Average vs. Extreme Consumers

Back in 2005, I interviewed fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly for a small article on seafood consumer campaigns. This would evolve into the work we do today. I was not able to publish large chunks of the transcripts then, but I am now. I think what Daniel said about average vs. extreme consumers was relevant, particularly in light of the studies on the preference for rare commodities and the recent chow-down on the megamouth shark caught in the Philippines (the 41st megamouth ever found, ever; pictured here).

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Here is what Daniel had to say:

The reason why we have giraffes is not because we regulate our intake of giraffe meat. It is because governments have decided giraffes are not going to be killed. Not because people decided to reduce the consumption of giraffe meat. There is no "campaign to "stop eating giraffe meat."

It's not the average person we're trying to push one way or the other who does things that are really negative for the environment but it's the extreme person. The average person does not hunt bear, doesn't eat bears, nor does the average person require bear pancreas as traditional medicine. If you then make a campaign to not eat bear the average person is not bothering to eat bear anyway. It's the extreme person. It's the that extreme person has to be prevented from eating bear by laws because that person is already out of reach of a campaign.

Reefs in the third world are devastated by the live trade market. The people who say they need live fish need them because the fish express prestige, because they express wealth and the very fact that it is rare and endangered is actually part of the status that it conveys. So a campaign about eating reasonably might affect the average person. But it's not the average person that is expressing status by consuming a thousand dollar fish.

If we're dealing with caviar and we want to protect the sturgeons, sure we can try to influence people who eat caviar. But the idea of eating caviar is a social statement. You are making a statement about wealth so you really need that stuff to be expensive and rare. We do want to influence some people not to eat caviar. On the other hand what you really want to do is ban the traffic of it because the species in question are really endangered.

In the U.S. particularly, the notion of government intervention is almost that government is the enemy. To the extent that we live in democracies, government is actually the way that people agree to do things. And that's the way we as a society act. There are lots of things we can't do on our own. We cannot regulate airlines. We cannot run schools. We have governments as a collective expression of what we want done.

I would rather see us putting lots of energy into governments to intervene. But you can imagine a scenario where caviar becomes illegal and it adds to the cache...

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In Australia at least (and I presume in other liberal democracies) people still haven't gotten over the neo-conservatism of the last fifteen years. There's a perception that all regulation is bad regulation; and this is compounded by the fact that, of course, anything which costs a person money is unpopular. And there's next to no recognition that only regulation can prevent a 'tragedy of the commons'.
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The example that springs to mind is the Murray-Darling river system problem. Essentially, this important river system is drying up. The cause, aside from drought, is that there are simply too many irrigators taking too much water from the system. Each individual property probably only takes a small amount of what needs to be left, and no property can stop taking that amount without losing money. So the people who own those properties say they want something done. Suggest mandatory water buy-backs, however, and they become angry. There's no recognition among them or amongst the larger community that there's simply too many hands taking from the well, and no way to please everyone with the solution.
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And while the politicians scrabble around trying to look for a policy that will please everyone, the Murray-Darling is dying. I imagine that by the time we have a government that's ready to bite the bullet and be hard about it, it will take hundreds of years to recover the damage. The 'extreme' people in this case are actually just average landholders; the 'average' people are Australians with no direct stake in the problem. None of them have the capacity, even when encouraged, to lower or help others to lower their water consumption from the basin; the only response with any hope for success would seem to be regulation.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

Welcome back, Jennifer, and I like the new darker image in the photo. Wonder what secrets make you feel so guilty?

This transcript on how to change the world is what I might expect from a detached academic with little insight into people.

Prohibition in the US is only one subject I'd raise to question the thesis. The government made alcohol illegal, and that was a colossal failure. Understanding why leads to suggestions for better ideas.

Overall, go ahead and wear the hair shirt, Jennifer, if you find that scratchy feeling strangely attractive. But if you want to move others to action, I hope you have something better to recommend than guilt.

It seems fairly naive to compare control of collective consumption of a limited resource with control of collective consumption of an unlimited resource. The first is about the regulation of an economy or ecology; the second is about ideology (or possibly, depending on your ideology, about health, or some more abstract matter of the public good). I'd say the distinction is fairly clear.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

Mark Powell, if you have such amazing insight into people, what is this detached academic missing? The comparison with prohibition is fairly obviously spurious, but either way, how would you suggest dealing with tragedy of the commons-type scenarios if not by enforced regulation?

There's a very scary article in the current (May 2009) issue of Scientific American about global warming and already existing shortages of staples like grain and rice that can only worsen.

Welcome back Mark Powell, and I like your same old bulldozing approach, talking about "a detached academic with little insight into people." Yay! There's a feeling of comfort and familiarity in hearing your voice. It's just like old times. Let the debates resume!

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 24 Apr 2009 #permalink

On regulations: conserving fish using regulations is like building a house using a hammer--it works great until you need to cut a 2 x 4.

Effective conservation utilizes regulations, new laws, litigation, incentives, subsidies, unlikely coalitions, etc., etc. No single tool is always right, notwithstanding the revealed wisdom from The Great Man.

Thanks for exploring the psychology of conservation in your blog thus far.

In your interview Daniel Pauly stated that "We have governments as a collective expression of what we want done." But at what point is "we" actually collective versus prescriptive? These are the types of questions I am left with as an undergraduate studying conservation. I understand most of the science but recognize that there is a sizable chasm that separates scientific research from culture and ethics. While this seems to be a burgeoning field of research it is still relatively a newborn in the academic world. What do we, the curious and motivated, do in the interim to effectively synthesize the "realities" of culture with the data from science. Guilt? Maybe, will be curious to see how you explore that further. Regulation? Maybe, seems like there is already a ton of evidence that can either support or "fail to support" any hypothesis on that solution.

Lots of questions with few answers. Learning that science is more about unraveling than packaging.