A bitter pill in an anti-biotic world

Biodiversity Conservation - Global Biodiversity Assessment - Intellectual Property Rights and Biodiversity Conservation - Global Biodiversity Assessment
June 14, 1996

Biodiversity is finally coming to the fore. And so it should, despite its unprepossessing name. The term refers to all forms and expressions of life, and thus covers species and all their subunits (races, populations, etc), plus the Earth's ecosystems ranging from a tropical rainforest to the smallest puddle. Thus biodiversity includes ourselves and our millions of fellow species. Not that many other species would view us as showing much fellowship. We refuse to share living space with them, to the extent of driving them into extinction at a rate of dozens per day - thousands of times faster than would occur naturally.

But let us not be entirely down on ourselves. While we are the one species ever to exist with power to eliminate other species in direct and deliberate fashion, we are also the one species with power to save another species in direct and deliberate fashion. Janus-faced that we are, we have still to make up our minds about how we want to live with the rest of creation. Even the churches remain silent on the issue. One might hope they would be warning us about wantonly knocking off huge numbers of species, each one a unique manifestation of the Creator. Yet they offer ne'er a cheep.

Fortunately the issue is becoming better known to the general public, thanks to books like the ones under review. The first considers plants with biocompounds for use in medicine. Notable products include curare, quinine, codeine, pilocarpine and vincristine; three promising responses to AIDS derive from plant materials. One in four medicines and pharmaceuticals owes its origin to plants, ranging from antibiotics, analgesics and diuretics to tranquilizers and contraceptive pills. The commercial value of these products in developed nations, including both prescription and nonprescription materials, has topped $45 billion a year. Cancer experts believe that tropical forests alone could well contain 20 plants with materials for anticancer drugs. Suppose that until the year 2050 we shall witness the extinction every two years of one plant species with medicinal or pharmaceutical potential. The cumulative retail-market loss from each such extinction will amount to $12 billion for the United States alone.

All these points are assessed in Timothy Swanson's collection, which comprises chapters by 12 experts, from botanists and pharmacologists to economists and lawyers. The main thrust of the book is this: when a plant is discovered with medicinal potential, who shall claim ownership, property rights, and hence a stake in the commercial profits? Madagascar is the original home of the rosy periwinkle, source of the two potent drugs used against various types of blood cancer. The pharmaceutical corporation in question, Eli Lilly, has enjoyed sales averaging $200 million a year since the mid-1960s, yet not a cent has gone back to Madagascar. If a share of the profits had indeed gone back, Madagascar would now have more incentive to preserve its thousands of threatened plant species. The property rights issue is exceptionally thorny, and it is clarified by this welcome book.

The second book, Biodiversity Conservation, is a detailed examination of the basic issue - how much biodiversity do we want to save (all of it, or as much as we can, or as much as is cost effective?), and how shall we do it? The whole shebang must be addressed, the book asserts, within a context of economic development rather than biological idealism. Edited by an aficionado in the field and chairman of environmental economics at the University of York, it includes 18 chapters by experts such as Paul Ehrlich, Gretchen Daily, David Pearce, Karl-Goran Maler, Carl Folke, Brian Walker, Tony Fisher, John Dixon and Madhav Gadgil. It looks at the nature and scope of the extinction problem, the valuation of biodioversity and the impact of economic policy, before coming up with a set of conservation priorities.

The principal virtue of this altogether fine book is that it grapples with the vexing question of what biodiversity is ultimately worth - and hence how much we should spend to preserve it. Contrary to the assertions of certain conservationists, no species is "beyond value", even though every species is a unique manifestation of life. The United States has decided to shell out $15 million to save the California condor, and since there has been no rioting in Washington, one supposes the citizenry goes along with this expenditure of their taxes. But what if the bill had been $15 billion? Would Americans not have decided that no species is worth that much? In fact, no manifestation of life is beyond the constraints of economics - and that includes human life.

Still more to the point, we are effectively deciding that we cannot afford to save the dozens of species that are being pushed over the cliff every day. "Effectively", but "knowingly and willingly"? Surely not.

The marketplace lets us down since it does not offer much opportunity for us to vote in favour of biodiversity rather than the plethora of things we can purchase in the marketplace - and whose production often leads to reduction of forests, savannahs, wetlands and other prime repositories of biodiversity. Given the choice, we might well vote differently, as witness the high viewing figures for David Attenbrough's television programmes or the bestseller status of many books on wildlife. So it is not that people do not want to save species. It is that the almost all-powerful marketplace leaves us disenfranchised.

Then there are the many difficulties surrounding property rights, broached by several contributors to this book. A whale swimming in the oceans belongs to everybody and to nobody. It is available to a Japanese whaler who sticks a harpoon in it, whereupon the dead whale becomes his private property. The rest of us might protest - and in fact our preference for live whales is demonstrated by the whale viewing industry which is now worth more than the whale killing industry. But how can whale lovers get together and "outbid" whale killers in the marketplace? And there is the related problem of discount rates. When the marketplace determines, as it usually does, that the discount rate is 10 per cent, it is effectively proclaiming that an investor needs to recover his capital and take his profits within seven years. But the whales' investment in the future, through their breeding patterns, takes at least ten years to mature. This makes it commercially sensible for a whaler to harpoon every whale in sight, take his winnings and put them into the stock market or oil paintings. These and many other institutional roadblocks are discussed at intriguing length. Exercise your choice in the marketplace and go and buy the book, its price notwithstanding.

Alas, there can be no such encomium for Global Biodiversity Assessment, either in its 1,100-page form or in its summary form. Commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme in the wake of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and its biodiversity convention, this megapublication has been compiled by 400 experts in over 50 countries, with comments from another 1,100 experts in 80 countries. We are in urgent need of basic authoritative information on biodiversity. We do not know to within even an order of magnitude the number of species that share this planet with us, and we have only a preliminary idea of how fast we are denying them space on the planet. What we do know is that we are into the opening phase of a biotic holocaust that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, will eliminate perhaps half of all species within the foreseeable future. It will thus precipitate a mass extinction of species to match if not exceed that simultaneous with the extinction of the dinosaurs and associated species 65 million years ago-and will leave the planet impoverished biologically for at least five million years and probably several times longer.

True, the book is a fine assemblage of documentation on an array of topics subsumed under the title of biodiversity. It is a splendid depository of what many people have known for many years. Beyond that, it does not amount to much at all. The basic science does not always stand up. There is inconsistency on the number of species even in the best-known categories: the plants total is variously set at 240,000, 250,000 and 320,000. In one place the present extinction rate is estimated to be 50-100 times the "natural" rate before the advent of humans, in another place it is put at 1,000-10,000 times. This is not the fault of the contributing scientists, rather it is a deficiency of the executive editor and the book's master plan.

Nor is there much in the way of country-by-country assessments. This lapse is all the more curious in that it is governments, not the United Nations, that determine how much biodiversity shall be saved. There are many more omissions in what could have been a thoroughly worthwhile book. The blueprint, if any, seems to have lacked any conceptual foundations. Was there not someone with stature to think about these issues-or did the chief editor feel it was his job to package other people's work and leave it at that?

If the account of problems represents a fine opportunity missed, the material on solutions is still less professional. The key question is what it will cost to save biodiversity, who will pay for it, and who will get the benefits. Yet the examples of "economic transformations" in practice are limited to Dumoga-Bone in Indonesia, a conservation credit tax scheme in Costa Rica, and a handful of others. The book under-represents salient issues such as financial mechanisms, sharing of benefits and technology transfer. The main cause of biodiversity loss is fingered as over-consumption in all its forms, yet the book scarcely says a squeak about the policy implications thereof. This is a specially significant omission insofar as 80 per cent of the world's consumption is enjoyed by 25 per cent of its citizens - a sore point for the developing nations, which also sit on 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity. The book recognises the need for information to illuminate the policy-making process, and that policy is prime to solutions, yet it offers next to no policy recommendations.

Perhaps we should not have expected differently from the editor. His heart may not have been in the task. He recently wrote a series of papers questioning whether there is much of a biotic crisis anyway. Credit, though, is due to the copy editors. There are very few typos in more than one million words.

Norman Myers is an honorary visiting fellow, Green College, University of Oxford.

Biodiversity Conservation: Problems and Policies

Editor - C. A. Perrings, K.-G. Maler, C. Folke, C. S. Holling and B.-O. Jansson
ISBN - 0 7923 3616 X
Publisher - Kluwer
Price - £115.50
Pages - 404

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