Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why conservation is failing Part 9a. Donor driven priorities, meaningless numbers, and sustaining the mothership

Why conservation is failing Part 9a.  Donor driven priorities, meaningless numbers, and sustaining the mothership.

The Ocean Health Index is a fairly new initiative by Conservation International- they've been working on it for over four years.  Four years to come up with some numbers based on existing science about the state of the oceans.  This is not generating new information; it distills and repackages what we already know.  The idea is to make a few simple numbers to represent complex issues. 

The power of meaningless numbers forever immortalized in the documentary "This is Spinal Tap" where the amps went up to 11, while other bands' amps only go to 10.

Do we need an index?   People follow indices like the DOW or NYSE because they guide how to manipulate investments.  This new index is the brainchild of businessmen, and we all know conservation needs to be run more like businesses.  Businessmen closely follow the stock indices and invest accordingly.  They know when to buy or sell.  An index for health of the ocean might make sense to them.   Perhaps it can guide when to pollute and not pollute.

But.... if you don't have money in the market, those indices are uninteresting.  Ask anyone worldwide without spare money to invest in markets how they react when the DOW goes up or down.  Most of the world gives not a twit about an index based on the investments of the wealthy elite.  Is a drop in the Ocean Health Index really going to trigger action?  This new index is just as meaningless to most people.  It is a publicity stunt. 

The Ocean Health Index website is proud that the concept was originated and funded by business magnate William Wrigley (of gum fame) with a personal worth of $2.6 billion.  He and his wife Heather are avid scuba divers.  It is great that they want to invest in conservation of the oceans that provide them with so much enjoyment in their leisure time.  But is a business-like index on ocean health the best a guy with a couple billion plus change can do? 

When billionaire Wrigley suggested an ocean health index to someone at CI did someone take the risk of saying "Interesting idea Bill, but what would really make a difference is...."   Or, did they prostrate themselves and say "Brilliant idea Bill!"   For decades Big Conservation has played lip service to setting priorities based on best science.  But in reality priorities are usually determined by donors.  I've read hundreds of peer-reviewed papers identifying conservation priorities based on science.  I don't think I've ever seen one saying what we really need is a simple index of ocean health.

A change in some generalized index will stimulate no more conservation action than actual published statistics about plastics in the ocean, or coral bleaching, or overfishing, or pollution from fish farms, or ocean acidification, or fertilizer nutrient runoff....   We already know about these problems. Action will be motivated by the realities of coral bleaching, fisheries that fail, species extinctions, sea level rise, etc., not an index.  Does a hypothetical index PR stunt leverage more action than actual data?  Is an index value of "63" as meaningful as the actual measured changes in ocean acidification? 

The Ocean Health Index website lists two people on Conservation International's staff among the 73 science contributors.  So the project primarily draws on external science for support-- scientists primarily supported from other sources.  CI does not have to be bothered with supporting pesky scientists. 

But Communications and Outreach-- talking about conservation-- is Conservation International's forte.  The index website lists 20 people at CI involved in communications and outreach just for the Ocean Health Index.  The site lists an additional 31 people at other organizations involved in communication and outreach.  So the Ocean Health Index has 51 people involved in communication and outreach and 73 science contributors.  CI's funding supports 20 people who talk about conservation, and maybe two actual scientists. Conservation International does not have to generate new science, no specific action is required, no one at CI has to stand up to an industry or polluters.  But the creation of the number and publicizing it attracts those donor's dollars.  And whoa, guess what, it needs to be re-calculated every year-- convince enough donors this index is important and you have a steady income.  Unlike real conservation action, generating a number is something you can promise to accomplish every year-- so much easier and certain than actual needs, like reducing pollution.

The funding might not do much for conservation, but it is sure good for Conservation International. 

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