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Issue #1697      August 12, 2015

When greed supersedes human need

The “legal” slaughter of Cecil the lion should give us pause for thought about how money has seeped into areas of society in ways that totally contradict human decency.

Deforestation in Riau province, Sumatra, to make way for an oil palm plantation.

The actions of the millionaire cosmetic dentist Walter Palmer – the man who killed the Zimbabwean lion – focuses attention on the insanity of trying to control hunting by creating a market in it.

The idea we can restrict the killing of endangered animals by placing an exorbitant price tag on the “sport” creates a clash of values.

Are we saying that only the rich should be allowed to hunt threatened species? Or are we saying that the animals should be protected because of their own intrinsic value, one that entirely supersedes the monetary sphere?

Michael Sandel used big game hunting to illustrate how we have allowed markets to invade areas that would have been inconceivable a generation ago in his brilliant book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

He writes:

“We need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong – and where they don’t.”

Sandel focuses on the “corrosive” impact that markets have when they are misapplied. He adds:

“Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged.

“But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about … When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use.”

Although Cecil was killed illegally – as already well documented in the pages of the Morning Star – the very fact that wealthy folk can flock to countries like Zimbabwe to buy licences to hunt animals is intrinsically wrong.

Palmer splashed out £35,000 to get his use-value from Cecil. But the public outcry over the lion’s brutal slaying – Cecil took 48 hours to bleed to death – illustrates that the majority of the global community vehemently condemns Palmer’s actions. In a fitting irony, Palmer has become the hunted. Protests have temporarily closed his dental practice and his house is being picketed. Cecil’s grim fate has caught the popular imagination, but tragically his plight is far, far from being an isolated phenomenon.

Cecil raises another – more fundamental – financial issue. The Zimbabwean economy has been on the rebound since 2009, but it remains a poor country.

The cash being waved by hunters such as Palmer means a lot in a country in which the average monthly wage is approximately £370.

Zimbabwe’s political and economic problems are well documented, but it is a country blessed with stunning national parks. However, these are seriously under threat. Zimbabwe’s Conservation Task Force released a report, in 2007, estimating that an eye-watering 60 percent of the country’s wildlife has been eradicated since 2000 due to “poaching and deforestation.”

If we really care about the irrecoverable damage being done to the world’s wildlife, a more radical approach is called for.

The Western world cannot expect to preach to developing countries about how to care for habitats which have avoided despoilation because invariably the demand for their resources arises in the developed nations. Just one example – there are roughly 13 million hectares of rainforest that have been uprooted to clear the way for palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil organisation estimates that half of the products on sale in our supermarkets contain palm oil.

We create the demand responsible for the damage being wrought, but then moan that orangutans are under threat as their habitat is decimated.

Part of the answer about how to slow the damage we are inflicting on the environment was provided by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations – a group of 10 countries led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. The coalition delivered a proposal to the United Nations which read:

“We are simultaneously struggling to defeat poverty while challenged with responsibility over a majority of the world’s biodiversity … In many forested rural areas, the only real options for economic growth often require the destruction of natural forests either when clearing for agricultural commodities or through the sale of wood products.

“In effect, international markets offer perverse incentives from the perspective of environmental sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and climate stability.”

Their demand was for the rich economies to fund them to not cut down forests. Those funds could then be used to achieve development in sustainable ways.

The stakes could not be higher if we fail to deliver.

Jan Zalasiewizc, professor of palaeobiology at Leicester University, states: “We are now living through one of those brief, rare episodes in Earth history when the biological framework of life is dismantled. It is in every sense a tragedy.”

Zalasiewizc’s point is that previous mass extinctions have been caused by phenomenon such as asteroid impacts, volcanoes and rapid climate change. But this time around “the extinctions are being driven by the effects of just one single species, Homo sapiens.”

Palmer’s desire to bag Cecil has undoubtedly concentrated the world’s attention on how outdated big game hunting is, but it also throws up the more basic question of how we value wildlife. Crucially, for us to properly value our environment demands that we move away from the market-driven world in which we live. If we don’t, it’s not just Cecil that gets stuffed.

Morning Star

Next article – Israeli sniper kills another Palestinian child

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