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God bless mountains, rivers and bees!

10 May 2010

Bees are increasingly threatened by human behaviour

The people in Safaa Fathy’s film Dardasha Socotra about an island off the coast of Yemen love talking (“Dardasha” means sweet conversation). They debate knowledge versus intuition, the interpretation of dreams, the meaning of death, and respect  for life. One of the fishermen in the film talks about how God has blessed Socotra with mountains, rivers, and bees.

You might find such a statement quaint, but the teams of scientists who produced the third edition of the UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook would agree with the fisherman’s reasoning.

Economics teachers the world over would applaud too. Bees are a favourite example of an “externality” – something that has a value not captured in the market price of goods. In this case, bees pollinate flowers and allow crops to flourish without getting paid, although this example is under threat from industrialised swarms hired out to orchards and other clients.

Today, the bees themselves and the ecosystems they support are threatened by environmental degradation due to human actions. And unfortunately massive loss of biodiversity is becoming increasingly likely according to the Outlook, and with it, a severe reduction of many essential services to human societies as well.

The report warns that important ecosystems including the Amazon forest, coral reefs and many inland waters are shifting to alternative, less productive states from which it may be difficult or impossible to recover.

This despite the target set by world governments in 2002 “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level”. In fact, none of the 21 subsidiary targets accompanying the overall 2010 biodiversity target has been achieved globally, although some have been achieved partially or locally. Ten of 15 headline indicators developed by the Convention on Biological Diversity show unfavourable trends.

There is some hope though. Forward-looking scenarios developed for the report suggest that there are greater opportunities than identified in earlier assessments to address the biodiversity crisis while contributing to other social objectives, for example, by reducing the scale of climate change without large-scale deployment of biofuels and accompanying loss of natural habitats.

Useful links

OECD work on biodiversity

OECD Insights: Sustainable Development

See this student guide to Superfreakonomics for an example of bees as an externality.

Pr May R. Berenbaum warns the US Congress of the dire consequences for agriculture, food security and quality of life of colony collapse disorder and pollinator decline

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Harvey Jackson permalink
    May 11, 2010

    I realize that we may currently live in a period of greater than usual extinctions. Its not the first one, and it won’t be the last. We might somewhat narcissistically assume we caused this, and yet whether or not we did we’ve certainly become a part of it. In the case of bees, I think its easy for us to make the connections to our own agricultural needs etc. In these kind of cases people don’t need much collective convincing to figure out those kinds of externalities within their economic and otherwise immediate interests, they just need to pull their heads out for a while to understand it in the first place.

    However extinction is also the constant engine of life globally with or without humans or current trends, so sometimes I wonder if these otherwise generalized concerns for bio-diversity aren’t really just an aesthetic delusion? We would like to imagine that this great diversity we see around us will endure because it gives us some sense of security in the possibilities for our own endurance as a species. Yet everything we scientifically know about that fantasy is simply untrue, and misses many issues more central to keeping ourselves out of the extinction pile for a while anyway. In any case, I’m all for keeping some biodiverse playgrounds and reservations for future generations of humans, but perhaps it would seem more practical to classify at least part of this bio-diversity issue as one of education and entertainment.

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