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Market norms versus social norms for conservation – how not to shoot yourself in the foot


Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

For environmentalists and conservationists encouraging altruism and voluntary co-operation is vital in dealing with challenges in the sector. But, by slavishly adopting market norms they can also shoot themselves in the foot.

The behavioural economist, Dan Ariely relays an interesting story of how social norms are overtaken by market norms and getting social norms back in became nay impossible.

Ariely was referring to a shift in attitude when parents were fined for picking their children up late from school. The school thought by fining the parents there would be a change in behaviour. The opposite became the norm.

Behaviour did change but not for the better: the parents were willing to absorb the cost and simply make the calculus that being late is okay as the burden of looking after the kids in their absence can be left to the school – the fine being turned into an inadvertent useful pay-off for late-coming.

Other behavioural experiments Ariely conducted with fellow colleagues also throw up how market norms can ruin or reduce voluntarism and altruistic effort once market norms take over.

Ariely’s example is a useful representation of how market norms, if not thought through carefully, can subvert social norms and conservation is filled with many examples of this slippery slope where market norms have taken over from social norms.

For environmentalists and conservationists encouraging altruism and voluntary co-operation is vital in dealing with challenges in the sector. But, by slavishly adopting market norms they can also shoot themselves in the foot.

The ascendency of market norms diminishes the value for co-operative behaviour unless there are group or individual incentives giving preference to entitlement rather than relying on the power of altruism.

The issue of market norms versus social norms has reared its head once again around the sustainable use principle and trophy hunting.

Ironically, President Donald Trump declared war, via twitter, on perverse forms of conservation and animal hunting questioning their ethics and their contribution to conservation goals.

This was not a moment of moral reawakening as far as Trump went but his change of mind came about due to fierce opposition from conservation and animal rights groups.

The Trump administration earlier in 2017 sought to roll-back regulations passed by the Obama administration banning and tightening up the import of elephant and other big game trophies only to reinstate them early in 2018.

Trump did throw out there, in the public space, an issue of long contention and a practice of dubious moral orientation. The documentary Blood Lions on canned lion hunting, released in 2016, shows how little the perversity of the industry has changed despite the South African government’s attempt to clean the image of the industry following the BBC’s Cooke report on the lion hunting industry several years back.

Markets norms have entirely perverted conservation goals in lion breeding.

Trump should have added another addendum to his Twitter note and ask if not conservation what about local development, empowerment of communities and tackling the scourge of poverty?

But why just stop just at the pariahs of conservation under private property and enterprise why not the whole gamut of market norms and its relation to conservation? Does commodification of nature really lead to conservation?

Proponents of this model of organising and preserving species and estates for purposes of conservation would no doubt show proof that without private efforts both the white and black rhino, as an iconic specie, would be decimated (except that public sector investment in rhino preservation is considerably more).

Their numbers have improved since the colonial hunting days only to face new threats as rhino horn has become a speciality for lifestyle fashion and tastes as Asian per capita income has grown in the last three decades making rhino poaching a lucrative pursuit – a new gold rush.

The issue of hunting as sustainable use is a long standing debate between conservationists and the hunting industry largely given a lift through the fact that the sustainable use principle is enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and countries are left to give detail to what is ethical and how the principle should be put in practice.

A slippery slope always pervaded a pragmatic arm of conservation as it is enabling of both monetised and non-monetised forms of the principle.

As, the philosopher Michael Sandel opined in his seminal work What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets notes: “Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.”

Sandel’s contemporaneous observations chime with critical thought coming from the pioneering sociological work of the Frankfurt School, some of the centre’s key thinkers like Theodor Adorno once noted that nature is subject to the same regime as human relations: a form of exchange where the effect of the market is totalising and endlessly making the repeat offence of destabilising and displacing social norms.

For Adorno nature is a social construct and in this construct it is a thing in itself and as a result cannot escape the spectre of the market ready to engulf it. Ariely’s main message, like that of Adorno, is that show how we have lost track of social norms and its power and instead have enabled the dominance of something that has fundamentally and perhaps permanently changed our relationship with nature.

Market norms frame our world but they also do something else; reduce our ability to be innovative outside its boundaries.

Market norms compete with social norms. Market norms reflect the dominant tenet which has not swept only the whole of society but also the conservation of nature leaving social norms as a remnant of a distant past where society and economy did always revolve around “what does it mean for the market nor what does it mean for me, but rather us”.

These observations based on behavioural science, philosophy and critical sociology merely point to the fact that in leaving all of conservation’s solutions to market norms we have unleashed a whole Pandora’s box of ethical challenges that has made it difficult for society to tame these nor to rely on social norms.

Canned lion hunting waywardness, under the rubric of sustainable use and spurious assertions of private owners adding to the goals of conservation, is an example of that.

The anti-rhino poaching drive requires incentive for private owners and public parks to play their part to ensure the preservation of the species not that it is not without a paradox: the very source of illicit trade and poaching of rhino horn, the insatiable predilection for rhino horn consumption, has to be relied on -even under legality- to preserve rhinos.

It is an odd arrangement and a double-edge sword and merely perpetuates consumptive perversity without addressing the root cause and reasons that drives poaching. If, anything trade merely eggs it on and there is no evidence so far that it will stop poaching either.

If, anything, we are merely feathering the nest of monetisation of rhino horn in the hope we can stop illegal poaching by allowing legal trade through the dropping of the price of rhino horn.

The far-reaching consequences in our celebration of market norms is that it has also tainted the way communities surrounding private game farms and public parks are responding to conservation and anti-poaching drives.

Their co-operation must also fall under the sway of monetisation. All we have is the belief that markets norms will do its magic. Market norms have long eroded the possibility of social norms to mobilise communities behind natural resource management or tackling anti-poaching.

As, the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire) initiative in Southern Africa, the early pioneering pedigree of community based conservation, shows that when monetisation stops, voluntary willingness to participate in conservation or anti-poaching efforts wane.

Communities would be increasingly reluctant to participate without a pay-off if market norms enable private and public conservation endeavours. Why should they not too play in the market game as everybody is else is doing it anyway?

Moral appeal loses its sway simply because challenges to the sustainable use of natural resources and nature itself is entangled with transactional prerogatives – markets displace ethics and bringing ethics back bedevils co-operative behaviour. As Sandel warns us: “The more markets extend their reach into non-economic spheres of life, the more entangled they become with moral questions.” DM


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