Bonobos and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

I’m still researching for the next Baboon Studies blog post and came across Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, not because she studies baboons, but because she’s delved into  primate communication, which I’ll discuss when talking about anthropomorphism (Cheney and Seyfarth focus on theory of mind and language in Baboon Metaphysics).  This TED talk is a good introduction to Savage-Rumbaugh’s work:

It’s world orangutan day!

Thanks for the reminder, Biodiversity Revolution!

Biodiversity Revolution

Just a quick reminder that today is world orangutan day. These gentle apes share 97% of their DNA with us, and are intelligent, patient, and affectionate.

This is an opportune time to reflect on how much palm oil is in products you buy such as food as cosmetics, and whether your timber products are illegally logged: both of these problems are causes of the deforestation that is depriving orangutans of their habitat and threatening them with extinction.

[Featured image: Orangutan – Image credit- davidandbecky:Flickr Creative Commons license.]

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An Interlude before Baboon Studies Part II – Brundtland

Part II of Baboon studies is in the making, but in the meantime I thought I would include here a section from my biodiversity research which focused on sustainable development per Brundtland.  It has bearing on the conservation of primates today:

Brundtland and its Limitations

A seminal document defining what sustainable development would look like in the 21st century was offered to the international community through the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in the 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future).  Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway in 1987, was the chairperson and primary creator of the WCED and Our Common Future (which is referred to as the Brundtland Report due to her contributions).  Brundtland began a medical career in Norway, specializing in public health.  As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), “Dr. Brundtland’s vision of health extend[ed] beyond the confines of the medical world into environmental issues and human development”[1]; this is the perspective from which she wrote the Brundtland Report, with keen interest in exposing a “link between health and the environment.”[2]  Brundtland had been criticized for failing to consider root causes of environmental and social problems (thus promoting an a-historical account).[3]  The Brundtland Report popularized a particular conceptualization of sustainability, even though previous international agreements (dating back to the IUCN) had used the term, and it led to formulation of the UNCED’s Convention on Biological Diversity.[4]

According to Adams, the sustainable development of the Brundtland Report, expressed as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[5], departed from previous understandings in one fundamental way.  Adams elucidates this difference by contrasting Brundtland with the World Conservation Strategy (WCS).  Unlike its predecessor, Adams concludes that Brundtland did not base strategies on conserving ecosystem health (in other words, starting with conservation of “nature” while at the same time presenting the economic benefits to this conservation), but instead, “the sustainable development of Our Common Future is defined by the achievement of certain social and economic objectives”[6]; Sachs also identifies a shift in the concept of sustainability, but he sees it occurring in the World Conservation Strategy (WCS), which first comprehensively established the sustainability-development link and began the movement from “conservation of nature to conservation of growth.”[7]

To understand the sustainability of the CBD, it is important to look at two central concerns contained within the text of the Brundtland Report which ultimately serve to confine the ecology of the CBD’s EA.  The social agenda it espouses can be best grasped through consideration of the poverty-progress issue and this in turn is linked to the Report’s ecological position and an agenda that describes certain environmental limits while perceiving biodiversity as natural capital.

The Poverty Issue and Biodiversity

Social concerns appear at the forefront of policy recommendations in the Brundtland Report, so that “equity” in a postcolonial world is addressed in the language of “redistribution” (but, at the national level, among countries, as will be explained shortly) and “costs and benefits”.  In this regard, the elimination of poverty becomes paramount since “a world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises.”[8]   The Report continues by explaining the link between poverty and environmental degradation:  “poverty reduces people’s capacity to use resources in a sustainable manner.”[9]   Sustainable development itself involves “the satisfaction of human needs and aspirations”, which in turn are associated with “achieving full [economic] growth potential.”[10]   Brundtland reflects the desire to “conserve growth” as it proposes that the solution to the poverty crisis would require “a relatively rapid rise in per capita incomes in the Third World.”[11]   The programme must also address population growth, which is considered problematic in many Southern countries.

How is the poverty issue, as conceived in Brundtland, problematic for diversity?  Throughout Our Common Future, the South receives most attention in relation to Brundtland sustainable development, despite references to the detrimental effects of over-consumption in the North.  Shiva has noted such a distinction being made, one that ultimately points an accusatory finger at “developing” countries:  “If the Third World poor, who derive their livelihoods directly from nature, only ‘consume’, and the trading and commercial interests [of the North] are the only ‘producers’, it follows quite naturally that the Third World is responsible for the destruction of its ‘biological wealth’, and the North alone has the capacity to conserve it”[12]  E.O. Wilson has supported this association between poverty and destruction of environments in discussion of biodiversity loss.  In fact, the supposition that poverty inevitably produces a negative relationship between the poor and their “natural” environment can be disproven[13]; specific contexts must be examined in order to establish the actual relationship and challenge such blanket statements.

And the association between economic growth and environmental sustainability is also highly contentious.  The Brundtland Report assumes that “lack of capital leads to environmental crisis”[14], and this position shifts scrutiny away from the actions of capital-rich Northern countries.  The conception of development and progress as linear and based on economic growth permeates Our Common Future and creates a limiting situation in which “commitment to environmental protection is dependent upon such protection being functional for development.”[15]  The process of globalization ignores historical difference, homogenizing so that even internal inequities occurring within both Northern and Southern countries alike do not gain expression; although the Brundtland Report mentions redistribution to alleviate poverty, national per capita income is studied for increases, and this fails to reflect who is benefiting from any rises within the country (the rich are often just getting richer).  Larkin provides an example which points out the erroneousness of this economic growth-poverty reduction correlation, considering environmental degradation as well:  “despite the tremendous growth of the American economy in the post-war period, despite the tremendous damage perpetrated upon the physical environment as well as on the social environment, the poorer people have not improved their relative share of this increased output.”[16]  The habit of “blaming” the biodiversity “crisis” on the poor evident in the Brundtland Report simplifies problems and casts the wealthier North in the role of “wise” parent; this viewpoint cannot actually lead to much change when it comes to problems concerning biodiversity (human- nonhuman relations).

Environmental Limits and Biodiversity as Natural Capital: Problems

Brundtland’s social agenda seems to embraces continued economic growth and it justifies this stance by appeal to environmental limits; the focus on environmental degradation occurring in the South is an attempt to prove the rightness of this perspective.  Social conditions, such as poverty, can limit “the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”[17]    The environment is viewed in systemic terms, in terms of the biosphere and its life-support functions and its function as a provider of resources for human beings:  “most renewable resources [forests and fish stocks] are part of a complex and interlinked ecosystem, and maximum sustainable yield must be defined after taking into account system-wide effects of exploitation.”[18]   Development is sustainable if resulting infringements upon an ecosystem do not compromise its functional integrity in ways that would lead to the decline of the system’s services.   Limits here, as in the EA, do not derive from notions of what is right for the system in itself, but instead from social “needs” imposed on that system.   Keekok Lee notes that, “ecological limits may exist, but within these, science and technology are expected to help reduce waste, and to find substitutes for scarcities to ensure continued economic growth for present as well as future generations of people”.[19]

The Brundtland Report endorses a holism that is mirrored in the CBD’s Ecosystem Approach, which deems economic and ecological concerns compatible and thus explains biodiversity within the system as natural capital.  The acknowledgment is made that ecosystems are often simplified by development, so that species diversity is diminished.  But why does this decline in diversity matter?  Brundtland answers by converting living and non-living things to part of the world’s natural capital   “Nature” is broken down into renewable and non-renewable resources available for exploitation and “species, once extinct, are not renewable.”[20]  Fauna and flora are labeled “stocks” that can be sustainably exploited through understandings of species-specific maximum sustainable yields (MSY’s).  These stocks carry within them genetic material to be plumbed and the Brundtland Report stresses the importance of maintaining species for this purpose, a standpoint later developed in the CBD.

Our Common Future set the stage for the CBD and led to its inception, holding the belief that, “to date, economic values inherent in genetic variability and ecological processes have been generally disregarded”[21] (the idea that economic value can be inherent in genetic variability, etc., is certainly arguable), and required elaboration; the Convention on Biological Diversity begins to address this proposed “need”.  Biodiversity thus becomes synonymous with natural capital.


[1] World Health Organization online, Brundtland Biography

[2] Ibid

[3] Lohmann, 1995, p. 223

[4] see Middleton and O’Keefe, 2001, p. 38

[5] Brundtland, 1987, p. 43

[6]Adams, 1990, p. 59

[7] Sachs, 1999, p. 79

[8] Brundtland, 1987, pp. 43-44

[9] Ibid, p. 49

[10] Ibid, pp. 43-44

[11] Ibid, p. 50

[12] Shiva, 1993, p. 86

[13] see Dobson, 2000, and Lele, 1995

[14] Lohmann, 1995, p. 224

[15] Dobson, 2000, p. 54

[16] Larkin, 1981, p. 212

[17] Brundtland, 1987, p. 43

[18] Ibid, p. 45

[19] Lee, 2000, p. 38

[20] Brundtland, 1987, p. 46

[21] Ibid, p. 163