sexual development.

He started with chromosomal sex, determined at fertilization when an X- or Y-bearing sperm fuses with an X-bearing egg. At least that’s what usually happens. Less commonly, an egg or sperm may lack a sex chromosome or have an extra one. The resultant embryo has an uncommon chromosomal sex — say, XXY, XYY or XO. So even considering only the first layer of sex, there are more than two categories.

And that’s just the first layer. Eight to 12 weeks after conception, an embryo acquires fetal gonadal sex: Embryos with a Y chromosome develop embryonic testes; those with two X’s form embryonic ovaries. This sets the stage for fetal hormonal sex, when the fetal embryonic testes or ovaries make hormones that further push the embryo’s development in either a male or female direction (depending on which hormones appear). Fetal hormonal sex orchestrates internal reproductive sex (formation of the uterus, cervix and fallopian tubes in females or the vas deferens, prostate and epididymis in males). During the fourth month, fetal hormones complete their job by shaping external genital sex — penis and scrotum in males, vagina and clitoris in females.

By birth, then, a baby has five layers of sex. But as with chromosomal sex, each subsequent layer does not always become strictly binary. Furthermore, the layers can conflict with one another, with one being binary and another not: An XX baby can be born with a penis, an XY person may have a vagina, and so on. These kinds of inconsistencies throw a monkey wrench into any plan to assign sex as male or female, categorically and in perpetuity, just by looking at a newborn’s private parts.

Adding to the complexity, the layering does not stop at birth. The adults surrounding the newborn identify sex based on how they perceive genital sex (at birth or from an ultrasound image) and this begins the process of gender socialization. Fetal hormones also affect brain development, producing yet another layer called brain sex. One aspect of brain sex becomes evident at puberty when, usually, certain brain cells stimulate adult male or adult female levels and patterns of hormones that cause adult sexual maturation.

Dr. Money called these layers pubertal hormonal sex and pubertal morphological sex. But these, too, may vary widely beyond a two-category classification. This fact is the source of continuing disputes about how to decide who can legitimately compete in all-female international sports events.

There has been a lot of new scientific research on this topic since the 1950s. But those looking to biology for an easy-to-administer definition of sex and gender can derive little comfort from the most important of these findings. For example, we now know that rather than developing under the direction of a single gene, the fetal embryonic testes or ovaries develop under the direction of opposing gene networks, one of which represses male development while stimulating female differentiation and the other of which does the opposite. What matters, then, is not the presence or absence of a particular gene but the balance of power between gene networks acting together or in a particular sequence. This undermines the possibility of using a simple genetic test to determine “true” sex.

The policy change proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services marches backward in time. It flies in the face of scientific consensus about sex and gender, and it imperils the freedom of people to live their lives in a way that fits their sex and gender as these develop throughout each individual life cycle.

Anne Fausto-Sterling is an emeritus professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

3054. Individual Birds From Different Species Form Long-Term Alliances

By ScienceDaily, May 21, 2018

Cooperation among different species of birds is common. Some birds build their nests near those of larger, more aggressive species to deter predators, and flocks of mixed species forage for food and defend territories together in alliances that can last for years. In most cases, though, these partnerships are not between specific individuals of the other species -- any bird from the other species will do.
But in a new study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, scientists from the University of Chicago and University of Nebraska show how two different species of Australian fairy-wrens not only recognize individual birds from other species, but also form long-term partnerships that help them forage and defend their shared space as a group.
"Finding that these two species associate was not surprising, as mixed species flocks of birds are observed all over the world," said Allison Johnson, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Nebraska who conducted the study as part of her dissertation research at UChicago. "But when we realized they were sharing territories with specific individuals and responding aggressively only to unknown individuals, we knew this was really unique. It completely changed our research and we knew we had to investigate it."
Variegated fairy-wrens and splendid fairy-wrens are two small songbirds that live in Australia. The males of each species have striking, bright blue feathers that make them popular with bird watchers. Their behavior also makes them an appealing subject for biologists. Both species feed on insects, live in large family groups, and breed during the same time of year. They are also non-migratory, meaning they live in one area for their entire lives, occupying the same eucalyptus scrublands that provide plenty of bushes and trees for cover. 
When these territories overlap, the two species interact with each other. They forage together, travel together, and seem to be aware of what the other species is doing. They also help each other defend their territory from rivals. Variegated fairy-wrens will defend their shared territory from both variegated and splendid outsiders; splendid fairy-wrens will do the same, while fending off unfamiliar birds from both species.
"Splendid and variegated fairy-wrens are so similar in their habitat preferences and behavior, we would expect them to act as competitors. Instead, we've found stable, positive relationships between individuals of the two species," said Christina Masco, PhD, a graduate student at UChicago and a co-author on the new paper.
Many songbirds can recognize familiar members of their own species on the basis of the unique songs each bird sings. However, in this research the investigators believed this recognition occurred across species. How could they be so certain?
From 2012-2015, Johnson, Masco, and their former advisor, Stephen Pruett-Jones, PhD, associate professor of ecology and evolution at UChicago, studied these species at Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia. The first unusual observation Johnson made was that when playing a recorded vocalization of one species, the other species would respond and fly in to investigate what was going on.
To follow up on this observation, the researchers monitored both fairy-wren species in the darkness before dawn and captured clear recordings of their signature songs. After sunrise, they broadcast the recorded songs from a speaker to simulate an intrusion by a particular bird into a group's territory. The objective was to see how territory owners reacted to the songs of familiar and unfamiliar members of the other species.
The researchers placed a speaker about 30 meters away from a subject fairy-wren and played the songs of four different individuals: a fairy-wren that occupied the same territory (a co-resident or "friendly" bird), a fairy-wren from an adjacent territory (a neighbor), a fairy-wren from an area five or more territories away (an unknown bird), and a red-capped robin, a common species in the park that doesn't pose a threat to the fairy-wrens (as a control group).
Both splendid and variegated fairy-wrens demonstrated the ability to recognize their co-residents' songs despite the species difference. Socially dominant males of both species responded more aggressively to songs of neighbors and unknown birds of the other fairy-wren species than they did to friendly birds sharing their territory, or to the red-capped robin. When they heard songs from friendly birds, they didn't respond, suggesting they didn't see them as a threat.
By forming and keeping these associations with another species, fairy-wrens can better defend their nests from predators and their territories from rivals. There is also evidence that interacting with the other species has additional benefits besides territorial defense. While the splendid fairy-wrens didn't change their behavior when associating with the other species, the variegated fairy-wrens spent more time foraging, were less vigilant, and had more success raising their young.
Johnson, Masco, and Pruett-Jones believe the fairy-wrens associate with the other species as a form of cooperation. By interacting with other species that share the same territory instead of working against them, these already social species create a larger group to help defend their territory and ward off intruders. In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
"Although our discovery that individuals of different species recognize each other was unexpected, it is likely that something similar occurs whenever species of non-migratory birds live on overlapping territories," Pruett-Jones said. "Recognition facilitates sociality within species, and it follows that it could also facilitate associations between species."

Journal Reference:

  1. Allison E Johnson, Christina Masco, Stephen Pruett-Jones. Song recognition and heterospecific associations between 2 fairy-wren species (Maluridae)Behavioral Ecology, 2018; DOI: 10.1093/beheco/ary071

Monday, October 22, 2018

3053. Nigeria Engulfed in Armed Tribal Conflicts

By The New York Times, October 21, 2018

More than 55 people have been killed in a new eruption of communal violence in central Nigeria, officials said on Sunday.

Security has become a key campaign issue ahead of the election next February, in which President Muhammadu Buhari will seek a second term.

The presidency condemned the latest violence in a statement issued on Saturday.
“The frequent resort to bloodshed by Nigerians over misunderstandings that can be resolved peacefully, is worrisome,” said the statement, issued by Mr. Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu.

A local police commissioner said that 22 people were arrested in the clashes last week between two communities in the Kasuwan Magani area of Kaduna state, in north-central Nigeria.

“Anybody that has a hand in this crisis must face the full wrath of law,” the commissioner, Ahmad Abdur-Rahman, told Reuters, without giving details on the clashes. He said a curfew in Kasuwan Magani imposed by the state government on Thursday had helped to calm the situation.

Deadly communal violence has flared repeatedly in central Nigeria in recent years, fueled by ethnic and religious differences and tensions over increasingly scarce resources in Africa’s most populous nation. More than 1,300 people have been killed in vicious land disputes between cattle herders and farmers who are settling on traditional grazing routes.

Nigeria, with a population of about 190 million people, is divided between a largely Christian south and a Muslim north.

More than 80 people were killed in one of the deadliest recent episodes, in June, when armed Fulani Muslim herders opened fire on Christian villages in Plateau State, burning homes and shooting people to death as they slept. The killings set off a series of reprisals as young people from the villages set up road blocks and killed those thought to be Muslim and Fulani.

The violence is not limited to central Nigeria. Islamist extremists from Boko Haram and splinter groups have been attacking military forces and civilians in the northeast. To the south, violence has spiked in the Biafra region, where separatists are pushing to secede. And kidnappings of prominent figures and regular Nigerians alike have become common in parts of the country.

Friday, October 19, 2018

3052. Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response to Species Extinction

By Ian Rappel, International Socialism, October 12, 2018
Water pours down Yosemite Falls during heavy rain in Yosemite National Park, California, on January 8, 2017. America's national parks facing Trump administration's plans for privatization. Photo: AP/Gary Kazanjian

Capitalism has placed humanity on a devastating collision course with living nature.1 In its 40-year neoliberal phase alone it has unleashed a scale of ecological destruction that has few precedents across Earth’s entire geological history—we are teetering on the brink of a sixth mass extinction event. While we are not short of examples of the horrors unleashed by capitalism, this wanton destruction of non-human life in its myriad and amazing forms is surely one of the most obvious markers of our descent towards barbarism.2
The unrelenting ecological degradation of the neoliberal era is all the more alarming when we reflect that organs of environmental resistance have been flourishing during this period. Environmental NGOs and pressure groups now number in their hundreds across the world and membership numbers are higher than those of most mainstream political parties.3 While the situation for biodiversity would be worse in the absence of these groups, their work and occasional victories have failed to stem the tide of extinction and ecological devastation derived from capitalism’s accumulation process.
For environmental conservationists the frustrations and growing awareness of the scale of the challenge have lately led to some surprising tactical and philosophical directions that have been discussed previously in this journal.4 In particular, the drive to assign monetary value to biodiversity and nature is being portrayed as a necessary means of translating the environmental message to legislators, business and the markets. This argument for nature ­financialisation—the processes by which banks and financiers have turned to environmental conservation as a new front for speculative investment, and the simultaneous rewriting of conservation to fit banking and financial ­concepts—has gained momentum and acceptance across environmental science and politics during the last decade as economic recession/depression and austerity have dominated global economic architectures.
The concept of “natural capital” (NC) that has developed through this drift towards financialisation has now taken firm and favourable root within mainstream environmental politics. Essentially, in the spirit of the old Quaker maxim “speak truth unto power”, some environmentalists are presenting the need to assign monetary value to biodiversity, ecology and nature as a form of political pragmatism. Critiques of NC within conservation, meanwhile, are being suppressed through false consensus and the well-rehearsed Thatcherite TINA—“there is no alternative”—mantra.
Modern campaigning environmentalism can trace it roots back to the social and political movements that erupted 50 years ago. Organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth rose directly from the anti-Vietnam War movements to challenge the ecological destruction that was being revealed across the world during the 1960s and early 1970s.5 Alongside direct action and the development of ecological science, many environmentalists embarked on a quest for alternative and counter-cultural or anti-capitalist values. Native American history and culture provided a particularly rich seam of influence for environmental romantics and the ecological elements of individualist lifestyle politics. A poorly-translated and Hollywood-manipulated “speech” by Chief Si’ahl (Seattle) was particularly popular, and one suite of questions in the speech was for many decades held aloft as a central ethic within environmentalism: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?… If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?” Today, almost a half-century later, it is astounding to think that the answers to these profound (if sadly apocryphal) questions have come from within environmentalism itself. For today’s neoliberal or pragmatic environmentalists, the answer is natural capital.
Natural capital
Natural capital can be interpreted as a concept in which, “nature and the ‘natural world’ [are] approached in terms of asset values for human organisations and societies that can be calculated in monetary units using economic and accounting techniques”.6 It represents an increasingly popular attempt on the part of certain environmental economists to identify and apply mainly quantitative, financial values to the components of ecology that underpin human society. The species, habitats and ecosystems that constitute society’s natural capital provide various and wide-ranging “ecosystem services”—ranging from indirect or generalised services such as water quality, to direct and specific services such as fishery yields. The condition of these units as defined in qualitative and quantitative terms, represent the “stock” of natural capital (figure 1). Monitoring of the stock’s condition can be achieved through the development of natural capital accounting tools, and the outputs of these are increasingly used to determine the state and trajectory of biodiversity under prevailing economic and policy conditions.
Figure 1: The natural capital framework
Source: Natural Capital Coalition, 2016.
The approach has been developed by environmental economists who are concerned by the general failures of capitalism’s price allocations for ­biodiversity, ecology and ecosystems. In the current system, environmental degradation appears as a so-called market “externality”—in other words, it doesn’t represent a direct financial cost to the polluter. Instead, NC identifies the value of these hitherto economically-hidden elements of society, helping states and businesses to quantify their ecological impact and steer their policies accordingly. An effective NC approach relies on acceptance of a framework in which monetary value is assigned to nature to a maximum feasible degree (full financial valuation is tempered with a slight nod to “ethical” considerations).7
The historical response to biodiversity loss
Before outlining the problems with NC it is worth considering how the concept fits within the historical landscape and politics of environmental conservation. Prior to the 1960s, species conservation was influenced mainly by a philosophy of wilderness romanticism. The poetic narrative embedded in influential work by the likes of Aldo Leopold and John Muir in the US, and Gilbert White and Lord Rothschild in the UK, led to a land ethic dominated by the need to “protect” landscapes from human interference through partition into nature reserves and national parks.8
Thus, for the first half of the 20th century, ambitious attempts were made to carve out and preserve parcels of land for nature and wildlife. The most influential initiatives came from the US, where large areas such as Yosemite National Park were established for landscapes that appeared devoid of human interference but which had actually been wiped clean of indigenous influence by disease, war and racist land-grabs. Throughout Africa, European colonial powers created similar “game reserves” (with similar devastating cultural impact) to enhance wildlife populations for hunting and the “safari” culture. These reserves are today the source of amazing media images of “wild Africa” that feed Western appetites for wildlife conservation. But their artificial and often violent history is hidden from view.9
Across the USSR, the pre-revolutionary interest in nature reserve development was encouraged by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to protect vast swathes of land as zapovedniki—nature reserves that could serve the joint objectives of wilderness protection and scientific research.10 This latter approach entailed maintaining “natural” areas as comparative laboratories against land that was earmarked for agricultural and industrial improvement—a more rational methodology that saved much of the former USSR’s biodiversity from post-war industrialisation but which is now threatened by market capitalism across Russia today.
Environmental conservation, for much of the 20th century, was dominated by this land preservation ethos. And many of the world’s “natural” parks and monuments have developed into hotspots for biodiversity despite, or because of, their artificial origins. However, by the 1960s it was becoming obvious, thanks to the work of Rachel Carson and others,11 that ecological degradation outside of these protected areas was accelerating through post-war industrialisation, particularly in agriculture. Radicalism infected parts of the ecology movement during the 1960s and early 1970s—inspired by images of Agent Orange defoliant use by the US during the Vietnam War and harrowing scenes of industrial whaling. Whether fueled by these events or the countervailing tendency of neoMalthusianism and “Population Bomb” rhetoric, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a remarkable growth in environmental awareness and produced a consensus of concern over biodiversity loss and associated degradation.12
By the 1990s, at the close of the Cold War, there was much optimism within mainstream environmentalism that humanity would finally cooperate and coordinate its efforts to address global environmental problems. Consequently, many of the outcomes of the 1992 Rio “Earth” Summit, such as the concept of “sustainable development” and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), were framed in a positive light despite critical voices that warned that the agenda at Rio ’92 was being shaped by Western hegemony and that vital issues of corporate power were being sidelined.13 Indeed, by the time of the Rio+10 Summit in Johannesburg, the atmosphere had turned sour. Ten years of neoliberal reforms across the Third World had seen living conditions stagnate or decline in what became known as the “Lost Decade” for development. On the ecological front, the empowerment of multinational corporations and of a growing Third World capitalist class gave rise to increased biodiversity loss as rainforests and other ecosystems were replaced by cash crops and landless peasants were forced onto the ecological margins or into urban slums.14The 1990s witnessed a ­concentration of global power in the hands of Western governments, particularly the US, extending their influence over the Bretton Woods Institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation) and undermining any alternatives to neoliberal economic reforms (by implementing Structural Adjustment Programmes) as part of the so-called Washington Consensus.
After a decade of frustration with neoliberal globalisation, many ­environmental activist groups and conservation NGOs began voicing their concerns over the ecological impact of the growing material and power discrepancies between the wealthy minority and the poorest sections of global society. Between 1999 and 2001 environmental activists and NGOs played an important role in the global anti-capitalist movement that emerged to challenge the neoliberal agenda of “globalisation” at several high-powered international meetings (Seattle WTO in 1999, Genoa G8 in 2001). Even large mainstream conservation NGOs such as WWF were caught up in the anti-capitalist mood at the turn of the century—publishing radical critiques of biodiversity loss that looked explicitly at the interactions between poverty and ecology.15
But the first decade of the 21st century was not dominated by anti-capitalism or its environmental possibilities. Instead, 9/11, Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the so-called War on Terror defined all major agendas. Simultaneously, environmentalism was rocked back on its heels by strong post-Seattle criticisms of NGOs within Western politics and across the business press.16Indeed, the US proved so bullish in its foreign policy during this decade that it barely even acknowledged the 2002 Rio+10 Summit in Johannesburg, arguing that potentially excessive criticism of corporations by environmental NGOs made the summit irrelevant.
Between 2002 and 2012 (when the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development returned to Brazil for “Rio+20”) the political direction of mainstream environmental conservation was thrown into sharp reverse. At Rio+20 concepts such as natural capital were controversially promoted as “Green Economy” initiatives despite opposition from many activists and Third World delegates.17 Environmental NGOs—disciplined by state violence at Seattle and Genoa and increasingly entangled with neoliberal government agendas through the development of professional ­lobbying—appear to have been finally caught up in the trawl net of neoliberal ideology.
Since the 1970s, in a world where field experience pointed to an unfolding biodiversity crisis, conservationists (knowingly or otherwise) had been wrestling with strategies to preserve species and ecosystems in the face of a growing capitalist onslaught of commodification and profiteering. A desperate sense of urgency, combined with the political difficulties of confronting capitalism, had left many activists and NGOs in a state of paralysis by the time of the 2008 global economic downturn. The sudden implementation of global austerity, combined with calls to loosen environmental regulations, drove a gradual breakdown of the Rio ’92 consensus over sustainable development and the CBD. In attempting to maintain political relevance and access to private sector funding many conservationists became increasingly attracted to a new environmental lexicon that was being developed by the United Nations and other international bodies such as the World Bank. Within the influential Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (MEA) report,18 and the work of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project,19 novel environmental metaphors were developed.20 Ecology and biodiversity, and the functions that flowed from them, were increasingly described as “ecosystem services” and markets in these being worked up as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). Uncritical and enthusiastic adoption of this language opened the door to an overarching neoliberal “solution” to species loss, with its emphasis on financialisation and the market—natural capital.21
The economic ancestry of natural capital
One of the world’s leading advocates for natural capital is Professor Dieter Helm, Fellow in Economics at New College Oxford and Chair of the UK’s Natural Capital Committee. Helm’s arguments for natural capital follow quite standard lines of neoclassical supply and demand economics:
For much of the conventional economy, prices and costs are accepted as the way to allocate resources. Markets are the social institutions through which demand and supply are brought together, and equilibrium is found where prices and quantities match people’s willingness to pay with companies’ willingness to produce. Changes in demand and supply work themselves out through markets… Markets are all about the allocation of scarce resources… Humans impact on almost all of nature now and, where there is no price, and hence no cost to the users of these natural resources, there is no incentive to conserve them.22
In this context environmental destruction is framed as a product of economic inefficiency. Many converts to NC—responding to the staggering scale of the biodiversity crisis, and a cynicism or disbelief in the potential for social ­movements to win change—agree with Helm on this.23According to the RSPB:
Our economic system continues to fail to reflect the importance of nature in decisions that affect it. This long-term failure is at the heart of the over-exploitation of and under-investment in nature that has driven so much of the destruction of the natural world—a loss for both people and nature.
A Natural Capital approach sets out a framework that can address this failure, by better reflecting the values of nature during decision-making. If widely adopted, it could deliver huge benefits for nature and people.24
The most extreme supporters of NC blend this neoclassical analysis with a neoliberal argument that environmental regulations are both ineffective and undesirable acts of market distortion. They advocate the establishment of mechanisms to enhance Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) and biodiversity offsetting. It is no small coincidence that these arguments are being made at this time—with land and resources facing privatisation through austerity.
Moderate advocates of natural capital are careful to qualify their enthusiasm for financialisation with a demand that biodiversity is also valued for its “intrinsic” worth. While arguing for a need to consider moral and ethical elements of nature conservation, they propose methods such as natural capital accounting as a monitoring tool that can objectively audit the impact of society—positive or negative—on biodiversity and nature. Given the recently revealed history of accounting trickery and outright fraud associated with finance under ­neoliberalism, this search for “objectivity” seems naïve if not counterproductive.
(Un)natural capital
Raymond Williams, in his discussion of human-nature relationships, argued that “It will be ironic if one of the last forms of the separation between abstracted Man and abstracted Nature is an intellectual separation between economics and ecology. It will be a sign that we are beginning to think in some necessary ways when we can conceive these becoming, as they ought to become, a single discipline”.25 Many of its advocates conclude that NC represents a significant step towards this disciplinary unity—one whereby nature can be integrated with economics through a calculation of its monetary value so that the full costs of exploitation are revealed, and market failure and externalities are ameliorated. Indeed, it is important to note that a strong environmental ethic lies firmly at the heart of NC. In many ways the development of the concept is implicit acknowledgement of the fact that humanity and nature are closely interrelated but that capitalism does not recognise the roles and functions of living nature within its social metabolism (thus widening the “metabolic rift” highlighted so well by John Bellamy Foster and others). In locating the source of the environmental crisis with the failure of the capitalist system, NC is an improvement on many of the historical responses to biodiversity loss that have sought to isolate humans from nature through elitist exclusion. Likewise, the narrative of “ecosystem services” that has become closely connected with NC contains ecological truths regarding our interrelationship with nature. There are ecological approaches to societal problems that could “save” money and enhance ­livelihoods. For example, protection and restoration of sub-tropical habitats such as mangrove forests would protect coastal settlements from flooding and maintain vital nursing grounds for tropical fisheries.
But the difficulty remains that various arms of capitalist industry have been, and are being, developed to exploit the self-made environmental problems of the system—most agribusiness operations are geared towards replacing natural ecology with artificial fertilisers and pesticides—and that these operate on shorter business cycles and vastly greater rates of profit than the “ecosystem services” that are derived from biodiversity or nature.
Although NC appears as a sophisticated, rigorous and holistic attempt to marry ecology with economics, “intellectual separation between economics and ecology” is in reality exactly what the approach entails. In place of critical analysis based on holistic socio-ecology, NC throws a net of economic simplicity and ideology over nature in its entirety. It seeks to identify the “true costs” of environmental degradation and conservation but its advocates have restricted themselves to an appallingly narrow spectrum of economic theory in order to demonstrate nature’s worth.
The branches of economics that have been utilised—an unholy alliance of neoclassical and neoliberal doctrines—are so deeply enmeshed with bourgeois perspectives on economic respectability that NC advocates have somehow failed to notice that these are the very same schools of economics that have driven the biodiversity crisis while normalising our collective alienation from nature—the fundamental driving force behind the loss of biodiversity and associated human cultural diversity.
The outcomes of NC are therefore the exact opposite of what it proposes. Appealing to market capitalism, its corporations and politicians, to value ­biodiversity through money is akin to asking the fox to look after the henhouse. The situation is made even more perilous by the way in which NC has moved from being a technical method of environmental economics engaging in stocks and flows analysis to become a substitute for the concept of “nature” itself.26
If the development of NC is considered from the broader economic perspective that Williams subscribed to—one embedded in historical materialism—then three possible interpretations of this unfortunate turn in environmental history can be explored: natural capital as fictitious commodity; as primitive accumulation and as disaster capitalism.
Natural capital as “fictitious commodity”
NC represents an explicit attempt to assign economic value to biodiversity and ecosystems—entities that have failed to appear on the balance sheets of capitalism because they are viewed as market externalities or public (free) goods. But there remains a substantial problem with a valuation exercise that compares or meshes the value of currently free services with those generated, and therefore already transformed into commodities, by human labour.
The chief problem is derived from the competitive market atmosphere into which ecosystem valuation is placed. Typically, for example, TEEB calculates that the total economic value of the Charles River Basin in Massachusetts is the equivalent of $95.5 million per annum (see table 1).27
Table 1: The economic value of the Charles River Basin
Economic benefit
Economic value per year (converted to US dollars)
Flood damage prevention
Amenity value of living close to the wetland
Pollution reduction
Recreation value: small game hunting, waterfowl hunting
Recreation value: trout fishing, warm water fishing
This value is calculated from, “the benefits derived from these wetlands [including] flood control, amenity values, pollution reduction, water supply and recreational values”.28 Since a proportion of this value is calculated from market prices (the housing market element of “amenity value of living close to the wetland”) then the wetlands’ total value can rise and fall in line with non-ecological factors. A leisure or tourism contribution to ecosystem valuation is similarly problematic since it depends ultimately on the wetland’s ability to compete with other leisure or tourist attractions, as well as an assumption that workers can maintain leisure expenditure despite booms and busts within the wider economy. In Costa Rica—the country often portrayed as the model for NC and PES—some ecologists have gone so far as to argue that rainforests should effectively be seen as farms for ecotourism and that the number of tourists visiting a rainforest reserve (and their associated tourist dollars) should be seen as the rainforest’s crop!
A certain proportion of ecosystem valuation is, by implication, derived from within the existing capitalist system—for the Charles River Basin wetlands, roughly a third of their economic value is derived from existing fluctuating ­monetary cycles (the dollars spent on amenity and leisure). The remaining values that are applied relate to the ability of ecosystems to supply a monetary-equivalent service to humanity (flood damage prevention and pollution reduction). But these figures are similar to “fictitious capital”—“money that is thrown into circulation as capital without any material basis in commodities or productive activity”29—because they are applied as arbitrary values against an anthropogenic equivalent that would necessarily be derived through labour. If the value of an ecological function is only compared to how much it would cost humans to adopt technological measures were we to undertake the same “service”, then a Marxist perspective shows how this comparison makes only limited sense. The latter would be determined by the quantity of human labour, not by any non-human ecological quality.
Further, where this comparison has played out on the ground the results have been unpredictable. Pollination is a much-lauded ecosystem service that is rightly highlighted by environmentalists as a deep and growing challenge as industrial pesticides have decimated species of bees and other invertebrates across the world. Hanyuan County, in China’s Sichuan province, is noted for its fruit production—in particular its pear orchards. Over the last decade the region has suffered a pollination crisis as bee populations have crashed through historic use of pesticides. In the face of this crisis, farmers turned to human labour and much of the annual crop has now become dependent on pollination by hand—a process whereby pollen is dusted onto blossom by labourers. In the early phase of this crisis, although beehives could be rented to achieve the same outcome, farmers used workers to replace bees because labour costs were low and productivity increased as the human eye proved to be more effective. The crisis has recently returned as poor rural workers have migrated towards urban areas under industrialisation. As this example hints, once valued and embedded within the capitalist system, ecosystem services and its NC basis could be outcompeted by technological advances or other human attributes. In this regard, the possibilities of overvaluation and undervaluation through the desires and whims of speculative capitalist investors is also very real.
NC can also be described as a form of fictitious capital because its concern with realising monetary value for ecosystems through PES is effectively a form of ground rent. David Harvey argues that rent itself is a fictitious commodity, and that Karl Marx saw such as a sign of capitalism’s insanity.30
Natural capital as “primitive accumulation”
Capitalism’s historic ability to secure value from without was described by both Marx and Rosa Luxemburg as “primitive accumulation”. While the privatisation and direct appropriation of communal resources such as land played a historical role in early capitalist expansion, certain aspects of this strategy appear to function today in the guise of “accumulation by dispossession”.31In the Third World, dispossession of peasants’ landholdings to service the needs of international commodity markets in “cash crops” has accelerated under neoliberalism since the 1970s—a trend continuous with colonial and post-colonial patterns of land use.32
NC appears to enhance this characteristic through its growing link to international agreements and legal structures that will permit the development of property rights over ecological entities and functions. The transformation of public goods into property rights has the potential further to alienate humanity from its ecological base. In practice, this could arise through the impact of enclosure of formerly open resources through legislation or through illegal or discounted land grabbing.33 As previously mentioned, such acts have already carried controversial implications within biodiversity conservation where land has been enclosed for nature reserves by colonial powers.
The intention appears benign—formal ownership of an ecosystem by its human users and managers should facilitate payment for its maintenance in line with the value derived from its local, regional and global ecological services. However, the introduction of ownership rights can subject these beneficiaries to new pressures. For example, once an ecosystem is entered into the cash nexus, what is to stop other wealthier interests from buying up resources and ecological rights? What happens if the function of an ecosystem becomes dominated by the needs of one interest group associated with a particular ecosystem service over another? Fixed ownership rights are also difficult to predict over time because of the dynamism inherent within ecology: How can ecological dynamism operate where the rationale for conservation of an ecosystem or species may be fixed to a particular marketable outcome? What happens to market value when an ecosystem changes its characteristic from within? These questions are generally avoided by NC environmentalists. But the issues raised do hint at the potential discrepancies between ecological functions and valuation imperatives under capitalism, and the dangers of extending the frontier of capitalist accumulation across living nature itself.
Natural capital as “disaster capitalism”
The rationale for NC is derived from the biodiversity crisis. This, in turn, has its historic roots in the evolution of human societies. But the greatest acceleration in environmental degradation and associated biodiversity loss has occurred over the last 300 years through the development of capitalism. Within this period, the last four decades have witnessed the most extensive rates of degradation as capitalism has forced its way into every nation state and an increasing share of human activities. The growing dominance of capitalism over human affairs has given rise to a situation where capitalist solutions are increasingly offered to those crises that have arisen from the system itself. In its most extreme responses, ­“disaster capitalism” has even used natural disasters and wars to further its neoliberal penetration into regions and nation states.34
The circular logic of capitalist solutions to capitalist crises is now so commonplace that many formerly radical environmentalists have given up on criticising the system in order to explore options for how environmental problems can be addressed by capitalist measures.35 The tone of TEEB itself is almost incredulous when it comes to the objective concerns of conservation to protect biodiversity from capitalist development: “Even today, more political emphasis is placed on protecting and isolating ecosystems from economic development and ­commodity markets, than on redefining and regulating the latter”.36
While NC carries the stated aim of protecting biodiversity, the tendency for capitalism to seek to profit from its own crises means that it could equally operate as a truly grandiose version of “disaster capitalism”—a neoliberal response to the Anthropocene—that generates profit opportunities from a crisis of ­geological proportions.
The tragedy of natural capital
All three of these radical interpretations of natural capital are connected by neoliberal conservationists’ acceptance of markets and private property relations. In particular, NC proponents display enormous faith in privatisation as a solution to the degradation of environmental commons. This ideological position has its own creation myth in the form of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons”—principally a Malthusian argument but one that has been produced regularly over the last half century to argue against any communal or socialist solutions to environmental problems.37
In Hardin’s own words:
The [tragedy] develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land… Once social stability becomes a reality…the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy…each man [becomes] locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.38
Hardin targets the need to control the “freedom to breed” in particular, but his theory (which has virtually no ascertainable accuracy because “commons” have been historically managed and sustained through cultural practices and are never left “open” in the sense that Hardin promotes) is more often used to justify the need to privatise commons to realise their value and thereby to conserve them. This embeds them within a market system (in line with neoclassical economic views).39
Helm and virtually all the natural capital converts that I have met in ­conservation use Hardin’s work as their starting point and justification. On that basis alone the assumptions of NC are as borderline fraudulent as Hardin’s bourgeois-friendly theory. Alas, the economists and ecologists now engaged with NC have been allowed to take this pseudoscience to the next level of academic and disciplinary respectability despite the efforts of Marxist critics such as Paul Burkett.40
Towards a socialist response
The uncritical promotion of NC by environmental conservationists is a tactic of profound self-defeat. By encouraging the financialisation of nature, these environmentalists are actively extending the frontier of capitalist commodification across the living earth. Whether their motivations are derived from well-meaning pragmatism or neoliberal ideology, they will find that the crudeness of their efforts will backfire. In place of greater value-realisation for Earth’s wonderful biodiversity, a crude lexicon of dumbed-down ecosystem services will come to the fore. Pro-development initiatives such as biodiversity offsetting41 are already riding on the coat-tails of this commodification. And the much-hyped “new innovative markets” will merely promote Payments for Ecosystem Services, further enriching wealthy landowners and encouraging land grabbing and dispossession. Already, a new group of technocratic ecologists is emerging to promote and exploit the pseudoscience of NC, offering enhanced monetary and political power for large NGOs and ecological consultancies, and a corresponding disenfranchisement of the public body and vulnerable groups such as small farmers and indigenous people.
Natural capital is potentially dangerous and its advocates must be vigorously challenged, despite the fact that they have normalised the concept within international politics and environmental discourse. At best, the concept is a hopelessly ineffective means to reverse the sixth extinction because it represents little more than another capitalist solution to a capitalist crisis. At worst, it provides the basis for commodifying, privatising and trading in living nature—developing new markets based on our current system of speculation and profit that will corrupt and distort ecology for short-term aims—leading to further biodiversity loss.
In place of capitulation to commodification, environmentalists would better serve the interests of biodiversity if they subscribed to Harvey’s ­observation: “We have loaded upon nature, often without knowing it, in our science as in our poetry, much of the alternative desire for value to that implied by money”.42 The struggle for alternative non-monetary, valuation is a central theme within socialism and other anti-capitalist traditions. It is an expression of resistance against the barbarism unleashed by capitalist valuation in all areas of human affairs, from ecology to education, from science to the arts. Appreciation of the need to fight for environmental quality over the quantitative world of the cash nexus helps us to consider our historic function and relevance as socialist ecologists. In those respects, we must fight for biodiversity today with a view to enhancing its recovery tomorrow. Whether the future is bound by ongoing and decaying capitalism, or is thrown open by meaningful revolution, we can operate today in the interests of all life on Earth once we accept and advocate certain radical conclusions.
First, that capitalism is ecologically dysfunctional and inherently destructive of biodiversity. Second, that dominant, neoliberal misanthropic explanations of the biodiversity crisis are fatalistic and cynical regarding humanity’s historical and future interrelationship with biodiversity. And that the solutions (natural capital, neo-Malthusianism, the “tragedy of the commons”, “clearance rewilding”, the privatisation of nature reserves) flowing from these positions are also largely ideological and pro-capital.
Biodiversity conservation under prevailing capitalism is a “spaces of hope” project. Through various tools within the reformist armoury, we need to save what we can with meagre resources in the limited time available to us. These tools will also provide vital ecological lessons for the historically viable mode of society that will be derived through socialism. Some tools are socially and ecologically imperfect and need to be improved because of their association with elitism (nature reserves and national parks). Others require direct community activism across diverse united fronts that can cross class boundaries and seek to utilise complex planning and legal frameworks (resisting developments like fracking, or motorway road schemes). Some are currently small in scale but have enormous potential if they could be scaled-up under a different mode of social reproduction (organic agriculture and agroecology). Some are emergency measures that are fundamentally unappealing but sadly necessary (rare species breeding programmes, seed banks and zoological gardens). Others are largely verbal and prone to ambiguity or abuse but can be useful campaigning tools for holding power to some account (“sustainable development” legislation).
Whatever tools we use, we are compelled to act today in favour of biodiversity and its positive human associations in very distressing circumstances. But by maintaining radical critique while deploying the tools to hand, and acting in solidarity with groups and classes that are closely entwined with biodiversity, we can also generate ecological optimism for the Anthropocene on the reasonable Marxist grounds that the seeds of future society are sown in the present.

1 I am grateful for comments and feedback on this article from Bram Büscher, Alex Callinicos, Martin Empson, Camilla Royle, Sian Sullivan and Colin Tudge.
2 Rappel, 2015.
3 The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)—the self-proclaimed “world’s leading conservation organisation”—has more than 1 million members in the United States and 5 million globally. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK has over 1 million members. Greenpeace claims 130,000 supporters in the UK and 2.8 million around the world. In early 2018 the Labour Party had 552,000 members, the Conservatives 124,000, Scottish National Party (SNP) had 118,000, Liberal Democrats 101,000, Green Party 41,000, UK Independence Party (UKIP) 21,000 and Plaid Cymru 8,000 members.
4 Churchill, 2014.
5 Hunter, 2004.
6 Sullivan, 2017, p66.
7 RSPB, 2017, p10.
8 Spowers, 2002.
9 Adams, 2004; Adams and McShane, 1992; Dowie, 2009.
10 Weiner, 1988.
11 Carson, 2000 [1962].
12 Ehrlich, 1968; Cherfas, 1989.
13 Middleton, O’Keefe and Moyo, 1993; Treece, 1992.
14 Rappel and Thomas, 1998.
15 See Wood, Steadman-Edwards and Mang, 2000. WWF sent a delegation to the demonstrations at the Genoa G8 summit.
16 Economist, 2000.
17 Empson, 2012.
19 TEEB, 2010; Ninan, 2009.
20 Many of these concepts have their roots in the early discussions on “green capitalism” that were circulating on the fringes of mainstream environmentalism during the late 1980s.
21 An excellent critical overview and assessment of neoliberal conservation can be found in Büscher, Dressler and Fletcher, 2014. Sian Sullivan’s pamphlet for the Third World Network (Sullivan, 2012) also gives a useful introduction to the evolution of natural capital and nature financialisation.
22 Helm, 2016, p117.
23 I am grateful for Martin Empson’s input on this point. Tony Juniper, formerly Executive Director for Friends of the Earth UK, is one of the highest profile advocates of NC, and has declared his new role at WWF to be one of Natural Capital advocacy—Juniper, 2013; Juniper, 2015.
24 RSPB, 2017.
25 Williams, 2005, p84.
26 I am grateful to Professor Sian Sullivan at Bath Spa University for this observation.
27 TEEB, 2010, p383.
28 TEEB, 2010, p383.
29 Harvey, 2006, p95.
30 Harvey, 2006.
31 Harvey, 2003; Harman, 2008; Glassman, 2007; Ashman and Callinicos, 2006.
32 Harman, 2008; Rappel and Thomas, 1998.
33 Peluso, 2007; Pearce, 2012.
34 Klein, 2008.
35 See or examples: Porritt, 2005; Lynas, 2011; Juniper, 2013.
36 TEEB, 2010, p155 (emphasis added).
37 Hardin, 1976 [1968]. Hardin’s work, like that of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, could be quite accurately described as a libel against humanity (to borrow Marx and Engels’s phrase). However, unlike Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, Hardin’s work has no redeeming features. The Essay was at least extremely influential in the development of Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s theory of natural selection. It is a source of some historical solace to think that Malthus’s work went on to help establish one of the most important pillars of philosophical materialism (if only because he certainly would not have wanted that as a legacy!).
38 Hardin, 1976 [1968], pp235-236.
39 For excellent critiques and counter-blasts to Hardin’s lazy theory I would recommend reading Ian Angus’s 2008 essay for Monthly Review Online (Angus, 2008) and the book The Tragedy of the Commodity by Stefano B Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, 2015.
40 Burkett, 2006.
41 “Biodiversity offsetting” is the means by which capitalist developers, states and consultant ecologists assign scores for ecological damage within an agreed matrix of habitat type, species presence and quality. These scores are then given a monetary value with the aim of creating equivalent habitats elsewhere once the area under development has been destroyed. The concept is, unsurprisingly, mired in controversy.
42 Harvey, 2016, p174.

Adams, William, 2004, Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation (Earthscan).
Adams, Jonathan, and Thomas McShane, 1992, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion(Norton).
Angus, Ian, 2008, “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”, Monthly Review Online (25 August), https://mronline.org/2008/08/25/the-myth-of-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/
Ashman, Sam, and Alex Callinicos, 2006, “Capital Accumulation and the State System: Assessing David Harvey’s The New Imperialism”, Historical Materialism, volume 14, issue 4.
Burkett, Paul, 2006, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy(Brill).
Büscher, Bram, Wolfram Dressler and Robert Fletcher (eds), 2014, Nature™ Inc: Environmental Conservation in the Neoliberal Age (University of Arizona Press).
Carson, Rachel, 2000 [1962], Silent Spring (Penguin).
Cherfas, Jeremy, 1989, The Hunting of the Whale: A Tragedy That Must End (Penguin).
Churchill, Ieuan, 2014, “Environmentalism in Crisis: Neoliberal Conservation and Wilderness Romanticism”, International Socialism 142 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/environmentalism-in-crisis-neoliberal-conservation-and-wilderness-romanticism/
Dowie, Mark, 2009, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (The MIT Press).
Economist, 2000, “The Case for Globalisation” (23 September), www.economist.com/printedition/2000-09-23-0
Ehrlich, Paul, 1968, The Population Bomb: Population Control or Race to Oblivion (Ballantine Books).
Empson, Martin, 2012, “Fiddling While Rome Burns: A Report from Rio”, Irish Marxist Review, volume 1, number 3, www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/issue/view/3
Glassman, Jim, 2007, “Neoliberal Primitive Accumulation”, in Nik Heynen, James McCarthy, Scott Prudham and Paul Robbins (eds), Neoliberal Environments: False Promises and Unnatural Consequences(Routledge).
Hardin, Garrett, 1976 [1968], “The Tragedy of the Commons”, in Phillip Appleman (ed), An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Robert Malthus (Norton).
Harman, Chris, 2008, “Theorising Neoliberalism”, International Socialism 117 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/theorising-neoliberalism/
Harvey, David, 2003, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press).
Harvey, David, 2006, The Limits to Capital (Verso Books).
Harvey, David, 2016, The Ways of the World (Profile Books).
Helm, Dieter, 2016, Natural Capital: Valuing the Earth (Yale University Press).
Hunter, Robert, 2004, The Greenpeace To Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey (Arsenal Pulp Press).
Juniper, Tony, 2013, What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? How Money Really does Grow on Trees (Profile Books).
Juniper, Tony, 2015, What Nature Does for Britain (Profile Books).
Klein, Naomi, 2008, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Penguin).
Longo, Stefano B, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, 2015, The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries and Aquaculture (Rutgers University Press).
Lynus, Mark, 2011, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans (Fourth Estate).
Middleton, Neil, Phil O’Keefe and Sam Moyo, 1993, Tears of the Crocodile: From Rio to Reality in the Third World (Pluto Press).
Natural Capital Coalition, 2016, “What is Natural Capital?”, https://naturalcapitalcoalition.org/natural-capital/
Ninan, Karachepone, 2009, Conservation and Valuing Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity: Economic, Institutional and Social Challenges (Earthscan).
Pearce, Fred, 2012, The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth (Eden Project Books).
Peluso, Nancy Lee, 2007, “Enclosure and Privatisation of Neoliberal Environments”, in Nik Heynen, James McCarthy, Scott Prudham and Paul Robbins (eds), Neoliberal Environments: False Promises and Unnatural Consequences (Routledge).
Porritt, Jonathon, 2005, Capitalism as if the World Matters (Earthscan).
Rappel, Ian, 2015, “Capitalism and Species Extinction”, International Socialism 147 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/capitalism-and-species-extinction/
Rappel, Ian and Neil Thomas, 1998, “An Examination of the Compatibility of World Bank Policies towards Population, Development and Biodiversity in the Third World”, The Environmentalist, volume 18, issue 2.
RSPB, 2017, “Accounting for Nature: A Natural Capital Account of the RSPB’s Estate in England”, www.rspb.org.uk/globalassets/downloads/documents/positions/economics/accounting-for-nature.pdf
Spowers, Rory, 2002, Rising Tides: The History and Future of the Environmental Movement(Canongate).
Sullivan, Sian, 2012, Financialisation, Biodiversity Conservation and Equity: Some Currents and Concerns (Third World Network).
Sullivan, Sian, 2017, “Noting some Effects of Fabricating ‘Nature’ as ‘Natural Capital’”, The Ecological Citizen, volume 1, number 1, www.ecologicalcitizen.net/article.php?t=noting-some-effects-fabricating-nature-natural-capital
TEEB, 2010, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Ecological and Economic Foundations(Earthscan).
Treece, David, 1992, “Why the Earth Summit Failed”, International Socialism 56 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/why-the-earth-summit-failed/
Weiner, Douglas R, 1988, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (University of Pittsburgh Press).
Williams, Raymond, 2005, Culture and Materialism (Verso Books).

Wood, Alexander, Pamela Stedman-Edwards and Johanna Mang (eds), 2000, The Root Causes of Biodiversity Loss (WWF/Earthscan).