Why the Extinction Crisis Isn't Just About the Environment, but Social Justice

The following excerpt is from Ashley Dawson's new book, Extinction: A Radical History (OR Books, 2016)

The philosophy of ‘in the long run we are all dead’ has guided economic development in the First and Third Worlds, in both socialist and capitalist countries. These processes of development have brought, in some areas and for some people, a genuine and substantial increase in human welfare. But they have also been marked by a profound insensitivity to the environment, a callous disregard for the needs of generations to come… It is what we know as the ‘global green movement’ that has most insistently moved people and governments beyond this crippling shortsightedness, by struggling for a world where the tiger shall still roam the forests of the Sunderbans and the lion stalk majestically across the African plain, where the harvest of nature may be more justly distributed across the members of the human species, where our children might more freely drink the water of our rivers and breathe the air of our cities. --Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History

If mainstream environmentalism has been coopted by such neoliberal policies, what would a radical anti-capitalist conservation movement look like? It would begin from the understanding that the extinction crisis is at once an environmental issue and  a social justice issue, one that is linked to long histories of capitalist domination over specific people, animals, and plants. The extinction crisis needs to be seen as a key element in contemporary struggles against accumulation by dispossession. This crisis, in other words, ought to be a key issue in the fight for climate justice. If techno-fixes such as deextinction facilitate new rounds of biocapitalist accumulation, an anti-capitalist movement against extinction must be framed in terms of a refusal to turn land, people, flora, and fauna into commodities. We must reject capitalist biopiracy and imperialist enclosure of the global commons, particularly when they cloak themselves in arguments about preserving biodiversity. Forums for enclosure such as the UNFCCC’s Business and Biodiversity Initiative must be recognized for what they are and shut down. Most of all, an anti-capitalist conservation movement must challenge the privatization of the genome as a form of intellectual property, to be turned into an organic factory for the benefit of global elites. Synthetic biology should be regulated. The genomic information of plants, animals, and human beings is the common wealth of  the planet, and all efforts to make use of this environmental commons must be framed around principles of equality, solidarity, and environmental and climate justice.

Even well-meaning efforts to address extinction such as rewilding need to be challenged if they are not founded on considerations of globally redistributive climate justice. All too often rewilding schemes focus exclusively on wealthy areas of the planet. For instance, George Monbiot’s “Manifesto for Rewilding the World” speaks exclusively of European rewilding schemes, and concludes by asking why Europe should not have a Serengeti or two. This begs the question of what responsibility Europe has for Tanzania’s Serengeti Park itself, as well as other wilderness areas in the global South. The record in this regard is deplorable. In 2013, for instance, Ecuador abandoned its Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which would the South? Moreover, if rewilding is seen as a way of saving charismatic African megafauna like the elephant from destruction by importing them to the badlands of Western Europe or North America, it will all too easily become a latterday form of imperial ecology, creating glorified zoos stocked with purloined African and Asian wildlife. Finally, rewilding makes strong arguments about the pivotal role of keystone species, but, in so doing, tends to reproduce the traditional bias in Western conservation efforts towards the large, the beautiful, and the charismatic. It is not a solution for the vast majority of flora and fauna threatened with extinction today.

An anti-capitalist conservation movement must not only be aware of histories of colonial expropriation of flora and fauna, but should focus on ways of fighting such forms of exploitation today. Wildlife in parks such as the Serengeti was revived following centuries of European colonial big-game hunting of native animals. Today, well-armed poachers again threaten megafauna in the world’s remaining biodiversity hotspots. While the poachers tend to send their culls of elephant tusks and rhino horns mainly to foreign markets, in most cases their weapons come from decades of proxy battles during the Cold War. Moreover, African states are often unable to challenge these poachers as a result of IMF and World Bank-administered structural adjustment policies that have left countries in the global South on the brink of collapse. Efforts to deal with the extinction crisis cannot focus on rewilding the global North alone, nor should they focus exclusively on interdiction of the global traffic in wildlife. An anti-capitalist movement against extinction must also address the fundamental economic and political inequalities that drive the slaughter of megafauna. The extinction crisis should be framed in the context of a new wave of extractivism that is denuding many poor nations, shunting their minerals, flora, and fauna to consumer markets in industrialized nations. This new extractivism should be seen for what it is: a fresh wave of imperialism that is decimating poorer nations by removing the biological foundation of their collective future.

What would be the shape and fundamental goals of an expansive anti-capitalist movement against extinction and for environmental justice? It would have to commence with open recognition by the developed nations of the long history of ecocide charted in this book. Such an admission would lead to a consequent recognition of the biodiversity debt owed by the wealthy nations of the global North to the South. Building on the demands articulated by the climate justice movement, the anti-capitalist conservation movement must demand the repayment of this biodiversity debt. How would this repayment take place? As REDD demonstrates, states in the global South cannot always be counted on to disburse funds received from the North in a just manner; indeed, at present they collude all too often with resource exploiting corporations by displacing genuine land stewards such as indigenous and forest-dwelling peoples. The climate justice movement’s call for a universal guaranteed income for inhabitants of nations who are owed climate debt should serve as a model here. Why not begin a model initiative for such a carbon and biodiversity-based guaranteed income program in the planet’s biodiversity hotspots? Of the twenty five terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, fifteen are covered primarily by tropical rainforests, and consequently are also key sites for the absorption of carbon pollution. These threatened ecosystems include the moist tropical woodlands of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, southern Mexico with Central America, the tropical Andes, the Greater Antilles, West Africa, Madagascar, the Western Ghats of India, Indo-Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Caledonia. They make up only 1.4% of the Earth’s surface, and yet, according to E.O. Wilson, these regions are “the exclusive homes of 44% of the world’s plant species and more than a third of all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.” All of these areas are under heavy assault from the forces of enclosure and ecocide. A universal guaranteed income for the inhabitants of these hotspots would create a genuine counterweight to the attractions of poaching, and would entitle the indigenous and forest-dwelling peoples who make these zones of rich biodiversity their homes with the economic and political power to push their governments to implement significant conservation measures.

Where would the capital for such a guaranteed income program for biodiversity hotspots come from? There is certainly no shortage of assets. As Andrew Sayer has argued, the 1% have accumulated their increasingly massive share of global wealth by siphoning off collectively produced surpluses not through hard work but through financial machinations such as dividends, capital gains, interests, and rent, much of which is then hidden in tax havens. Indeed, if we consider the massive upward transfer of global wealth that has taken place over the last half century, it would be fair to say that never before was so much owed by so few to so many. One way to claw back some of this common wealth would be through a financial transactions tax of the kind proposed by James Tobin. Such a Robin Hood tax, of even only a very small percentage of the speculative global capital flows that enrich the 1%, would generate billions of dollars to help people conserve hotspots of global biodiversity. Such funds could also be devoted to ramping up renewable energy-generating infrastructures in both the rich and the developing countries.

Yet a universal guaranteed income in recognition of biodiversity debt should not be a replacement for existing conservation programs. Instead, such a measure should be seen as an effort to inject an awareness of environmental and climate justice into debates around the extinction crisis. Biodiversity debt would thus augment existing conservation programs while militating against the creation of conservation refugees. In addition, rewilding and de-extinction, despite their significant flaws, may have a place in an anti-capitalist conservation movement, but only if they are reframed in terms of the history of ecocide. Rewilding, for instance, should not be undertaken in the global North without a commensurate pledge of economic assistance for conservation and rewilding of areas in the global South, whose present depleted state is often a direct product of the North’s extractive industries, from plantation slavery to the latest round of land grabs. Similarly, de-extinction may be employed judiciously, for example to reintroduce extinct versions of genes into species that have lost a dangerous amount of genetic diversity. Such efforts should, however, be designed to conserve existing biodiversity, particularly in endangered hotspots, rather than to resurrect extinct charismatic megafauna from the grave.

Any and all such efforts to work against extinction should be undertaken as acts of environmental solidarity on the part of the peoples of the global North with the true stewards of the planet’s biodiversity, the people of the global South. Only in this way can the struggle against extinction help promote not simply forgiveness and reconciliation, but also survival after five hundred years of colonial and imperial ecocide.

The struggle to preserve global biodiversity must be seen as an integral part of a broader fight to challenge an economic and social system based on feckless, suicidal expansion. If, as we have seen, capitalism is based on ceaseless compound growth that is destroying ecosystems the world over, the goal in the rich nations of the global North must be to overturn our present expansionary system by fostering de-growth . Most importantly, nations that have benefited from burning fossil fuels must radically cut their carbon emissions in order to stem the lurch towards runaway climate chaos that endangers the vast majority of current terrestrial forms of life. Rather than false and impractical solutions such as the carbon trading and geoengineering schemes championed by advocates of neoliberal responses to the climate crisis, anti-capitalists should fight for some version of the contraction and convergence approach proposed by the Global Commons Institute. This proposal is based on moving towards a situation in which all nations have the same level of emissions per person (convergence) while contracting them to a level that is sustainable (contraction).

A country such as the United States, which has only 5% of the global population, would be allowed no more than 5% of globally sustainable emissions. Such a move would represent a dramatic anti-imperialist shift since the US is at present responsible for 25% of carbon emissions. The powerful individuals and corporations that control nations like the US are not likely to accept such revolutionary curtailments of the wasteful system that supports them without a struggle. Already there is abundant evidence that they would sooner destroy the planet than let even a modicum of their power slip. Massive fossil fuel corporations such as Exxon, for example, have funded climate change denialism for the past quarter century despite abundant evidence from their own scientists  that burning fossil fuels was creating unsustainable environmental conditions.130  Such behavior should be seen frankly for what it is: a crime against humanity. We should not expect to negotiate with such destructive entities. Their assets should be seized. Most of these assets, in the form of fossil fuel reserves, cannot be used anyway if we are to avert environmental catastrophe. What remains of these assets should be used to fund a rapid, managed reduction in carbon emissions and a transition to renewable energy generation.

These steps should be part of a broader program to transform the current, unsustainable capitalist system that dominates the world into steady state societies founded on principles of equality and environmental justice.


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