September 22nd is World Rhino Day, on this day and throughout the year we say “NO” to legalizing the rhino horn trade. People all around the world are engaging in activities designed to raise awareness about this magnificent and endangered animal. The NRDC and others are calling on world leaders to stamp out trafficking in rhino horn and elephant ivory.
The article which follows addresses these issues and related concerns about natural capital.
A number of market based solutions have been advanced to address dwindling
biological diversity and the loss of healthy eco-systems. Efforts to save the
rhino serve as a model to explore some of these approaches. Rhinos are one of
the largest living land mammals and they symbolize humans’ deleterious impacts
on the natural world.
Rhinos are being hunted to extinction for their horns, which are considered
to be a magical cure-all in some traditional Asian cultures. The trade in rhino
horn is currently illegal, but one approach to address this problem strives to
indulge the demand by farming them. The advantage to this approach is that the
horn can be removed without killing the animal, thereby protecting the animal
Skyrocketing Rhino poaching
As reported by savetherhino.org, at the beginning of the 20th century there
were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia. This fell to 70,000 by 1970 and
further to just 29,000 in the wild today. In Asia, the Sumatran and Javan rhinos
are critically endangered. There are fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the
wild and only 35 – 45 Javan rhinos left.
While deforestation, displacement by human settlements and the fragmentation
of their habitats are threats to the rhinos, by far the greatest threat comes
from poaching. While the numbers of some populations of rhinos have seen some
modest increases, efforts to save these animals are being undermined by growing
numbers of poachers lured by the lucrative demand.
As explained by the New York Times,
“After two decades of gains, the world’s population of rhinoceroses is being
killed off by poachers at such a high rate that conservationists fear the deaths
could soon surpass the number of rhinos that are born each
The International Rhino Foundation says that two rhinos a day are being
poached in South Africa alone, and that number is growing. Susie Ellis, the
executive director of the foundation said economics is driving the destruction
Rhino horn economics
Clearly, prohibitions against the legal sale of rhino horns have not worked.
In fact it has driven up the price on the black market. Rhino horns are now more
valuable than gold. Advocates of rhino farming say that we may be able to
preserve the species by creating a legal industry.
In response to the epidemic of poaching, Bloomberg reports that South Africa is considering legalizing the sale of rhino horn and
authorizing commercial farming. They even suggest that rhino horn should be
traded on the Johannesburg bourse. This approach was supported in a 2013 South
African Department of Environmental Affairs report. Supporters believe that this
is the best way of protecting animals and conserving the natural
“Some viewed the lifting of the ban on trade in rhino horn as the panacea
that would end poaching and save the rhino from otherwise inevitable
extinction,” the South African Department of Environmental Affairs report
stated. “This view was supported by market theorists who argued that in a market
where rhino horn could be traded freely, market forces would automatically drive
horn prices down, obviating the need for syndicates to face risks associated
Some say that there are parallels for this approach in agriculture and the
farming of livestock. We already plant forests of fruit bearing trees. We remove
the fruit without killing the tree. We also breed a wide range of animal species
for human use. From food to clothing, animals are raised for our use. For
example, sheep are sheared so that we can use their wool to make clothes and
cows are raised to provide milk.
Advocates of pricing nature argue that we can use the profit incentive to
protect the natural world. The “commoditization” or “financialisation” of nature
suggests that this is a way to manage our rapacious consumer appetites. In the
book People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations,
Emilio F. Moran says,
“The solution to these environmental problems lies within us is closely tied
to our choices. The solution must begin with the individual and a commitment to
resist the forces of global consumerism in favor of a concern with the planet as
our home — now at risk due to policies that fail to give value to environmental
goods and services.”
This view that we need to put a price on nature is advocated by men like the
Indian banker Pavan Sukhdev. He and his colleagues explored this approach in a
report on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) which
argues we need to assign a value to address the “economic invisibility of
A March, 2014, article titled Putting a Price on Nature, explained how the Global Economic
Symposium, has proposed the concept of a “New Economy of Nature,” which
advocates valuing natural resources.
Other variations of this approach are known as payment for ecosystem
services (PES), or payments for environmental services (or
benefits). One of the most ubiquitous is known as natural capital accounting
(NCA). This approach is supported by the World Bank and as they explained in an
April 18th 2013 press release, a group of more than 60 countries have
committed themselves to NCA.
Some of the countries that support NCA include Australia, Canada, Colombia,
Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain,
Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
The World Bank supports NCA through a global partnership called WAVES (Wealth
Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services). The WAVES partnership
includes the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations
Development Program, and the United Nations Statistical Commission.
Participating countries want NCA to be part of the discussion on Sustainable
Development Goals post-2015.
These marketplace solutions to the unsustainable exploitation of the natural
world have laudable objectives. The idea is to provide monetary incentives in
exchange for managing aspects of the natural world. While the underlying aim of
these approaches is to promote the conservation of natural resources and
diminish environmental degradation, the actual impacts of such programs may not
produce the ends they seek.
The problem of commoditizing nature
As explored in a Yale 360 article, titled Whats Wrong with Putting a Price on Nature, there are a
number of problems associated with PES. According to Kent H. Redford, an
environmental consultant, we should not assume that old-style conservation
methods have failed. He points to successes like state-sponsored protected areas
which now cover 25 percent of the land in Costa Rica, 27 percent in the United
States (at the federal level alone), 30 percent in Tanzania and Guatemala, and
50 percent in Belize.
A study by Redford and William M. Adams, addresses the numerous difficulties associated with assigning a price to nature
including what those values should be, who has the right to assign such values
and who has the right to benefit.
UNEP’s support for commoditizing nature is criticized in a report by Mark
Wilson at the Center for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University,
Switzerland. The report is called The Green Economy: The Dangerous Path of Nature
Commoditization, and it addresses UNEP’s proposal to price ecosystem
services. This report cites five aspects of the green economy which could
undermine the practical implementation as well as the social legitimacy of
- Ecosystem services are inherently difficult to price.
- The consideration of the rebound effect is insufficient.
- The primacy of economics over the environment is ensured.
- Markets offer little protection for the poorest people.
- Existing market mechanisms aimed at safeguarding the environment have not
“The green economy relies upon the discursive power of ecological
modernization and our faith in progress to uphold a failing strategy of
unfettered economic growth,” Wilson says. “This discourse limits our capacity to
conceive solutions outside the economic sphere. Achieving sustainable
development will require a process of social change that could be facilitated by
the acceptance that nature is more than just a form of
Artificial inflated value
The term, rhino horn economics encompasses maladaptive social
constructs that drive insane levels of consumerism. It also deals with the
psychology of assigning value to something that we really do not need. More
specifically it focuses on the destructive ecological cost of unbridled demand.
To bring it back to the rhino analogy, a living rhino has real value while the
value of a harvested horn is entirely artificial (There is absolutely no
evidence to indicate that they have any medicinal value or treat any disease or
condition). While we attribute value to animal or plant byproducts that are
essential for our survival, it becomes highly destructive when we attribute
value to a product or service that does not meet real human needs.
Once a largely western vice, increasing standards of living in the developing
world are now seeing rising rates of consumption. This type of consumption
threatens the survival of a wide range of species and habitats. The growing
demand for rhino horn is a case in point. It is a cancerous outgrowth of the
rapidly proliferating global society of consumers. While a market for rhino horn
has existed for centuries in Asia, that market is now increasing exponentially.
The growing disposable incomes of people in places like China and Vietnam is
driving the growing demand. As a consequence, Rhino horn is now a sought after
Arguably our relationship to many goods and services are analogous to the
demand for rhino horn. We are a global society of rapacious consumers who buy a
great many things that we really need.
Addressing rampant consumerism
Consumerism is driven by a steady barrage of adverstising that creates a
demand for what we do not need. Surely if a solution exists it starts with
serious questions about our actual as opposed to our perceived needs. Rather
than indulging our rampant consumerism we must pear down our consumption. Based
on this model we have unsustainably consumed vast quantities of resources and
the rarer they get the more desirable they become.
Rather than try to find ways of preserving current consumption patterns we
need to question the underlying insane psychology of our unsustainable
consumption patterns. This implies that we must also question the broken social
constructs that feed into consumer behavior.
The path to destruction
As pointed out in the Redford and Adams study, when monetary values are
assigned to nature they are likely to carry less weight when we reduce them to
economics. In effect we are cheapening nature when we frame it as a service
provider fit to be incorporated into the global capital markets.
As the Guardian, columnist and land rights activist George Monbiot wrote,
”When governments and PES proponents talk about employing marketplace
solutions instead of traditional regulatory approaches, what they are really
talking about is shrinking democracy, shrinking public involvement in decision
making, shrinking transparency and accountability. By handing it over to the
market you are in effect handing it over to corporations and the very
As the Yale 360 article points out, “It may be, as some argue, that we have
no better way to save the world. But the danger in the process is that we may
lose our souls.”
Nature cannot be reduced to a commodity. We cannot monitize nature any more
than we can monitize all the things make life worth living. Anything we do that
reduces the natural world to monetary values detracts from its priceless
We need to understand that greed is at the crux of the environmental crises
we face and we are doomed to fail if we premise our solutions on something so
egregiously destructive. Now more than ever we need to rekindle our relationship
to the natural world as the source of all value. Far from being our salvation,
commoditizing nature is sure to divest us of the one thing that can save us from
Source: Global Warming is Real
Video – Pricing Nature is Far Harder than you Think
UNEP’s NCD Roadmap: Implementing the Four Commitments of the Natural Capital Declaration
UNEP’s Natural Capital Declaration (NCD)
A Response to UNEP’s Natural Capital Declaration
The Vital Role of Forests: Carbon, Rain and Food