Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why do some conservationists eat swordfish, and why the world needs small changes

whale, do what is right not what is easy, conservation, little changes
I found this pasted on the back of a veterinary hospital door.
“I know excellent biologists who spend much of their professional lives condemning unsustainable fisheries or reporting high levels of toxic contaminants in marine megafauna, yet when eating at a restaurant they order swordfish or tuna from overfished and declining stocks.” – GiovanniBearzi.

If you want to experience a bit of a brain shake-up, there’s a two page editorial by Italian conservationist Giovanni Bearzi that will do the trick. The essay, though aimed at conservationists, is relevant to just about everyone. We all do it – we support causes like cleaning up the ocean or improving the welfare of animals, we’re happy to debate and petition, but we consistently overlook the impact of our private behaviour. As Bearzi writes,

“We think of ourselves as professionals who are aware of environmental problems and work hard to solve them, but we pay little heed to what we do, buy, and consume.”
I’ve attended animal welfare conferences dedicated to discussion of how the raising and slaughter of animals for food can be humane. To date, not one of those conferences has aligned its menu with its concerns. Caterers are given free reign to source animal products, with costs the key consideration, when it would be more appropriate to adjust the menu, either sourcing humane animal products or plant-based alternatives.

And at home, convenience, time and finances dictate when and where we shop, and what we buy, much more than considerations of major problems like environmental degradation, unsustainable fishing and poor animal welfare practices.

Why don’t we make the effort? Couldn't wanting to be good be good enough? Isn't it better than nothing that conservationists spend their working week doing something good? That vets spend our working weeks doing good things for animals? Maybe. But if everyone thinks that way, what will change?

According to Bearzi, there are a couple of factors (and I’m paraphrasing here) that most of us don't align our living with our values.

  • We want our Governments to take care of the hard stuff, like the environment and ethics. We’re busy getting on with our lives! Problem with this approach: Governments won’t unless they have evidence that this is what people want.
  • Working out what products we should buy and which we should avoid is time consuming, hard and inconvenient. Problem with this approach: companies that sell products which have a negative impact continue to make money and continue to do what they’re doing. Consumer laziness/apathy/procrastination etc. are their win.
  • Lack of role modelling. We tend to model our behaviour on those around us. Problem with this approach: what we say (save the environment) and what we do (drive a fuel-guzzling car to work when we can walk 20 minutes) is often different and sends a message to all around us. It’s basically saying, “don’t worry, that stuff isn’t as important as my convenience”. As Bearzi writes, “If my beloved science professor comes to campus riding a bike, I might admire his example and possibly even reconsider buying that sporty coupe.”
  • We love our comforts. We’re happy to blame others and call for them to be more virtuous, but we don’t alter our own behaviour. Bearzi writes, “it is striking to see how many people committed to conservation have not abandoned a single consumptive pattern, despite the eco-drama before our eyes.” Problem with this approach: no one changes, they just keep telling everyone else to change first. Everyone else thinks, “hey, would should I change? You’re still doing x,y and z – you can’t point a finger at me.”
  • Criticising consumption is taboo. If you want to see defensive behaviour, try benignly questioning someone’s eating habits. Actually, don’t. The reactions are generally emotive, angry and unpleasant. The other night someone found out I had transitioned to a vegan diet (from a comment someone made), then started on a ten minute, increasingly emotive monologue on how they cared and didn’t eat fish but they didn’t want to stop eating beef and mostly this was okay and how dare I threaten the beef industry (I hadn’t said a word about any animal industry), before storming out. For all she knew, I might be vegan because of dietary intolerances. Consumption is taboo because its private, it’s about our comfort, our habits, we see it as a RIGHT. Problem with this approach: actually, it’s all of our consumptive patterns that add up to a huge problem and we need to have the guts to question them. Our habits and our private behaviour indirectly impact others. Take food security. We’re worrying about it because no single person’s appetite is an issue, but on a big scale, if we don’t change patterns of consumption, this will be the biggest crisis we face in the next few years (that and the fact that the impact of Western diets will kill our health system).
  • It’s too hard. Even the laptop I’m typing on has likely been produced at high environmental and human (cheap labour) cost. Problem with this approach: it can lead to apathy, and failure to do anything at all. But knowledge is power. Knowledge about how laptops are made should impact my future choices. Knowledge about conservation, sustainability and animal welfare should inform our choices as much as possible.

Bearzi and others argue for a need for more accountability in conservation science – for some requirement to practice what one preaches. He also acknowledges that no one can be perfect.

Ultimately, Bearzi’s is a message of hope. Waiting for Governments, or big organisations, or someone else, to solve big problems is a flawed approach. We need to focus on how, as individuals, we can effect change, because that is the only way we can make a difference.