Ecological Economics and Conservation Biology in Southeast Asia

Glass and steel rise to the heavens in two Southeast Asian cities as a tribute to humanity’s ingenuity.  In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Petronas Towers lord over the chaotic, traffic-choked streets below.  Singapore’s skyline is dominated not by one or two super-tall structures, but by more than 4,300 high rises!  In both cities, buildings sprout like mushrooms, and construction workers scurry from site to site like ants.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; photo by Luke Watson, Creative Commons license

Singapore skyline; photo by Someformofhuman, Creative Commons license

Contrast these scenes in Malaysia and Singapore with the skyscrapers of Ao Nang 800 kilometers to the North in Krabi Province, Thailand. Red-tinged, jungle-topped cliffs tower over the blue-green bays in a picturesque combination of sand, sea, and stone.  Let’s consider an interesting difference between the two.  In the cities, workers in formal wear scale the heights of JP Morgan, ExxonMobil, and other corporate fortresses via elevator.  In Ao Nang at Tonsai and Railay Beaches, vagabond climbers clad in rock shoes and harnesses ascend the limestone cliffs using hands and feet. Scaling the heights in either case takes willful denial.  The rock climber denies the paralyzing fear that comes from being high off the deck, clinging to the wall to avoid falling.  The corporate manager denies the problems that come with the program of perpetual economic growth – the social and environmental side effects of pursuing ever expanding returns and corporate power.

The manager’s denial is easy to understand.  After all, the worldwide growth of cities (upward and outward) and all the companies driving that growth are the stuff of “development,” the economic activity that provides modern comforts, such as air conditioning and automobiles.  But this “development” entails substitution.  We are adding to the banking districts in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur while subtracting from the natural districts of Krabi Province.  More buildings, more airports, more roads, more houses, more rubber, more palm oil, more tourist facilities, and more people – these mean less jungle, less peatland, less habitat, less species diversity, less clean water, less resources for future generations, less intact ecosystems, and less resilience in the life-support systems of the planet.

“Development” economists celebrate the possibility of ending poverty.  It’s an idea worthy of celebration, but in attempting to eradicate one form of poverty by following the standard economic script, we’re creating another form of poverty, as demonstrated by many of the sessions at Conservation Asia, an international conference with the theme “Sustainable Landscapes for People, Business and Biodiversity.”  Presenters, mainly scientists and students, but also economists and business practitioners, described declining populations of animals (e.g., tapirs, banteng, elephants, orangutans), loss of habitat, and many other environmental calamities.  One creature, the tiger, receives a lot of attention in these circles because of the alarming rate of its decline throughout its range and its popularity as a charismatic megafauna. Oddly enough, as real tigers head down the trail to extinction, faux tigers can be spotted everywhere as mascots of the very institutions that contribute to their demise.  Tiger Airways, Tiger Beer, Tiger Balm.  Hell, the economies of this region are referred to as “Asian Tigers.”  If that metaphor holds, the economies will soon be collapsing like the populations of real tigers, and even the faux tigers will be on their way to extinction.

The palm oil industry provides an example of the predicament we find ourselves in today.  Environmentalists have intensely vilified palm oil because of the substitution process described above.  Business people have substituted acres and acres of rain forest and peatlands (along with the ecosystem services they provide) for palm plantations.  These plantations exhibit the biological impoverishment of any monocrop – they are designed to maximize the productivity of one tree to satisfy the robust demand for palm oil coming from food companies around the world.  Other products, such as rubber and timber, also threaten natural habitats, but the palm oil industry has received the most attention because of its explosive growth over the past few decades.

While the environmentalists vilify it, business people and economists commend it.  The industry employs a lot of people and provides a lot of income.  Palm oil is a major character in the story of the expanding middle class in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.  Most business people are not out to destroy the planet; they’re usually focused on running a successful enterprise and often unaware of the scope of environmental damage that they and others are causing.  The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is trying to bridge the gap between the enviros and the tycoons, and the organization is making progress, but big questions – bigger than the palm oil industry – remain.

As economic growth threatens climate stability, biodiversity, planetary geochemical flows, and ecosystem health, humanity is creating a bottleneck for itself.  We are opting for short-term comforts by undermining systems that we need to survive and thrive over the long term.  The longer this undermining process runs, the tougher we make it on ourselves to regenerate and re-stabilize the systems that support civilization.  The question is: can humanity squeeze through the bottleneck we’ve created, and what might the world and our economies look like on the other side? 

Rock formations near Railay Beach, Krabi Province, Thailand; photo by Rob Dietz

To get through the bottleneck requires a change in what we’re doing.  We need a new economics – an economics of enough.  Why always chase more, especially when more in the economy impoverishes nature?  Ideas and policies are available to stabilize population, but we won’t get the changes we need unless we can answer another question.

Will we look on nature’s skyscrapers with a renewed sense of awe and purpose?  Or will we sit atop our manmade towers enamored with our position in the clouds, continuing to pull foundational blocks out from under ourselves until we ride the wave of collapse to the ground?