Why Conservation Matters

Just suppose that you were important or influential enough to be invited to Davos to hob-nob with the rich and famous during the annual World Economic Forum. Whilst traipsing around between events you get stopped in the street by an inquisitive journalist who wants to know what you think are the three most pressing issues that confront the delegates. What would one say? It might be a bit of a challenge to offer something sensible ‘off the cuff’ as it were. However, as a Davos attendee, such worldly matters may be front and center and there would be no hesitation in coming up with something meaningful.

Well, here are three possibilities to consider – economic growth, environmental sustainability and the human condition. Whether these are top of your list or not they certainly warrant some attention. What is not apparent at first sight is that they are closely connected and, probably, mutually incompatible.

Economic growth is seen to be an imperative. Certainly in the West its stimulation is regarded as vital in order to bring about economic recovery and an attendant rise in employment. The issue with growth is that, as presently understood, it involves increasing levels of consumption and that has some practical limits. The planet is, essentially, a finite resource and despite our ingenuity we are bumping up against some of those limits. Leaving aside the issues of fossil fuels and energy there are the questions of where, for example, will we find the potable water and enough food to feed an increasing global population? This, of course, says nothing about improving the lot of the one billion or so of us who are presently under- or malnourished.

This is where the second pressing issue, that of environmental sustainability comes in. It is a matter of observation that nothing in the natural world grows or expands for ever, at some point everything goes into decline and is then replaced by a new generation or a variation on the previous theme. We all appreciate the universality of this cycle at some level although we seem not to make the connection so far as the desire for economic growth is concerned.

That brings us to the last issue, that of the human condition or well-being. It ought to be clear that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely and is incompatible with environmental sustainability. So long as growth exceeds the capacity of the planet to provide or recycle resources the condition of humanity must suffer.

We are not suggesting that this is a zero sum game – we can only improve our lot on the basis that others in the less developed world cannot improve their quality of life. But the challenge is to find a way for us in the developed world to consume less of the planet’s resources so that others may approach our level of well-being.

It seems to be the case that growth is programmed into mankind in some way. We all seem to want more or something better. As soon as the new 4G ‘phone appears the 3G gets tossed (or given to a technologically challenged spouse). As soon as the ashtrays are full in the beemer we better get a new one. The fact is that more doesn’t always satisfy in a progressive way. The law of diminishing marginal returns operates and after the third helping of pie a la mode . . . Well, you get the idea.

This is where the idea of conservation comes into play.

It would be wrong to assume that all human motivations, such as our desire for more, are selfish, altruism plays its part as well. Indeed, all of us are torn between selfishness and altruism at one time or another.

Shalom Schwartz of the Hebrew University in Israel has done a great deal of work on basic human values and motivation. Together with his colleagues he has developed a ‘Circumplex’ of human values that are structured around two distinct tensions in our psychological make-up. In broad terms the first is the tension between selfishness and altruism. The second is between openness to change and conservation.

As societies have developed, sometimes in hostile environments, we (mankind) have struggled with balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the group. This has been met in different ways at different times depending upon a variety of factors including cultural and societal criteria. The need to innovate has been balanced by the need for stability or tradition, or put another way, the need for conservation. Selfish needs have to be balanced against the broader needs of the group.

Increasingly, today, we seem to be in a situation where the institutions of consumer society are designed to favor materialistic (and, to borrow a politically charged term, rugged) individualism. In turn that leads to the relentless pursuit of economic growth and the resultant need to innovate which embraces an openness to change. The current economic situation bears ample witness to the effect of these forces.

Schwartz’ Circumplex, which has been tested in over 50 countries, suggests to us that to address the relentless pursuit of growth it needs to be balanced by conservation measures that would act as a brake upon those expansive forces. These measures would need to have application at every level in our societies and some will have to be legislated; we cannot rely upon enlightened self-interest to carry the day. In the US we already have some measures in place in terms of institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but we need a greater level of awareness in the global community about the need for conservation.

Perhaps we could get this on the agenda for Davos next year.

Chris Wood