Linking Ecology, Economics, and Culture

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder + Peter Coppolillo

Princeton University Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
Conservation is a broad-ranging multidisciplinary survey, covering the history, theory and practice of conservation and drawing on economics, anthropology and politics. It touches on biology, but its primary focus is on the conflicts between people and biodiversity, on the often discordant ideas and approaches of biologists and social scientists, and on the application of theory to programs.

Borgerhoff Mulder and Coppolillo begin with a philosophical overview, with the means/ends distinction and the divides between utilitarian and preservationist goals and between policies of protection and sustainable utilization. They then give a potted history of conservation, focusing on protected area policies.

There is just one chapter on the natural science behind conservation, touching on biogeography and ecology. This briefly introduces concepts of stability and maximum sustainable yield, disequilibrium theory, and the new science of conservation biology. There is no treatment of conservation genetics.

Are indigenous people conservationists? There are clear links between biological and cultural diversity, and substantial bodies of traditional ecological knowledge exist, but the "long shadow of an ecologically noble savage" and associated romantic stereotypes have misled both policy and theory. Focusing on self-interest, evolutionary ecologists have tried to test whether indigenous peoples engage in conservation — more accurately "stinting" — and how they discount future returns.

Another application of game theory is to the tragedy of the commons, but its relevance to conservation depends on culture and norms, and on the specifics of common-property institutions. Political ecology has helped place conservation in its broader context, but has also highlighted the divide between biologists, who sometimes ignore political concerns, and social scientists, who sometimes ignore ecology. It has also been prone to partisan politicisation.

There are increasing links between local indigenous communities and the international conservation movement. These have produced some highly effective programs, but face some common problems: different goals, communication difficulties, the risk of provoking a nationalist backlash against indigenous groups, contested definitions of "indigenous", and so forth. Similar problems arise with bioprospecting and green consumerism.

Another global perspective comes from ecological economics and the use of environmental valuations to involve markets; options here include business management of conservation and the direct purchase of nature reserves. These depend on international policies, agreements and protocols, which face conflicts over who should pay the costs involved.

Some common conservation approaches include strict scientific protectionism, outreach from protected areas to surrounding communities, conservation education and training, ecotourism, the holy grail of "integrated conservation and development", and extractive reserves. Evaluating the success of these will require better monitoring and evaluation.

In a final chapter Borgerhoff Mulder and Coppolillo recapitulate "red flag" topics, where people tend to see in "black and white". Combinations of ideas that they consider promising include community-based protected areas, dealing with commerce, direct payments to compensate people for giving up resource use, co-management (involving the state and communities), and various kinds of participation and capacity building. They recommend a two-axis — preservation-utilization and centralised-decentralised — typology of projects. And they stress the importance of clearly specifying goals, and of keeping ends and means separate.

It couples clear presentation of ideas with concrete illustrative examples but, as a textbook-like overview which attempts to cover a broad area, much of Conservation is necessarily general, abstract, and dry. There's a fair bit that reads like this:

"This more rigorous and critical approach to the notion of community has stimulated innovative studies of why some communities do so much better than others with regard to the management of natural resources. Small communities would seem to have the edge over larger ones in successfully controlling their own use of natural resources, but are weak in the face of external or even state interventions. Economically or socially homogeneous communities, where individuals share many of the same concerns and interests, may be particularly effective in regulating the behavior of community members, yet heterogeneity can usefully spur certain groups into incurring the costs of policing. Shared norms that promote or prohibit actions may enable solutions that are to the common good, but norms can easily break down, and break down differentially, as conditions, scarcity, markets, and other things change; furthermore, some community norms can be counterproductive for conservation ends, such as the prestige killing of large charismatic species like lions in parts of East Africa. All in all, community (as a generic term) can be good or bad for conservation. Furthermore, even if a community is small, homogeneous, and characterized by shared norms, conservation is not a necessary outcome. Valorizing the term only papers over the fact that communities will differ enormously in the extent to which there are incentives for both defection and collective action."

This kind of analysis is accompanied by details of specific cases, however. A third of Conservation is taken up by sixty separate boxes, each one to two pages long, which address specialised topics in more detail. Most present case studies of particular areas, programs, or initiatives. For example:

Reserves: Their Comings and Goings in Peninsular Malaysia
Cultural and Biological Diversity in Central and Southern America
The KayapĆ³ Controversy
Changes in the Management of the Kenya Orma Commons
Asymmetries among Herders: the Barabaig Case
Coordinating the Subaks of Bali
Forest Islands in Guinea: Are They Man-Made?
Enforced Primitivism and the "Bushman Problem"
The Saint Lucia Parrot's Comeback
Co-management in Australia's Kakadu National Park

Others cover theoretical aspects in more depth, with topics such as:

Experimental Games in Economics
Maximum Sustainable Yield
Prudent Predators?
Evolutionary Aesthetics and the "Savanna Hypothesis"

These stop Conservation being bland.

Conservation is notable for its breadth, integrating ideas from biology, anthropology, economics, and political theory. It also covers debates and controversies, rather than presenting polished "answers". The one obvious omission is coverage of the developed world, with the focus very much on indigenous peoples and developing countries. Ecotourism and resource extraction, for example, are considered from a local "supply" perspective, with no analysis of metropolitan "demand"; there is no discussion of fundraising by conservation NGOs; and conflicts between conservation and development within rich communities are not addressed.

It is obviously aimed at students, but professionals are likely to find new ideas in Conservation. And, though it's not light reading, anyone curious about conservation and its controversies should find it worthwhile.

September 2006

External links:
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Related reviews:
- more anthropology
- books about conservation + the environment
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%T Conservation
%S Linking Ecology, Economics, and Culture
%A Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique
%A Coppolillo, Peter
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2005
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0691049807
%P xvii,347pp