Like many throughout the world, I have been fascinated to watch the recent protests demanding greater civil liberties in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. While the ultimate outcome of these protests is far from certain, I remain hopeful that many of these nations will move toward more democratic forms of government.
After all, the last 100 years of world history has been marked by a global movement towards democracy — particularly over the last 30 years. In 1980, there were 42 countries (with populations amounting to around 36% of humanity) that are classed as “Free” by the NGO Freedom House, which aims to objectively track such things over time. Today, there are 89 “Free” countries (containing around 46% of humanity).
But as a professional conservationist, I find myself also wondering why many in conservation don’t see the long-term connections and overlaps between human rights advocacy and our work. Of course, NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy or WWF have little useful to add to the immediate international discussion about democracy in the Arab world. But there are three deep links between our vision for the future and that of the human rights advocate. Conservationists are too often silent on these links, and that silence is hurting conservation.
1. Functioning civil society — including basic human rights — is an enabling condition for long-term, durable conservation within a country.
While effective conservation has occurred in places without a functioning civil society, conservation gains in these places have been harder to come by and have in many cases proven less stable over time. The right of citizens to peacefully organize and advocate for political causes is at the heart of modern environmentalism.
Similarly, conservation actions are hard to implement without the rule of law and controls on corruption. There are many NGOs who work to build up civil society and protect the rule of law. Conservationists should make clear that we need those other groups to success to achieve our own mission.
2. A world full of autocracies misallocates resources that could be used for protecting the environment or human health.
I have always hoped that the spread of democracy, the flourishing of civil society, and the mutual ties of trade would in the long run reduce the need for large armies. I am not naively suggesting that wars or armies will disappear, but there does seem to be truth to the maxim that democracies rarely go to war with one another. The United States, after all, does not particularly fear war with Canada, and it is hard to imagine Germany and France now going to war, as they did twice in the 20th century.
Given the fragile state of international security, the nations of the world feel compelled to spend around 2.7% of global GDP to stockpile armaments and train soldiers. To understand why this resource allocation is bad for conservation, look at the United States. The annual budget of the U.S. Defense Department is $715 billion. To put this number in context, consider these alternative health and environmental expenditures:
- The estimated costs of compliance with cap-and-trade legislation that would reduce U.S. emissions and helps mitigate climate change: around 0.3% of GDP, or $50 billion per year in 2020 (according to the US Energy Information Administration).
- The World Health organization estimates that around $6 billion annually is needed for full prevention and treatment of malaria, which could save 4.2 million lives by 2015.
- The cost of partially cleaning up the Mississippi River — by reducing agricultural runoff of excess nitrogen by 20% — was put in 1999 by NOAA at around $2.1 billion per year (that’s around $2.7 billion today).
One could pay for all these priorities and many others and still fund the Defense Department at $656 billion, a military budget that is still more than 6 times greater than that of any other country.
3. The visions of conservationists and those dedicated to human rights and poverty alleviation overlap when you step back to look at both.
To understand why, consider the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s definition of development as freedom. Money or material goods do not matter to people, Sen argues, except to the extent that they provide freedom from different sorts of deprivation, a “capability” for people to improve their life. Freedom from hunger, insecurity, and powerlessness are all the purview of development.
Conservationists have traditionally stressed the term “sustainable development,” which was famously defined by Gro Brundtland as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Well, treating sustainable development as a set of freedoms implies achieving that it’s about people — and not just those alive today, but future generations. Conservation supports sustainable development by promoting wise stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources for today and tomorrow.
Moreover, conservationists can speak up for freedoms that, while perhaps less basic, than others are still a part of a complete life: my freedom, for example, to my son to a wild forest and see its complete majesty, from humble mosses to meandering bears. But we obviously can’t achieve our goals without working with human rights and development NGOs to achieve theirs.
I believe that the major conservation organizations — including the Conservancy — need to clearly articulate that dependency…and act on it. We need to make clear our vision of an environmentally sustainable, democratic and peaceful world, and speak more openly about the convergence of the human rights, development and conservation agendas. Where targeted partnerships with NGOs in these other two spheres make strategic sense and build off our skills at conservation, we must pursue them.
There’s nothing radical about this idea that sustainable development requires thinking about the triple bottom line, and indeed I can think of folks in The Conservancy who have been patiently working at this intersection. But in our public pronouncements, I fear the conservation movement has been relatively silent — and silence is in a sense complicity with those opposed to the freedom for which much of the world is still fighting.
(Image: Egyptian protesters with face paint, Tahrir Square, February 1, 2011. Image credit: Ahmad Hammoud/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)