Approximately one million species currently face extinction because of human activity. Even for humans who do not value nature for its own sake, the impending wave of extinctions is a serious crisis. One out of five people rely on wild species for their jobs or for food, and billions more use wood for cooking and other day-to-day activities.
Conservation is not just an ecological problem — it is also an economic problem, which a recent paper in the journal Nature Sustainability observed covers an “estimated US $44 trillion in global economic production.” Because various industries want to continue profiting by extracting and demolishing natural resources, however, environmentalists are struggling to prevent the mass extinctions.
“Basic income schemes improve well being, reduce poverty and redress inequalities including gender inequity.””
Yet the same Nature Sustainability paper which quantified the value of Earth’s natural resources also proposes a provocative solution: A so-called “conservation basic income” (CBI), or an “unconditional cash transfer to individuals residing in important conservation areas.” Funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the paper argued for local communities and Indigenous populations to be paid the U.S. dollar equivalent of $5.50 per day to effectively act as stewards of important land, with a particular emphasis on maintaining biodiversity.
Additionally, it would empower impoverished individuals who might otherwise seek employment in industries that harm the environment to instead pursue alternative ways to earn a living. Finally, with an estimated price tag of $478 billion annually, it would actually cost less than subsidies given to fossil fuels.
“CBI more equitably distributes the costs and benefits of conservation” due to the beneficial impact of basic income programs on reducing poverty, inequalities (including gender inequity) and overall personal hardship, explained Dr. Emiel de Lange of WCS’s Cambodia Program, the lead author of the paper, in a statement. “Inequalities, including gender, are key drivers of biodiversity loss. CBI could enable communities to pursue their own visions of a good life and avoid exploitation by extractive industries.”
The authors of the paper identify “leverage points,” or ways that human beings on a mass scale can intervene to protect the planet if provided with the financial incentives offered through CBI. This includes spreading “pro-environmental values” by attaching the payments to the need for conservation, similarly encouraging the reduction of aggregate consumption through this method, reducing income inequality and encouraging “just and inclusive conservation” policies on a local level.
It is important to note, though, that the cash transfers are themselves unconditional. While that may seem risky — people could in theory take the money and then ignore all of the pro-environmental reasons why it was given — research shows that, in practice, alleviating poverty through this method winds up helping the environment even if the people who get the money do not intend to.
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“Inequalities, including gender, are key drivers of biodiversity loss.”
“Evidence from other poverty-alleviation cash-transfer programmes that are unconditional with respect to conservation outcomes suggests that a CBI could achieve conservation in many contexts,” the authors write. “For example, Indonesia’s national programme of anti-poverty cash transfers also reduced deforestation across Indonesia. CBI more equitably distributes the costs and benefits of conservation because basic income schemes improve well being, reduce poverty and redress inequalities including gender inequity.” These inequalities, if left to fester, tend to cause people to behave in ways that drive biodiversity loss.
The countless species facing extinction includes every variety of pangolins and echidnas, numerous sharks, cacti and creatures that are dependent on ecosystems such as those provided by coral reefs. A 2020 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) determined that the overall population sizes of “mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish” had fallen by 68 percent since 1970, an “unprecedented” rate of destruction for Earth’s diverse range of species. The report also found that humans have been overusing the planet’s biocapacity by at least 56 percent, has destroyed at least 85 percent of the area of wetlands and significantly altered 75 percent of Earth’s ice-free land surface. The authors attributed this to a number of causes including the industrial revolution, human population growth, increases in global trade and consumption, urbanisation and climate change.
“Our planet is sending alarm signals between recent wildfires, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other extreme weather events,” Jeff Opperman, Global Freshwater Lead Scientist at the WWF, told Salon by email at the time. “We’re seeing our broken relationship with nature play out in our own backyards. The steep global decline of wildlife populations is a key indicator that ecosystems are in peril. Healthy ecosystems provide a range of benefits to humans like clean water, clean air, a stable climate, flood protection, and pollination of food crops. When populations decline and ecosystems begin to unravel so does nature’s ability to support human health and livelihoods.”
Opperman and his colleagues had learned through their research that freshwater species populations experienced the most dramatic population decline of all the species groups — their population fell by 84 percent within the half-century period covered.
Paying people to take care of nature may sound like a weird “job,” however, it should go without saying that protecting our environment is a valuable enterprise. A conservation basic income may seem like a foreign concept, outside of a few real world examples, like Indonesia, but the idea echoes the tenets of universal basic income (UBI), the idea that everyone should be able to participate in the economy, whether they can work or not. Many experimental forays into universal basic income have shown positive outcomes, especially lifting people out of poverty, so while the idea is still somewhat controversial, there is good evidence that it works and may even save money over the long term.
Ironically, one of the most prominent examples of a successful UBI program is Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which receives its money from the state’s oil. Nevertheless, as Alaska State Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D) told Salon in 2020, “the creation of the Permanent Fund has been one of Alaska’s most foresightful decisions. The Permanent Fund effectively converts one-time oil wealth into renewable financial wealth. As Jay Hammond [the governor who oversaw the creation of the fund] put it (I’m paraphrasing), instead of an oil well that eventually pumps dry, the Permanent Fund is a money well that will pump forever.” Applying the same principles to ecosystem stewardship may make sense as well.