Monday, June 15, 2009

Economy, Environment, and Energy

"Conservation groups feel the strain
Richard Black 15:17 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009
About nine months ago, I spent a fascinating (and very agreeable) week on a research boat in the Canary Islands, attempting to study the elusive family of beaked whales.
Lucky for me it happened last year; because the boat in question, Song of the Whale, is now being taken off such operations, for at least a couple of years, for financial reasons.
The group that runs Song of the Whale, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), appears to have been hit particularly hard by the world's financial troubles. Mothballing the boat's research is one of several cuts it's had to make, including staff cutbacks.
Ifaw is certainly not alone. According to the head of one major UK conservation charity, most organisations in the field are feeling the pinch.
Over the past year, I'm told, UK green groups have seen their income fall by an average of 10-20% - some by more.
You might assume this was down to people withdrawing their membership or being less generous with their gift donations.
These trends are real; but they are regarded as minor compared with declining legacy income and adverse foreign currency movements.
The main component of a legacy donation is often the sale of a house; and often the legacy is worded along the lines of "person X gets so much and person Y so much, with the remainder going to charity Z" - in which case a fairly small dip in house prices can have a large proportional impact on the amount going to the charity.
It shouldn't come as any surprise to find the global financial situation impacting conservation groups - why should they be exempt from the general mayhem? - but it's worth having a quick think about what it might mean.
True, there's a strong propaganda element to much that environmental groups do, and you might either bemoan or applaud a decline in its intensity, depending on your political stance.
But projects such as Song of the Whale generate data that could prove important in understanding - and thus protecting - little-known species.
In developing countries, wildlife protection regimes often struggle for money and resources, certainly when compared to the poachers of valuable species and the industrialists who would expand the human footprint without restraint.
I came across a particularly stark example this week from India - wardens in tiger reserves working without simple equipment such as torches, without proper shoes, with meagre salaries often paid in arrears.
It's a common tale. And sometimes, Western-based groups fill this kind of funding gap, paying the human costs without which there can be no effective conservation.
The links between the world's ecological crisis and its economic woes are manifold and complex; and you can certainly argue that any slowing in the breakneck pace of human economic development is good news if it retards the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the expansion of human habitat into areas occupied by other species, and the depletion of shared resources such as water.
But conservation projects such as Song of the Whale will be casualties; and in a world where we are often struggling to understand what is already on the verge of being destroyed, they are losses we can ill afford."

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