Nonhuman animals become commodities in numerous contexts – as food, as objects of entertainment, as items of clothing, as service animals, the list goes on and on.  Even some conservation agendas can promote such instrumental use of animals.  Unfortunately, the Convention on Biological Diversity ((CBD) and its precursors do just that.  This exploration of the commodity status of animals begins with the idea of natural capital in conservation.

The CBD and “Natural Capital”

A seminal document defining what sustainable development would look like at the end of the 20th 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 has 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]

Brundtland’s social agenda embraced continued economic growth and it justified this stance by appeal to environmental limits; the focus on environmental degradation occurring in the South was an attempt to prove the rightness of this perspective.  Social conditions, such as poverty,  limited “the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”[5]    The environment was 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.”[6]   Development was sustainable if resulting infringements upon an ecosystem did not compromise its functional integrity in ways that would lead to the decline of the system’s services.   Limits here did not derive from notions of what was 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”.[7]

The Brundtland Report endorsed a holism like that seen 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 was made that ecosystems were often simplified by development, so that species diversity was diminished.  But why does this decline in diversity matter?  Brundtland answered by converting living and non-living things to part of the world’s natural capital   “Nature” was broken down into renewable and non-renewable resources available for exploitation and “species, once extinct, were not renewable.”[8]  Fauna and flora were labeled “stocks” that could be sustainably exploited through understandings of species-specific maximum sustainable yields (MSY’s).  These stocks carried within them genetic material to be plumbed and the Brundtland Report stressed 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”[9] (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, and so all organisms become commodities.

[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] Ibid, p. 45

[7] Lee, 2000, p. 38

[8] Brundtland, 1987, p. 46

[9] Ibid, p. 163


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