Conservation Economics: How to Save the Planet (Part I) (4 Comments)


This past September The Economist put out a special report on global biodiversity, detailing its recent decline and the even more recent attempts by conservationists to reverse this trend.  And while many of our devoted readers have surely seen these sorts of articles before (hopefully on our own site), The Economist’s had an M. Night Shyamalan twist.  Well, a pre-Lady in the Water M. Night twist, because I didn’t vomit in disappointment and anger after it.  The unique argument presented in nine different articles was that economic growth is good for biodiversity, in that it aids conservation strategies and increases their success.  I wanted to summarize a few of their points and offer my own interpretation in this post, since the report presents an interesting perspective and that’s what we’re all about here.

1. National wealth is critical for conservation

Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it turns out that if you want to set aside some land for a habitat recovery project you should be ready to spend some cash.  Therefore, countries that have greater levels of national wealth and per capita income are often better equipped for long-term conservation efforts.  And it’s not just because these nations can pick up the tab for such projects.  They typically also have qualities that are critical for managing the complex problem that is the decline of global biodiversity.  According to The Economist, “As countries get richer, they tend to become more peaceful and better governed and their population growth slows down.  Technological progress has improved life for other species, making conservation efforts more effective.”  All of these things working in conjunction have the potential to greatly benefit wildlife.  Countries that are lacking in any of the afore mentioned qualities may focus more on their respective absence.  If you’re the president of a nation constantly at war, afflicted by political corruption, or experiencing rapid population growth (and the associated reduction in available food or living space), you will most likely devote all your resources to alleviating these problems.  This may be one reason why Haiti, having a GDP per capita of $771, has forest cover on less than 2% of its land while its neighbor to the east, the Dominican Republic (which has a GDP per capita of $5,736) has 28.5% of its land covered in forests[1].  Only when a country is stable can it better manage its natural resources, and this stability seems to be correlated with a certain level of wealth.  In addition to state-of-the-art technology, which can greatly aid conservation efforts, more wealth also means more leisure, which brings us to their next point.

2. Free time is critical for conservation

It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who spend all week working in offices or manufacturing facilities don’t want to spend their weekends there as well.  After a certain level of economic growth, countries can begin instituting such luxuries as the five-day work week, giving its citizens time off to pursue other interests.  And it turns out that over 100 million Americans have a hobby, such as fishing or wildlife photography, which requires some exposure to nature.  All this points to the fact that we like being outdoors and experiencing the natural world, and that given the opportunity many people will invest in its future.  However, many of these investments, such as national parks and nature reserves, rely on government money or other forms of public funding.  Those citizens who can’t afford the time or cost of visiting a national park are not likely to provide donations for its upkeep.  Even relatively inexpensive conservation efforts require some level of national support, support that won’t come easy if you aren’t exposed to the great outdoors regularly.  All citizens need to make a living, so unless that living involves working outside many people need leisure time to enjoy nature.  Not surprisingly, people with higher levels of income tend to have more free time to pursue other interests.  This tends to correlate with higher levels of support for conservation efforts, a good sign for the future of our planet.

These two prerequisites for successful conservation efforts correlate well with emerging or strong world economies.  Countries like the United States, the U.K., China, Russia, India, and Brazil are all on the path to satisfying these requirements.  Many of these countries are also located in regions of high biodiversity (southeast Asia and the Amazon to name a couple).  Therefore, in the next few decades they have the potential to do great things for our planet’s wildlife, and hopefully set a standard of conservation for future generations.  In part 2, I will discuss why cooperation and coordination is vital to save local ecosystems, the impact intensive farming will have in the future on biodiversity, and the need for conservationists and administrators to find common ground in order to save our environment.

[1] Leon, V. (2013, May 29) Believe it or not, deforestation in Haiti is not about trees. Haitian Times. Retrieved from


January 21, 2014

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  • A very interesting perspective, thanks for sharing, Nate.

    I wonder, though, if the premises aren’t overly simplistic in that countries do not exist in a vacuum. Countries with more developed economies, at least historically, can set aside more land for conservation because they can afford to import resources from countries that cannot (…afford to set aside land for conservation). We often outsource a great deal of our environmental degradation, and that should not be discounted in terms of sources of global impact. I think in this case, we should examine whether the source is GDP per se, versus GDP inequality, because I think there is (also?) good argument for the latter.

    Additional either source might lead to the logical conclusion that, therefore, it is better for all countries to be as rich as us so they can hike on Saturdays (guilty) and donate to the Nature [fill in the blank] (not as guilty as I wish I could be). But, neither does conservation exist as the only impact a country has on the environment, and while conservation might increase with GDP, so does degradation (in the global sense – have you ever calculated your carbon footprint?!). I suppose the question is, which increases more and is there a sweet spot?

  • Hi Emily,

    You’re certainly correct that in our global economy, you cannot simply look at a nation’s domestic figures. I would argue that wealthier countries have the ability to invest in technology that allows them to get more from less, thereby reducing their overall demand for imported resources. So yes, countries with higher GDPs tend to impact resource collection in countries with lower GDPs. However, as GDP per capita rises, nations can become more and more efficient and therefore put less of a financial incentive on poorer countries to practice environmentally-destructive harvesting methods.

    With regard to your second point, you are exactly right that there is a positive relationship between GDP and degradation. The article’s argument, however, is that there is a sweet spot where we can minimize this relationship. To quote the report, “There appears to be an environmental version of the Kuznets curve, which describes the relationship between prosperity and inequality in an inverted U-shape. At the early stages of growth, inequality tends to rise; at the later stages it falls. Similarly, in the early stages of growth, biodiversity tends to suffer; in the later stages it benefits.” So as growth increases, total pollution and waste may increase to a certain point, but after that the benefits of technological advancement and manufacturing efficiency outweigh growth’s negative effects.

    This is definitely a complex topic, and a couple of posts will not even come close to discussing all of it. But hopefully this will emphasize the potential benefits that can come from collaboration between conservationists and policymakers, as well as which issues that still need addressing.

    Tl;dr – there’s no easy answer. But if regulated properly, economic growth can mutually benefit humans and wildlife

  • Nate,

    I agree with the idea of getting more involved with policy to benefit biodiversity but I think some of your ideas show a strong western bias.

    I would say your assertion that the more wealthy the people the more free time they have is inaccurate. It does fall in line with the American “Middle Class” dream, but in reality you can find people of all Socioeconomic statuses with various amounts of free time. It is more about what resources you have and cultural pressure people find themselves under. The classic example of this misunderstanding would be the “original affluent society” concept.

    I also would say that you wouldn’t need to have a society that sees nature as a leisure activity to inspire environmental conservation. In South Africa and Botswana for example at first many western conservation practices were attempted, but in areas where people have been living with native wildlife for hundreds of years these were in effective. National parks and wildlife restrictions made protecting your crops from hungry elephants or your family from some large predator a criminal offense. So when people would be slapped with thousands of dollars in fines, the want to care for the wildlife quickly disappeared and the need to turn in poachers with it. In cases though were the people living on the land were given rights over their animals and the ability to have people come and selectively hunt those species, not only did the people benefit from it but also the animals (as a species, not necessarily individuals).

    In the end, you don’t need to be a wealthy country to care for the environment, or benefit biodiversity. (and I doubt every country could get to the point of the the Us or Canada and the world not implode on itself) I think the key is just finding individualized solutions for each country, ones that do integrate concepts of economics and culture, but do not force any sort of concept onto other countries or peoples. Their isn’t just one right way to go about conservation, and the western systems are definitely not one size fit all.

  • You bring up a great point, in that The Economist presents largely a western point of view toward this issue. In that sense, it isn’t too surprising that it takes a pro-economic growth approach. What I did find interesting (and why I decided to summarize it here) are the specific reasons they give. For strong or emerging economies I think these are some great points to keep in mind as we hopefully move forward with a more environmentally-friendly approach to national policy.

    However, for the large majority of countries that don’t experience the same level of economic output or wealth as those mentioned above, I agree that these points may be ineffective, irrelevant, or even harmful (as you described). Culture is a critical thing to keep in mind when determining any sort of policy, and people in many countries hopefully do not need regular visits to a national park to care about their environment. There is by no means a single method of conserving biodiversity, and we should understand that a western perspective is certainly not shared by all. What I wanted to get across in this post was that despite the environmental crisis we are currently experiencing, those nations that are both located in close proximity to biodiversity hotspots and have significant influence on global economics and policy (Brazil, China, India, Russia, Indonesia, UK, US) have the tools to create a promising future for our planet’s wildlife.

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