13 August 2010

Greed vs. Survival: Which Prevails?

The global environmental catastrophe that we all face is, of course, a typical tragedy of the (analogue) commons. Resources that are held in common like the atmosphere, or water, or fisheries are exploited for short-term gain by powerful players able to push to the front.

But it's often hard to grasp these tragedies because of their vast scale; what we need is something smaller, more human in dimension that pits personal gain against common weal to make obvious what should be the outcome of that struggle if we want to survive as a species. Something like this:

It's hard to imagine a more agriculturally vibrant place than Russia's Pavlovsk Experiment Station near St. Petersburg. The "station," part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, really isn't a laboratory at all — it's a global seed vault holding tens of thousands of living, growing plants. As USA Today recently reported, "there are apples from 35 countries, 1,000 varieties of strawberries from 40 countries, black currants from 30 countries, plums from 12 countries and multiple other crops."

And what do they propose to do with that wonder of the seeds commons? This:

Last year, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development transferred the rights to two of Vavilov Research Institute's tracts of land to the Russian Federal Fund of Residential Real Estate. A Russian court will likely rule on Wednesday whether developers can move forward with development plans for the land. If real estate developers succeed, all those thousands of varieties of crops — 90 percent of which are not found anywhere else in the world — will be bulldozed to make way for luxury homes.

In fact:

The fate of the collection at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, which includes more than 70 hectares planted with 5,500 different varieties of apples, pears, cherries, and numerous berry species -- most of which occur nowhere else on Earth and were developed over hundreds of years by farmers in northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia -- was decided in Russia's Supreme Arbitration Court at 10:30 AM, Moscow time.

The result? Send in the bulldozers: who cares about the future of food?

If the proposal seems utterly outrageous, the reasoning behind it is utterly insulting:

the property developers argue that because the station contains a "priceless collection", no monetary value can be assigned to it and so it is worthless. In another nod to Kafka, the government's federal fund of residential real estate development has argued that the collection was never registered and thus does not officially exist.

What's particularly galling is that the sums involved are quite small:

the developer, the Housing Development Foundation, would pay 92 million rubles (more than USD $3 million) to acquire a special, five-year leasing license on the 70 hectares. After that five-year period, they'd have the opportunity to own the land outright.

Surely, then, this would be a great way for one of those high-profile modern philanthropists - hello, Bill Gates - to do something amazingly powerful for the world at minimal effective cost to their foundations.

Failing that, little people like you and mean can send a couple of tweets, and sign a petition. That's not much, but sadly it's all we can do to prevent this all-too graspable tragedy of the commons.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Jeremy Benett said...

Hi Glynn,

It is a tragedy, but the UK doesn't exactly set a good example.

In 1985, under the government policy of privatization, the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge was sold off. 75 years of crop breeding research and long term trials, often benefiting some of the most deprived people in the world, sacrificed on the altar of political idealism and corporate gain.

Glyn Moody said...

@Jeremy: thanks for putting things in context - I'd not come across that shabby move before.

Of course, this makes it even harder to get other people to avoid our mistakes, since they can just say: well, *you* did it... end of playground conversation.