The labour movement has neglected conservation — we need a biodiversity job guarantee

Such a scheme could help remedy both ecological collapse and the problem of meaningless work, while also reconnecting humanity and non-human nature.
Andrew Ahern

In 2017, a study brought the biodiversity crisis to worldwide attention.

Upon release, it had been ongoing for 27 years, trying to capture the abundance of insect populations in German nature reserves, or what are known as “protected areas”. In theory, such protected areas are supposed to be where insect populations and other species thrive.

But what the scientists found completely alarmed them. The scientists discovered that three-quarters of flying insects had been completely “decimated” over the 27-year time period. To put that insect abundance decline in perspective, current insect extinction is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the “natural” or background rate.

This 75% decline in insect population, the authors noted, greatly exceeds previous estimates with regard to vertebrate species decline and also that such insect decline is not subject to strictly those insects deemed vulnerable (like butterflies and bees) but the insect community as a whole.

This unprecedented drop in insect abundance was described by the scientists as an “ecological Armageddon”. While scientists were not definitive in what the cause of such declines were, they pointed to the heavy use of industrial pesticides and the destruction of wildlife areas more generally as the most likely causes.

Three-quarters of flying insects had been 'decimated' between 1990 and 2017, a study found. Image: Unsplash.

One of the more remarkable things about the study, besides the understanding of insect population decline and widespread media coverage, was the fact that this research heavily relied on volunteers to conduct much of the research. Often called “citizen scientists”, this particular research involved dozens of amateur entomologists who managed to gather the data and install the “malaise tents” that was the main instrument in conducting such research.

While no doubt the decline of insect populations is an increasingly worrying trend, the silver lining in this particular case is that everyday people are able to contribute to this century’s most pressing ecological problems when given the time, training and collective scientific support.

What is missing from this calculation, however, is the fact that many working class people do not have the time to volunteer in such activities such as insect monitoring. Juggling working a full-time job (or multiple jobs), caring for family and performing life’s everyday necessities take up the majority of people's time and energy, and therefore does not allow them to pursue such vitally important and necessary efforts.

Many working class people do not have the time to volunteer in conservation. Image: Unsplash.

Couple that with the fact that such research often involves training and education, and the prospect for expecting an “army” of volunteers to conduct research into the decline of insect populations or anything related is very slim.

This is a real problem for multiple reasons. For one, we still are still relatively ignorant of the natural world. Despite understanding that we are in a mass species extinction crisis, we still do not know how many species there are on earth, with estimates varying from 5.3 million to one trillion. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most practical ones is that we have not dedicated enough time, resources and employment towards monitoring and discovering species.

With that, it is worth remembering that the study of ecology and biodiversity is not that old of an institutionalised form of science. To make matters worse, we are losing species at a faster rate than we are finding them. This only underscores the need for both more protection of biodiversity and a dedicated effort to try and discover them (or at the very least to gain a better understanding of how much and how quickly we are losing species).

We are losing species far faster than we are finding them. Image: Unsplash.

Beyond the working class lacking time, training and education to volunteer for such conservation and research efforts, working class people also suffer from a lack of good paid, dignified and meaningful work. Building off of anthropologist David Graeber’s theory of “bullshit jobs”, recent research found that 19% of workers believe that they work in some kind of bullshit job – meaning one that is essentially useless and that they do not feel contributes to the betterment of society or the people they are intended to serve. Working class (and even “professional class”) life is structured around this type of precarious, unfulfilling and meaningless work.

Taking this confluence of problems and potential, one solution I would like to offer is a biodiversity job guarantee. Such a guarantee could help remedy both the problem of meaningless working class jobs and ecological collapse, while also reconnecting humanity and non-human nature. Call it the “species guarantee” – one in which human work is meaningful, nature is protected and promoted, and humans fundamentally change their relationship with other nonhumans and the places they inhabit.

A biodiversity job guarantee would reconnect humanity and non-human nature. Image: Unsplash.

Up until this point, the emphasis on biodiversity and its connection to meaningful employment has largely been neglected by environmentalists and the labour movement, especially those flying under the banner of a Green New Deal. Where the Green New Deal based its program on good paying, unionised work, such an agenda has largely been relegated to renewable energy or things more directly related to climate change.

That said, proponents of the Green New Deal have done well to make the idea of job guarantee a centre piece of their political program. So much so, that Massachusetts representative Ayanna Pressley introduced a federal job guarantee in the US Congress in February.

At the same time, the labour movement has completely neglected species and conservation efforts. This could be for several reasons, including: some of the most powerful unions (like the building trades) are still relatively hostile to environmentalism and especially environmental conservation; protecting nature is not “productivist” work or capital-intensive, and therefore is treated with scepticism with regards to job creation and wages; and where we have seen momentum between the labour and environmental movements, it has been almost exclusively on climate change and emissions. In any case, species protection and promotion is an obvious area of intellectual, philosophical and political development for the labour movement.

Massachusetts representative Ayanna Pressley introduced a federal job guarantee in the US Congress. Image: U.S. House of Representatives.

With that, there is a lot of potential for a biodiversity job guarantee. Job guarantees are popular amongst the population. According to a 2019 Harris/Hill poll, more than 70 percent of respondents supported a federal job guarantee program. This is true when we account for more working class populations as well. While the idea of a federal job guarantee is not old, its revitalization is arguably most based on the connection between the need for a massive and swift decarbonization plan and the mobilisation of labour to do so. Moreover, people have a love for the natural world and a desire to reconnect with non-human nature as evidenced by polling that overwhelmingly shows people value the environment over economic growth and even value wildlife conservation over climate change. Given the renewed interest and militancy of certain parts of the environmental and the labour movements, this is an exciting time for a biodiversity job guarantee to be brought to popular political and public consciousness.

So, what could this species guarantee look like? For one, it should be heavily guided and led by Indigenous populations and tribes. There are several reasons why. For one, Indigenous people protect 80% of the world's remaining biodiversity with only 5% of the population and a fraction of the financial resources of governments and even nonprofits. Comparatively, Indigenous land is more biodiverse and carbon-rich than land that is not protected by Indigenous populations.

Harnessing Indigenous peoples' practical knowledge is essential to ensure a sustainable 21st century. Image: Unsplash.

This is neither a coincidence nor a way to do facile social justice or green tokenism. For the practical purposes of ensuring species abundance and a habitable planet, evidence demonstrates Indigenous people are the greatest stewards of the land and the best protectors and promoters of a variety of flora and fauna. Their practical knowledge and philosophic wisdom is essential to ensure a sustainable 21st century.

But there are justice and liberation considerations attached to Indigenous land protection and species abundance. From a moral and political perspective, Indigenous people’s lands remain stolen without proper compensation, recognition and “reappropriation”. The history of colonialism and Indigenous land theft and murder is beyond the scope of this essay, but as scholars, activists and Indigenous communities have long recognised, any environmental program that does not center the liberatory needs and wants of Indigenous people is destined for failure and (rightfully) obstruction by such land and water protectors. As the authors of the Red Deal write, “Why is it easier to imagine the end of the world—a zombie apocalypse—than the end of capitalism? It’s not an either/or scenario. Ending settler colonialism and capitalism and returning Indigenous lands are all possible—and necessary.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), developed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, provides a model for a biodiversity job guarantee. Image: New York Public Library.

Beyond the guidance, leadership and direction of Indigenous people, other existing models and examples can help us develop a comprehensive vision for a biodiversity job guarantee. The most obvious example is the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the United States. Developed under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the CCC brought together hundreds of thousands of young men under a public works program to preserve and develop what would become the United States vast national and state parks network.

The CCC was a success in many ways: it put land under public ownership for the purpose of the public benefit, it brought struggling unmarried men an income who had been suffering due to the Great Depression, it mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers through public investment and planning, and more.

Of course it was not without its major problems as well: racism against black and Indigenous people, the institutionalised sexism as a male only program (despite the development of the She-She-She camps), and that the CCC was eventually converted for purposes of “national defense.” While I will not go into more depth about overcoming institutionalised forms of racism, sexism and militarism, it is imperative that any program or campaign for something like a biodiversity CCC puts this history at the forefront, institutionalises protections and equity principles into its implementation, and formalises forms of democratic decision-making and control amongst the workers, whether through unions or other means.

Another example to build off with regard to a biodiversity job guarantee is one that has already been mentioned: citizen science. As the German study demonstrates, citizen science is vital for mobilizing volunteer labour to help us understand the state of biodiversity. But this is just one example amongst many other success stories. One can find the vital contributions of citizen scientists at the Wye River in the UK, air pollution monitoring in Lancashire, and heat mapping in South Africa, to name just a few.

Humanity must learn from and be compelled by nature's beauty, wisdom and spirit. Image: Unsplash.

While an exact number of how many citizen scientists there are in the world remains unknown, it is safe to assume it is in the hundreds of thousands. According to a recent publication, there are over 30,000 citizen scientists involved in just one air pollution project. Within this vast network, the activities of citizen scientists range from entomology, silvology, ornithology, botany, mammalogy, air pollution, and so much more.

Given the dire state of the natural world, it’s unknown quantities (both lost and alive today), and the already mobilised volunteer base, a biodiversity job guarantee modeled off the scale and scope of citizen science initiatives could provide humanity and our non-human relatives with a programme of mass mobilisation, at scale and in a planned fashion – if it becomes a political priority amongst politicians, political parties and campaigners.

This piece serves as an initial conversation starter about a potentially powerful policy proposal and campaign that could unite environmentalists, the labour movement, young workers, Indigenous and racalised peoples, and the nonhuman species who deserve their own right to wellbeing, democratic representation, and liberation from the ecocidal regime of capitalism. The mechanics of how such a biodiversity job guarantee would work, a strategy for achieving such an objective and how we overcome some of the aforementioned racial, gendered and imperial dynamics deserves further exploration. I hope that others will find inspiration in filling in the blanks I have left.

In recognition of the need to not only labour with nature, but learn from and be compelled by its beauty, wisdom, spirit and our absolute dependence with it, I will end with a quote from one the United States’ most famous nature philosophers and masters of the English language, Ralph Waldo Emerson from his famous text Nature:

“Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.”

Andrew Ahern is an ecological organiser, public educator and freelance writer based in New England, US. You can follow him on Twitter @PoliticofNature.

Main image: Unsplash.

Andrew Ahern

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