Everybody knows that capitalism is the hateful enemy of a thriving, noble nature, or so they say. From the burning of fossil fuels, to the expansion of cities and agriculture, to the disruptive mining of precious metals, to the demolition of nature that follows clear-cutting, power plants, and transmission lines, the market has rarely seemed like nature’s friend.
The profit motive, so reviled by socialists and even moderates, is largely to blame. Nature doesn’t have a financial value, it is held, and so rapacious consumerism has reduced precious animal populations to the brink of extinction in exchange for a few dollars’ worth of hides, meat, oil, or tusks. The WWF list of endangered species makes for a long and dismal read.
Even if we don’t necessarily buy this story, everyone has at least heard of it, and – I posit – most of us believe some version of it. The beauty of nature with its stunning animals, most of them effectively unowned, has been difficult to square with capitalism’s demand for the products and commodities that are up for grabs.
What if this story is entirely backward?
Markets to the Rescue
Considering how busy most people are around the Christmas holidays and during the recent turn of a new decade, they could be forgiven for having missed the many optimist tales that summarized the state of humankind. While openly admitting the ills of the world, these writers highlight that in most places, most of the things that most people care about have been gradually improving. Some examples include Matt Ridley at the Spectator, Steven Pinker at the Financial Times, Tony Morley at Quillette, Johan Norberg at the Wall Street Journal, and probably a dozen more that I have overlooked.
One of them, Angus Hervey’s “99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About In 2019,” included the following startling statistics:
In Kenya, poaching rates have dropped by 85% for rhinos and 78% for elephants in the last five years, in South Africa, the number of rhinos killed by poachers fell by 25%, the fifth annual decrease in a row, and in Mozambique, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves went an entire year without losing a single elephant.
Take the iconic mountain gorillas living in the borderlands of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the 1980s, the director of the Uganda Institute of Ecology proclaimed doom not only for the mountain gorillas, but most of Uganda’s wildlife. In 2010, Nicholas Wadhams at National Geographic similarly voiced the grave threat that humanity posed to the waning numbers of great apes: “surges in human populations, the ape-meat trade, and logging and mining” could very well make gorillas extinct “in less than 10 to 15 years.”
Ten years later, the mesmerizingly beautiful great ape had not only avoided extinction but more than doubled in numbers. Regulation, international declarations of emergency, and the establishment of national parks did very little to reverse the population of these gentle, iconic, and captivating primates. Instead, capitalism did. In a feature on the Ugandan gorillas, Hillary Richard at the very same outlet explained that
since tourism is now Uganda’s most lucrative industry, and the majority of tourists come to see the mountain gorillas, trekkers are encouraged to seek out ways to give back to the communities they visit. One popular option is to hire a porter, who is always a local resident and occasionally a reformed poacher. The landscape within the parks is unpredictable and difficult; porters help guide trekkers through river crossings and up steep, muddy inclines.
When Ugandans and others living at a subsistence level realized that showing the photogenic primate to tourists was more profitable than killing them for their hides and meat, hunting quickly dwindled to a trickle. The same, as Hervey reported above, has been true in other places in Africa. If gorillas have more value alive than dead, poachers quickly become gamekeepers, turning themselves into the great ape’s closest allies and protectors. Market value and property rights mean that there is more to gain from protecting the gorillas, and those decentralized efforts are more effective than the high-level words of conservation spoken in a poor country’s distant capital.
For most people, this is counterintuitive, but it is just another instance where reality is not zero sum and where second-order effects of markets, prices, and trading become evident. Scare stories like Ami Vitale’s in National Geographic from last year are a case in point. Decades-old poaching that sadly drove one species of rhino into probable extinction spells doom for all rhinos:
We are witnessing extinction right now, on our watch. Poaching is not slowing down. If the current trajectory of killing continues, it’s entirely possible that all species of rhinos will be functionally extinct within our lifetimes.
Capitalism and “human greed” are the perennial enemy before whom we stand powerless unless “we see ourselves as part of nature.”
Stories like these are all-too easy to tell and effortlessly weave into our hardwired anti-humanism. Never mind the improvements in monitoring that technology and conservation efforts have created. Never mind the economic growth that offers millions of people options for living off what an interconnected global capitalism desires rather than thoughtlessly killing animals around you. Never mind the privatization or the ecotourism that are rapidly turning rhinos and elephants and other majestic animals into commodities worth more alive than dead.
Be it copper or iron found below ground or the gorillas and rhinos living above it, a thriving market for a natural resource does not deplete the resource, but ensures that people do everything in their power to preserve it. In response to South Africa’s successful reinvigoration of rhinos, thanks largely to the powers of privatization and market pricing for hunting, Dan Hannan writes: “If large mammals are treated as a valuable commodity, their human neighbors become their custodians.”
The very same people who push consumer activism in areas of fossil fuel investment or Fairtrade certifications for coffee and bananas usually understand this economic mechanism in the abstract. When contemplating where to buy their morning coffee, they patronize that newly opened organic vegan shop or their favorite neighborhood baker (naturally only using locally sourced grains). These shops may only survive if you keep buying their vegan brownies or sourdough – that is, if you keep consuming the resource you are intent on protecting.
If you don’t frequent these small-scale artisanal shops, as a Scottish tour guide self-servingly told me on a trip to the Highlands many years ago, they’ll just disappear. While a tad disingenuous – as he surely earned kickbacks for bringing curious tourists to select artisans – his economic reasoning was spot-on.
One of the most fascinating results in Hans Rosling’s Gapminder test is the endangered status of three iconic animals: tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos. The respondents are given three options to how many of them are still endangered in 2017: two of them; one of them; or none of them. Only 6 percent of otherwise overperforming Swedes correctly answered that none of them were, while Americans and Canadians did slightly better with 12 percent picking the right answer.
Chimpanzees choosing answers at random would do much better than misinformed, fact-challenged humans.
An important ingredient in this underappreciated success story is capitalism. Various schemes have turned rhinos and other scenic African animals from victims of the tragedy of the commons to valuable commodities that hunters and farmers and former poachers sustain, in no small part thanks to ecotourism. George Wilson of the Australian National University reports that southern Africa probably has “more wildlife than 100 years ago.”
According to the International Rhino Foundation, rhino poaching is on a reassuring downward trajectory. In South Africa, home to the majority of Earth’s rhinos, poached rhinos has been falling year after year and across Africa it looks like 2019 will see its lowest number of rhinos poached in almost a decade, with the total population of the five rhino species 30 percent higher than its level in 2009.
It’s almost as if privatization works, as if markets can sustain and support a scarce resource. Shocking, I know.
Instead of succumbing to the eternal alarmism that should undermine ecologists’ credibility, we should accept that maybe – just maybe – the world is getting better. And much-reviled capitalist markets are, in no small feat, to thank for that.