Local village fisherman work to catch barely enough fish to make a living selling to the local market in the village of Katumbi on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.

Beyond Rhetoric: Poverty, Inequality and Conservation

by Bill Murdoch

Photo: Ami Vitale | More Info

In my book The Poverty of Nations — published more than 30 years ago — I argued that the “population problem” was not the problem, but rather a symptom. The problem, rather, was poverty.

Poverty in the developing countries caused high fertility and hence rapid population growth; it caused widespread malnutrition; and it caused much environmental degradation. Poverty, in turn, was a result of economic inequality, maintained by the unequal distribution of economic, institutional and political power. Increase equality in the developing countries, and you would not only propel development, but would also reduce population growth and ameliorate much environmental degradation (i).

Some development economists at the time shared my view, but it was hardly mainstream economics. Nor did most ecologists or environmentalists share these opinions about the causes of “the population problem” or environmental degradation in poor countries.

The last decade or so has seen a great change in thinking on the fundamental importance of economic equality for both development and environmental sustainability. A number of mainstream economists, including at least two Nobelists, now commonly enumerate the social and economic perils of inequality and champion the need for greater equality. The World Bank, in particular, has gone well beyond offering “market distortions” as an explanation of underdevelopment and the Washington Consensus as its solution. Instead, the Bank now strongly emphasizes the importance of “pro-poor” policies (ii).

Many conservationists and the big conservation NGOs are also stressing human well-being, and some prominent conservationists and environmentalists have gone further — explicitly echoing the economists’ call for increased equality and pro-poor policies as goals to be pursued in the process of saving the planet. Paul Ehrlich and co-authors, for example, focus on increased equity as one of three critical areas needed to avoid environmental catastrophe; Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier stress that conservation must take into account fairness, equity and alleviation of poverty (iii). “Equity” here has a broad meaning, which I take to include economic equality.

“Increased equity and pro-poor actions are not only moral issues to be kept in mind by conservationists. They are, rather, central to the larger goal of protecting the planet.” –Bill Murdoch

Accompanying this shift in rhetoric, three other approaches have been added to the conservationists’ armature in the last 10 years or so. They are:

  1. Ecosystem services (ES), which aims to internalize currently external costs and environmental benefits;
  2. Maximizing conservation/environmental return on investment (ROI) — i.e. increasing (usually economic) efficiency and using other analytical decision-making approaches; and
  3. Working with corporations to obtain more resources for conservation, to include an awareness of the cost of natural capital in their business planning, and to alleviate some of the environmental costs of corporate operations.

These three approaches can generate more dollars for environmental protection and get more protection per dollar spent than can traditional approaches. In general, they do much for conservation.

But how does implementing these conservation approaches mesh with the conservationists’ new goal of increased equity? I do not claim to know the answer(s), but offer some thoughts on the question. The answers may depend on how wide a context we consider.

Swema Kabliya walks to get water in the village of Nkonkwa, on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.
Photo: Ami Vitale
Swema Kabliya walks to get water in the village of Nkonkwa, on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.

Ecosystem Services. ES is the most interesting approach with regard to considerations of equity. ES as a concept is now mainstream. It is widely discussed in the conservation community and is being applied around the globe. However, it is not clear a priori what its distributional effects should be. They may be project-specific. The intended effects of any one ES project might also be negated by wider factors that are often not taken into account when the project is set up.

Consider, for example, an Andean water project in which payments are made by downstream users (beneficiaries) to upstream farmers or landowners who take steps to conserve the watershed and thus generate the benefit. To the extent that the users are richer than the farmers (a likely scenario), the transfer of payments the project entails will likely reduce this economic inequality.

But farmers usually forego current benefits, such as full exploitation of their land, and whether the ES arrangement promotes equity may depend ultimately on how well they can calculate the particular trade-off it demands, and whether its contracts limit unforeseen economic opportunities in the future. The local effects on economic equity will depend, at a minimum, on how landowners benefit relative to the landless, and on how benefits are distributed among landowners who own different amounts of land. Institutional, political factors and power relations will also matter and are arguably often ignored in ES projects (iv).

There seem to be few relevant studies that investigate the distributional effects of ES projects (v). Ehrlich and co-authors, cited above, point to very large-scale programs in China that are aimed at environmental protection plus broad public benefit and alleviation of poverty. But they note that there is as yet little information on the last two goals.

ROI. ROI approaches aim to maximize efficient use of limited conservation resources. Since it is difficult to maximize two goals simultaneously, there is likely to be a trade-off between equity and economic efficiency.

Such trade-offs can be analyzed using “efficiency frontiers” — which trace out the set of optimal solutions to all feasible joint implementations of the two goals. It is not unusual to find that large gains can be made in one goal (in this case equity) with relatively minor losses in the second goal (here, efficiency). Halpern and colleagues have recently taken this approach to an equity:efficiency trade off in conservation, with promising results (vi), and it would likely be useful to extend it more broadly in conservation decision-making.

Corporations. Kareiva and Marvier make an eloquent case for conservationists collaborating with corporations. Resource-exploiting corporations in particular can have severe and sometimes widespread effects on the environment. Steering these corporations in a better environmental direction can have huge payoff.

But corporations collaborate with conservationists presumably because, ultimately, they benefit from doing so. Collaboration might mean that the corporation can exploit a resource with less regulatory hassle, for instance, or gains a public-relations benefit from associating with an environmental charity.

And, of course, corporations (including financial ones) have long influenced the degree of economic inequality among and within nations, and have often reinforced and even exacerbated such inequality (i, ii). Withholding conservationist support for corporate activities on these grounds would not likely make much difference to the corporation. The flow of benefits to local, even regional, conservation, by contrast, can be great. It may nevertheless be worth bearing the broader context in mind, and conservationists might make explicit that they consider this context when deciding whether collaboration is appropriate.

A child walks along the shore at the village of Buhingu, on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. High fertility rates are putting pressure on the area's fish resources.
Photo: Ami Vitale
A child walks along the shore at the village of Buhingu, on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. High fertility rates are putting pressure on the area’s fish resources.

My purpose here has been to suggest that, in spite of conservation’s widespread embrace of increased equity and poverty alleviation as goals, it may often be difficult to combine these considerations with more traditional conservation goals. Furthermore, measuring the distributional outcomes of such actions will take considerable effort, which conservation in the main is not presently expending.

But my purpose is emphatically not to suggest we should therefore give up the goals of increased equity and pro-poor conservation, for in the largest possible context there is great conservation and environmental benefit to be derived from achieving them.

Increased economic equality — and especially pro-poor development — would yield enormous environmental benefit by greatly reducing the rate of human population growth. Much has been made of the ubiquitous and strong correlations between female educational attainment and reduced fertility: Luz and Samir calculated that major gains in female education could reduce projected world population in 2050 by up to1 billion (vii).

But education does not occur in a vacuum. Education levels increase concurrently with increased economic well-being, especially in the poorest in society: poor parents in poor countries have great difficulty paying for their children’s education and must also forego the child’s work and earnings. As a result, female (and male) education increases when family economic status improves and when pro-poor policies (free schooling, schooling close to where the poor live, etc.) are followed (viii).

“We need to give more thought to the distributional effects of conservation.” —Bill Murdoch

More broadly, national demographic transitions have almost universally followed increased economic well-being and the alleviation of poverty. That’s why increased economic equality and pro-poor policies will work together with their concomitants — increased education, reduced infant death rates, and so on — to reduce the future increase in population and hence to help protect the environment on a global scale.

Increased equity and pro-poor actions are thus not only moral issues to be kept in mind by conservationists. They are, rather, central to the larger goal of protecting the planet. If this is the case, we need to give more thought to the distributional effects of conservation.

What can SNAP do in this area? Two approaches seem obvious, if not obviously easy. The first is meta-analysis of the economic distributional effects of existing conservation and other environmental-protection projects, with a view to getting guidance for future projects. Examples might be REDD and water projects, which provide a range of designs to be evaluated. Unfortunately, there are probably few or no data on economic distributional consequences here.

The second — and more feasible — investigation is a broad enquiry into trade-offs and possibly optimal designs for future project types. Since these analyses will be assumption-heavy, there is a need to learn by incorporating experimental design in actual projects to inform active adaptive management. Here the difficulty will be to convince actors in the field to adopt experimental designs (to which in my experience they are generally allergic) and to collect relevant data — again, a potentially rash-inducing suggestion.



i. Murdoch, W.W., 1980. The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population. John Hopkins University Press.

ii. See for example Acemoglu, D. and J.A. Robinson, 2012. Why Nations Fail. Crown Publishers; Stiglitz, J.E. 2013. The Price of Inequality, W.W. Norton and Co., 2007, Making Globalization Work, W.W. Norton Co., How intellectual property reinforces inequality in New York Times July 14, 2013, and other NYT articles; and Krugman, P. in numerous NYT articles.

iii. Ehrlich, P.R., P.M. Kareiva and G.C. Daily. 2012. Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization. Nature 486:68-73; and Kareiva, P.M. and M. Marvier. 2012. What is conservation science? Bioscience 62:962-969.

iv. See for example Norgaard, R.B. 2010. Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder. Ecological Economics 69:1219-1227; and Pascual, U. et al. 2010. Exploring the links between equity and efficiency in payments for environmental services. Ecological Economics 69: 1237-1244.

v. For an example see Somerville, M. et al. 2010. The role of fairness and benefit distribution in community-based payment for environmental services interventions. Ecological Economics 69: 1262-1271.

vi. An early application to conservation is by Polasky, S. et al. 2005. Conserving species in a working landscape. Ecological Applications 15:1387-1401; Halpern, B.S. et al. 2013. Achieving the triple bottom line in the face of trade-offs among social equity, economic return, and conservation. PNAS. Online at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/03/27/1217689110.full.pdf+html.

vii. Luz, W. and K.C. Samir. 2011. Global Human Capital: Integrating education and population. Science 333:587-592.

viii. See for example Filmer, D. and L. Pritchett. 1999. The Effect of Household Wealth on Educational Attainment. Population and Development Review 25:85-120; and Lincove, J.A. 2009. Determinants of schooling for boys and girls in Nigeria under a policy of free education. Economics of Education 28:474-484.

September 24, 2013. The views expressed above are the author’s and should not be taken as those of SNAP or its member organizations.

Bill Murdoch

Bill Murdoch is the Charles A. Storke II Professor of Ecology, Emeritus, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He established the National Center for Ecological… Read More