Button to scroll to the top of the page.

News

From the College of Natural Sciences
Font size: +

Humanizing Biodiversity

Humanizing Biodiversity
Dr. Sahotra Sarkar (Photo: Marsha Miller)


Sahotra Sarkar’s quest to preserve earth’s biodiversity has found inspiration in a place that doesn’t usually play a starring role in the global environmental imagination—Texas.

“The landowners here, who I’ve spent a lot of time working with, tend to care as much as most conservationists do that the land quality doesn’t decline,” says Sarkar, a professor of both integrative biology and philosophy. “They see themselves as taking care of a deeply valued resource, one that they’re going to hand off to the next generation.”

This conservationist ethos, and how it aligns with, say, the libertarian strain which also runs strong in the Texas psyche, is of more than just incidental interest to Sarkar. His entire conceptual approach to the discipline of conservation biology—the “social ecology” approach—is grounded in the idea that it’s human communities that confer meaning on concepts like biodiversity in the first place.

It’s above all Texans, then, who make Texas biodiversity worth protecting and preserving. Texans are embedded in the larger American community, and beyond that in a global community, and each of these spheres can impose some kind of claim on how the land should be used and protected and preserved. What can’t make a claim, however, is nature itself.

[pullquote]As a philosopher, I can’t grasp what it would mean to say that every aspect of nature, from a rock to a bacterium to the smallpox virus, has value in itself independent of having any value for human beings.[/pullquote] “As a philosopher,” says Sarkar, “I can’t grasp what it would mean to say that every aspect of nature, from a rock to a bacterium to the smallpox virus, has value in itself independent of having any value for human beings What makes sense to me is to say yes, this has value, but it’s value for human beings. It’s value in terms of what kind of life we are trying to live, what our vision for future generations is. Do we want a world that has a rich diversity of nature? Should we leave things as untouched as possible? Should we do as little harm as possible?”

Instead of assuming that private landowners or local communities are the enemy, says Sarkar, conservation should begin from an assumption that protection of biodiversity is only meaningful in the first place if it arises from the values of the people who inhabit the land. In an area like Central Texas, conservation values would emerge from a negotiation between all the stakeholders—not just libertarian-minded ranchers or Austin-based environmental activists, but also academically-trained philosophers of science, migrant farmers, federal regulators, and whoever else can reasonably be involved in the process.

“We are the creators of our cultural norms,” says Sarkar. “We live by them. We have to argue about them like we argue about political questions in general. We have to give good reasons. We have to recognize that there are going to be trade-offs.”

Sarkar is comfortable advocating such an approach because his philosophical commitment is to the interests of humans first, and to the interests of local human communities before national or international communities. He also believes, however, that a ground-up approach is often the best way to achieve the practical results that conservationists desire (such as saving biodiversity).

In a recent paper, Sarkar and doctoral student Mariana Montoya describe how a conservation effort in the Amazon River basin succeeded, in large part, because the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was able to take direction from the indigenous Kandozi people.

Rather than trying to designate the area where the Kandozi lived and fished a “Protected Area,” which would have prevented the Kandozi from acquiring title to the land and the waters where they’d been sustainably fishing for centuries, the WWF and the Peruvian government worked with the Kandozi to form a “fishing association.” This association had as its complementary goals the protection of the fishing stocks, the protection of the freshwater ecosystem in which the fishing occurred, and the expansion of the legal rights of the Kandozi over the region and its waters. It succeeded on all fronts.

This hybrid approach resulted as well, argue Sarkar and Montoya, in an allocation of power that is much more likely to preserve biodiversity over the long run than one in which federal regulators and foreign activists try to impose conservation from on high.

“Traditional groups most often know how to manage their resources,” says Sarkar. “Not always but most often. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have survived.”

In fact it’s often the case, says Sarkar, that without the cooperation and expertise of such groups, conservation efforts can blow back on conservationists.

“One of the classic failures was in India, which is where I’m from,” he says. “They created this thing called Project Tiger to try to bring back the tiger, and hundreds of thousands of poor people were displaced to create preserves. Initially it was claimed to be this major success, and in some respects it was. The tiger populations rebounded. Tigers began to appear in areas they never were. But one consequence was that the people who had been displaced hated the conservationists so much that they began collaborating with poachers, and so the poachers ended up with all the local know-how, and the people who wanted to stop the poaching were agents from the outside.”

In the decades since Project Tiger was launched, says Sarkar, the conservationist movement has evolved considerably in its approach to protecting biodiversity. NGOs, government agencies and scientists are now much more likely to enter into a given project with the interests of locals as one of the priorities (if not always as high a priority as Sarkar would like). If locals are going to be displaced in order to protect the biodiversity of a given area, they’re much more likely to be compensated economically. And, perhaps most significantly, conservationists are no longer as likely to assume that local communities, or even multinational corporations, are intrinsically hostile to their goals. They’ve realized that there are more options when trying to protect nature than just fighting people or paying them off.

[pullquote]There’s a lot of evidence that people do not just regard themselves. They have other-regarding preferences. They care about the community.[/pullquote] “There’s a lot of evidence that people do not just regard themselves,” says Sarkar. “They have other-regarding preferences. They care about the community. They care about future generations. In certain circumstances purely paying attention to individual economic interests leads you to a sub-optimal solution. There are times when you should be appealing to the basic ethical imperatives of people. You should be appealing to community interests, and instead of just negotiating money, you should try to build up trust and build up community.”

Sarkar sees his primary role, in and out of the academy, as one of capacity building. He’s been a pioneer in introducing the mathematical and philosophical tools of decision theory and game theory to the realm of biodiversity protection. His laboratory has created software that lets local stakeholders develop conservation plans based on their values and needs. His lab trains scientists and conservationists from around the world to be facilitators of conservationist projects in their native countries. He’s consulted with governments and multi-national corporations to find ways to blend their interests with those of local communities and conservationists.

And he’s fought to bring the field down to earth.

“It’s pragmatic,” says Sarkar. “Even if you don’t agree with people like me theoretically, it’s become apparent that in practice you need to be embedded in the values of the people in order to carry out biodiversity properly. In Texas, for instance, you’re not going to protect endangered species by fighting ranchers, and what’s true for Texas is true elsewhere. Conservation does not work without local support.”
The quest for a better solar cell
Seeing Anew

Comments 1

 
Guest - Appreciative Theist on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 13:27

I applaud this approach to conservationism wholeheartedly. It's about time this common sense approach was put forward. I do find it interesting (without derision) however how Professor Sarkar's athiestic worldview affects his path to his conclusions. As a Christian, I believe the biodiversity does have intrinsic value (just as humans do) because it is created by God. I am glad that Professor Sarkar finds an atheistic path to value, even if it is derived from human need/desire/value. However, by basing it on humans' assessment of worth there are two problems--if humans stop valuing biodiversity, then conservation loses its value and therefore, we lose biodiversity, and if humans don't have value (as some philosophic traditions conclude), then the things which humans value become less secure in their status. In short, if other humans come to a different conclusion on value than Professor Sarkar, biodiversity is threatened. Otherwise, great work!!!

I applaud this approach to conservationism wholeheartedly. It's about time this common sense approach was put forward. I do find it interesting (without derision) however how Professor Sarkar's athiestic worldview affects his path to his conclusions. As a Christian, I believe the biodiversity does have intrinsic value (just as humans do) because it is created by God. I am glad that Professor Sarkar finds an atheistic path to value, even if it is derived from human need/desire/value. However, by basing it on humans' assessment of worth there are two problems--if humans stop valuing biodiversity, then conservation loses its value and therefore, we lose biodiversity, and if humans don't have value (as some philosophic traditions conclude), then the things which humans value become less secure in their status. In short, if other humans come to a different conclusion on value than Professor Sarkar, biodiversity is threatened. Otherwise, great work!!!
Already Registered? Login Here
Guest
Friday, 13 December 2019

Captcha Image