Amoral neoliberal logic efficiently drives capitalism but disconcertingly challenges our social moral code in a disturbing version of the "Hunger Games' for endangered species.
We congratulate ourselves on banishing archaic and primitive deities from our 'developed' technocratic societies. We, after all, now understand and control everything. In reality we have created another omnipotent but rather pernicious god. However, its covert nature empowers it to operate without redress in an age of transparency. Its name is neoliberalism. Put bluntly, neoliberalism is capitalism's bitch. It is a political ideology constructed to facilitate economic practices that allow the efficient accumulation of capital through competition and consumerism.
The lure of money has shaped political ideology and with it our society.
A Cascade of Neoliberal Discourses
It seems unfathomable that such ideologies could infiltrate all levels of society without reprisal. Sociologist's attribute such stealth attacks to discourses. Discourses shape what we believe and how we act by seeping into our social structures through powerful institutions such as the state, media, or in this case, economists. Successfully constructed discourses manipulate knowledge and power to provide legitimacy that ultimately controls people and organisations without their knowledge.
So what happens when institutions assigned to protect our natural world have to combat such Orwellian concepts? The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) commendably aims to eliminate extinctions caused by relentless exploitation and create alternative sustainable discourses. The reality is these top-down custodians are running scared as neoliberal values hijack and weaken their laudable objectives.
Compulsory CITES membership is unimaginable as this could compel states to enforce costly conservation and enforcement measures. This would clip the wings of its most valuable species, trade and GDP. Broad participation is therefore achieved through voluntary membership where member states can opt-out or negotiate for less stringent species' classifications. Thus protecting economic state interests and perpetuating neoliberal discourses.
Although trade is a catalyst for extinctions, the economic benefits it provides creates political leverage for co-operation amongst CITES members. At the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2016, only 11 proposals out of 53 sought to downgrade species' appendix and therefore conservation status. Five of those were from two countries, Canada and Australia and only 9 were successful.
White Rhinoceros grazing in South Africa. Photographer: Alexander Lucas
Swaziland supports their proposal with logical (but not necessarily scientifically rigorous) data that claims 45% of their Southern White Rhino deaths (18 animals) between 1992-2003 were due to bull aggression. Trophy hunting such trouble makers would therefore protect their small population. However, during this time frame, Swaziland's rhino population increased from 46 to 61 individuals. So despite a restricted gene pool and destructive natural behaviour, their population growth rate was an impressive 33%.
The Lure of Money
Secondary justifications, such as bull aggression, are often used to support less palatable primary motives. In this case, neoliberal blood money. To understand the financial lure of trophy hunting on developing countries, here is a back of the fag packet illustration. Dominic Currie, who studied at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Biology, calculated 'the average annual cost of protecting one rhino in protected areas (such as Kruger National Park) was $1,657.' With the COP 17 rhino report estimating South Africa's population at 20,306 in 2015, this would entail an annual conservation cost of $33,647,042.
So when a self-professed hunter such as Corey Knowlton is prepared to pay $350,000 for the dubious privilege of killing a critically endangered (Namibian black) rhino bull, one can understand the temptation. Sacrificing endangered species to pacify the Neoliberal God may smack of the Hunger Games, but none can deny the discernible logic.
More concerning is the growing self-delusion by major environmental organisations, that embracing such neoliberal solutions is conservation. CITES members' acceptance of Swaziland's proposal that rhinoceros are 'renewable, sustainable, utilizable, economic assets' is a far cry from their initial principled values.
Legal Traditional Chinese Medicine Pharmacy. Photo by CEPhoto, Uwe Aranas.
Conservation Contaminated by Neoliberal Values
The logic of Kenya's proposal was supported by depressing statistics that revealed from 2006-2013, annual rhino poaching had increased from 60 to 1,123. This is an increase of 1,772% and clearly exceeds natural rhino replacement rates. Furthermore, it was well understood that trophy hunting complicated law enforcement, incited corruption and ultimately stimulated demand. Despite previous rhino strongholds diminishing, horn prices rocketing and new status symbol markets developing, Kenya's proposal failed in the face of neoliberal priorities.
Another uncontrollable but less visible consequence of environmental organisations kowtowing to the system is the gradually invasive impact it perpetuates in top-down organisations. Swaziland's successful proposal at COP 13 progressively normalises neoliberal solutions and encourages further more demanding proposals. By COP 17, Swaziland requested to trade their rhino horn stocks collected from poachers and natural deaths, but also to harvest rhino horn in a non-lethal way.
Although rejected, it is in direct contradiction to their COP 13 proposal. This stated they would only seek such measures if 'sufficient control is demonstrated to...prevent illegal horn being laundered.' Swaziland should be congratulated for only losing 3 rhinos to poaching since 1992 but South Africa are now losing, on average, 3.68 rhino per day in 2015. In a global and displaced supply and demand chain, this is a far cry from "controlled". Although Swaziland has not yet implemented their trophy hunting, it is clear from ongoing proposals that the neoliberal rot is spreading.
It is true such solutions offer quick financial fixes to the monetary pressures of conservation but incremental deregulation to endorse trade and privatisation of endangered species is injudicious in the long term. Unintended illegal trade loopholes are decimating rhino populations through poaching. This in turn removes incentives for South African land owners to farm rhinos as their protection costs rise and profits fall.
Conservational protectors are being indoctrinated by neoliberal discourses. Unable to understand that this alignment of objectives is only temporary. A relationship of convenience that dupes us into employing the enemy to create our battle plans.
CITES member state proposals for rhinoceros between 2004-2016, and their outcomes, make an interesting critique of neoliberal influences on our environmental protectors. In 2004 at COP 13, Swaziland sought to downgrade its Southern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) to Appendix II, specifically to allow trophy hunting and trade 'to acceptable destinations.' Deregulation to privatize rhinos is profoundly neoliberal in origin and is both emotively contentious and debatably successful in the long term.
Short term, success seems unequivocal. The IUCN Red List stated that Southern White Rhino 'numbers have almost trebled' since South Africa implemented a similar policy in 1968. Progress centred around private land owners extensively farming rhino.
This is nothing more than neoliberal and conservational objectives temporarily aligning. As George Monbiot aptly observes, "we cede the natural world to the forces wrecking it" and unintentionally set in motion uncontrollable consequences. Trade, for example, will seek to exploit every available avenue. Rhino horn's use in Traditional Chinese Medicine and the growing wealth in Asia have fostered an uncontrollable illegal trade. According to the COP 17 Rhino Report, one-fifth of the legally hunted rhino horns fed this market, thus distorting previously aligned objectives.
However, the rhino range state of Kenya had already pieced together the delayed cause and effect of South Africa's trophy hunting. They had found evidence of these 'legal pathways for criminal networks' and proposed a temporary ban on the export of hunting torphies from South Africa and Swaziland at COP 16 in 2013.
The financial markets artfully groomed powerful state leaders, such as Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan, to achieve economic growth by employing such ideology. Free trade, deregulation and privatisation became the three-headed Cerberus of their policy approaches. These cleverly unshackled markets from trade barriers and regulations that held them in check and accountable.
Free trade encouraged natural resources to be plundered whilst deregulation allowed environments to be polluted and civil rights exploited. On the other hand, privatisation transferred power to the markets for socially influential organisations. Our leverage to vote the state out for bad management of these bastion's of democracy has gone, and with it neoliberalism's tentative links to individuals' rights.