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Why Conservation Is Rubbish

*This article was published in the 2012 edition of The Mudskipper, the official publication of the NUS Life Sciences Society*

Environmental conservation is a good thing, or so we are often told. In this day and age following decades of environmental neglect and in light of ominous portents of impending environmental catastrophe, we are often reminded by our friends, family, teachers, and even the media that environmental conservation is fundamentally good and of utmost importance. As a consequence, we are constantly subjected to a ceaseless barrage of polemic exhorting that we reduce our carbon footprint, recycle our waste and avoid consuming endangered animals, among other lifestyle-changing adjustments. The conservation agenda, it seems, is one that currently holds the distinction of having permeated the entirety of public consciousness and awareness. It would appear, however, that while the arguments advocating conservation-mindedness might on the surface be compelling, these arguments are more often than not all too easily accepted by us without question. For how many of us actually take the time to think through these issues instead of blindly accepting (or defiantly ignoring) these admonishments and exhortations?

The reason why I began thinking about this issue was due in part to a conversation I had with a particularly enlightened acquaintance of mine, a freshman in the Life Sciences at the time, in which he tried to explain to me his argument for why conservation is rubbish. During that brief exchange, he argued that conservation was unnecessary for two main reasons: That conservation is a form of human interference with the natural processes of evolution and extinction; and that conservation is irrelevant since, biochemically speaking, a species is merely an assemblage of molecules that can be stored as digital information, making the actual preservation of a species and its environment a redundant and overly complex approach. Suffice it to say, while I was thoroughly appalled by his dangerously misguided views on conservation, what terrified me even more was the thought that there were likely to be many other people who shared his line of thinking and that those who would uncritically accept the ‘goodness’ of conservation would just as unhesitatingly accept the impoverished, if ostensibly compelling, arguments that seek to convince otherwise. It was through this realisation that I felt compelled to pen this piece in the hopes that I may not only redress the fallacies being promulgated as legitimate anti-conservation arguments, but also provoke those who would read this piece to question the bases for their opinions on conservation.


Conservation is Unnatural

The first anti-conservation argument we encounter is based on the premise that evolution and extinction are both natural processes that occur regardless of human activity. Indeed, the story of life on Earth is primarily an account of the success stories of species that were best able to adapt to environmental conditions, as well as the failures of species that were unable to compete in a world where the prevailing philosophy is more commonly known as ‘survival of the fittest’. Adaptation, natural selection and extinction are therefore intrinsic elements of life as we know it. As such, in seeking to preserve certain species and the environments they live in, conservation is by extension going against the very essence of life itself – it is preserving species that are unable to adapt to prevailing environmental conditions and defying the laws that govern the natural world. This need to conserve, it is argued, is due to the fact that human impacts on the environment are often perceived as being unnatural, which is absurd since humans are as much a part of the biosphere as any other organism. Consequently, rather than treat human impacts such as habitat degradation or the introduction of exotic species as unnatural acts, we ought to embrace these impacts as we would any other natural process and let nature take care of the consequences. If a native species were to go extinct due to competition from a non-native species, so be it – natural selection and the doctrine of ‘survival of the fittest’ prevails. Likewise, species extinctions due to habitat loss would be nothing to worry about since all this is merely natural selection at work and our knowledge of the fossil record demonstrates that organisms as great as the dinosaurs have themselves gone extinct due to their inability to cope with altered environmental conditions – why then should human modifications to the natural environment be treated any differently?


If at this point you find yourself nodding in agreement, then I suggest you take a step back and reconsider this position because this argument is, at its core, fundamentally incomplete. In seeking to recontextualise human actions as being natural and therefore a part of the larger body of environmental processes, this argument only accounts for the impact of human actions but fails to consider the cyclical and consequent impact of nature on humanity. While this seemingly high-minded unification of man with nature is a noble ideal, it is, at its core, fundamentally incomplete because it asserts on the one hand that human actions are natural processes while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that nature herself will have an impact on humans too. The extinction of, say, a species of tree-climbing crab due to pollution or overharvesting may indeed be an example of natural selection at work, but to only consider this aspect is to ignore the fact that a species such as a tree-climbing crab also plays a role in the larger environment and that humans are dependent on this environment as well. In the case of the tree-climbing crab, extinction may lead to the loss of an essential component of the mangrove nutrient cycle since these crabs are responsible for transporting nutrients locked in dead leaves back into the mangrove mud, thereby leading to the thinning of mangrove forests and the loss of habitat for several other mangrove associated species that humans depend on such as fish and mollusc species, not to mention the fact that tree-climbing crabs are also an important food source for many bird species, which are in turn vectors of seed dispersal. To argue that human actions are natural while at the same time assuming that humans can live independently of nature is therefore a contradiction in terms and only serves to divest humanity of accountability for our actions. Conservation therefore functions not to alter or go against the laws of nature, but to mitigate the excessive and unsustainable impact of man on his immediate environment since these impacts are likely to have downstream effects on the livelihoods of various peoples. Rather than viewing man as an entity separate from his environment, conservation is precisely about the relationship between man and his environment and the ways in which human actions may result in a feedback reaction from the environment that would doubtless have an impact on humanity in turn. Conservation is only ‘unnatural’ if you assume that man can live independently of his external environment.


There is, however, an even more cardinal and dire flaw that underlies this argument over what a natural process really is – that being the folly of deterministic thinking. Taken to its logical extreme, since evolution and extinction are both natural processes and, by extension, all species will eventually go extinct or evolve into one or more new species, perhaps there is no point in conserving anything at all since all organisms are unlikely to remain the same or continue to persist. Conservation is therefore a futile effort at freezing time in a dynamically evolving world and, if a species were destined to die out anyway, would conserving it therefore be a waste of money? The problem with deterministic arguments is that there exists an implicit assumption that the final state is completely known and of primary importance while the intermediate stages in between matter little, if at all. In the case of conservation, the deterministic argument essentially asserts that the entire life history of an organism and the roles it may play in interacting with other organisms and the environment are meaningless and that a species exists only for the sake of achieving its final state of extinction or evolution. In the same way, all medicine is worthless since all humans are destined to die anyway and the application of medicine only serves to forestall the inevitable.


The inherent problem here, therefore, is twofold – we have on the one hand the misconception of conservation as being a quest to freeze the environment in a fixed state in perpetuity and on the other hand, the issue now centres not on whether species conservation is natural, but whether a species has sufficient value to render it worth conserving since the assumption that a species exists only for the sake of going extinct implies that a species is in itself devoid of any intrinsic value whatsoever. While the first misconception is a problem born out of ignorance and is of little consequence, the second issue is far more distressing because it is this concept of value that serves as the basis for asserting that conservation is both unnatural and futile. By assuming, as the deterministic argument does, that a species has no intrinsic value to speak of beyond its ability to go extinct, to save something that is both worthless and doomed would therefore appear to be both unnatural and futile. On the contrary, as described earlier, an organism is more than just an entity that eats, breathes, excretes and dies – it is also a contributory element within a larger ecosystem, an ecosystem that in turn provides ecological services that ensure continued habitability and productivity and in both these cases, humans stand to benefit – an ideal case for intrinsic value if there ever was one. In understanding the imperatives of conservation, it is therefore important to comprehend that a species is not merely a lone entity in itself, but is instead a part of a much larger network of relationships that collectively form an ecosystem. This is by no means a novel concept since it is embodied in the very essence of the food web itself – a concept once thought so simple as to be taught in Primary school and one that has since been forgotten by so many, consigned to the intellectual garbage-heap of trivial ideas when it is in fact extremely powerful in explaining the interdependent nature of communities and the devastating impact of species extinctions. No organism exists for its own sake – every species that ever existed is the result of having evolved to occupy a particular niche within a particular space at a particular point in time, and every organism therefore assumes one or more roles and functions within its immediate environment. There is no such thing as a useless, worthless or valueless species. Only in a world where living creatures are nothing more than mysterious conjurations at the caprice of a mad, mystical beardy man in the sky can life forms seemingly exist for no purpose other than to go extinct, and what a cruel and heartless being that must be. Conservation is therefore not about preserving individual species in isolation, nor is it about fixing a population in time as a static entity owing to some peculiarities of ideology – it is instead related to understanding how multiple species could have evolved in tandem over millions of years to become part of the ecosystem we see today and to elucidate the precise nature of these interactions so that measures can be taken to forestall the collapse of the ecosystems that are so essential for the continued survival of humanity.


Conservation is Irrelevant

Having established that a species is more than just a population of organisms living in isolation from their environment and that individual species possess their own intrinsic value depending on the contexts within which they are located, the question of conservation’s importance now shifts to that of the means by which conservation is undertaken, which leads us to our second anti-conservation argument. In this instance, it is argued that while the preservation of natural environments and their associated species makes sense from a systems-level perspective of an ecological approach, the objectives of conservation start to fall apart when examined through the lens of biochemistry and molecular biology. With the rise of molecular techniques for probing the very basis of life itself, and given how most of us Life Science students are likely to end up pursuing a specialisation in molecular biology or biomedical science, it is clear that molecular approaches have fast become one of the most, if not already the most powerful and objective means by which the natural world is understood. Far beyond the realm of mere observation and conjecture, molecular techniques allow us to digitise and endlessly reproduce nucleic acid and peptide sequences – the chemical ‘building blocks’ of life – in an effort to catalogue and illuminate the splendour of the natural world we live in. With such great strides having been made in the field of molecular biology, it is now possible to preserve whole organisms as lines of DNA code on a hard drive, as cDNA libraries in a petri dish and as vials of purified proteins in a freezer without having to deal with the organism in the first place – altogether a much more clean, efficient and space-saving solution indeed. From the perspective of molecular biology, it is therefore incongruous that so much effort would have to be devoted toward the conservation of various animal species and their environments when it would be so much simpler instead to have these species immortalised in a gene bank. Given the importance and effectiveness of molecular biology in reshaping our understanding of life, evolution and the environment, perhaps it is time that molecular perspectives on conservation be accorded greater priority and importance in shaping the conservation agenda – that species may be preserved in a far more objective and efficient manner as DNA sequences and the like rather than resorting to the outmoded and painfully inefficient methods of conserving organisms and environments as they are since, from the perspective of molecular biology, a species is no more than a complex assemblage of interacting biomolecules.


While this argument might sound absolutely ridiculous to many, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are people who believe with absolute certainty that molecular perspectives are the superior, if not the only way by which the natural world can be understood, and this misconception might potentially be especially acute here in Singapore given the educational thrust toward emphasising molecular biology over other aspects of the biological sciences and the sheer majority of NUS Life Science students who do eventually end up in the molecular and biomedical sciences. The problem with this argument is not that molecular perspectives are necessarily wrong or misguided, but that to assert that conservation can be seen or driven by a single ‘perspective’ is to oversimplify the nature of conservation and to do injustice to the multifaceted issue that conservation truly is. To argue that conservation and the natural environment can be seen purely in terms of molecular interactions is to fall prey to the fallacy of reductionism – where the whole is assumed to be no more than the sum of its constituent parts. In this particular instance, while it is undoubtedly true that the fundamental basis for all life stems from the interactions of molecules at the cellular level and that all biological phenomena can be reduced to chains of events that ultimately lead back to molecular interactions, to assert that every aspect of life can therefore be understood on a purely biochemical basis is to ignore the fact that biological interactions occur at various spatial scales – from the molecular to the macroscopic – and that each higher spatial scale brings with it complexities and emergent phenomena that cannot be explained from the first principles of biochemistry alone. While the molecular bases for cancer are understood to some extent, for instance, it is nonetheless impossible to accurately predict if a person with a mutation in, say, his or her BRCA1 gene will definitely contract breast cancer because a whole multitude of factors exist between the genomic spatial scale and the spatial scale of the individual person. Whether or not a person will or will not contract cancer, as in this example, cannot simply be reduced to effects of the individual’s genotype because a host of environmental factors exist that interact at various spatial scales – from the cytosolic environment to the extracellular matrix environment to the organ-level environment to the individual’s external surroundings – the conditions governing interactions at each of these spatial scales change due to factors that cannot be predicted from the genotype level alone. Even at macroscopic scales, the biological interactions that occur within a forest comprising several populations of different species cannot be reduced to the interactions that occur within a single population of a single species since novel interactions such as interspecies competition, symbiosis and parasitism may emerge as the result of interactions between different species. Moreover, not only is it impossible to predict macro-scale phenomena from micro-scale events, the exponential increase in stochasticity from one level of spatial organisation to another means that, if two parallel experiments were run with the same initial starting conditions, the final outcomes would nonetheless be drastically different. This is why twins, for all their genetic and socio-economic similarities, rarely ever end up as exact mirrors of one another. Complexity and stochasticity are what confound attempts at reductionistic thinking and in a world as complex as the one we live in, it is simply impossible to assert that all life can be understood from a purely molecular basis. Although this does not, I must reiterate, mean that molecular explanations for biological phenomena are wrong, it does mean that molecular explanations are only effective to a certain extent depending on the spatial scale involved. This is why biomolecular interactions are not further reduced to the quantum-level interactions of subatomic particles – to use quantum physics to try to explain signal transduction would tell you absolutely nothing about signal transduction even though the process of cell signalling can ultimately be reduced to the probabilistic mechanisms of the wave function and the Schrödinger Equation.


To say, therefore, that a biomolecular perspective renders conservation as we know it irrelevant is in itself a meaningless statement because to do so would be to apply a needlessly reductionistic explanation that can do naught but confound the matter even further. More importantly, however, to even argue that conservation can be understood in its entirety through the lens of a single ‘perspective’ is to ignore the fact that conservation is an issue that spans across a wide variety of disciplines and domains. While it is common to assume that conservation involves arriving at a deep understanding of the biological interactions between organisms and their environment (both molecular and ecological), it is important to realise that conservation also cuts across social, economic and even legal concerns as well. Whether or not actions ought to be taken to conserve a specific habitat (e.g. Bukit Brown) or species (e.g. the Gurney’s Pitta) depends also on the political will, economic impetus and even the legal feasibility for conservation. For an issue as complex as this, asserting that conservation can be understood in its entirely from a biomolecular perspective is just as meaningless as arguing that conservation can be completely understood from an exclusively legal, economic or even geographical perspective. Rather than try to understand conservation through the lens of a single discipline or field, it would instead be more productive to adopt a holistic perspective that tries to integrate the various disciplines and domains involved. Only by adopting a multidisciplinary approach can the true nature of our natural heritage be understood, and only then can effective solutions be proposed and undertaken.


Final Thoughts

Conservation is not a simple issue. It is an issue as complex as it is pressing and it is an issue that spans across a broad array of disciplines and domains of knowledge. In this sense, conservation is not an issue that is easily understood and as the concerns of environmental conservation become increasingly prominent in public discourse, so too will the danger of misconceptions arising from apathy or purposeful deception become more acute. Indeed, as the cacophony of voices purporting to speak for conservation and the environment continue to grow ever louder and more pervasive, it becomes increasingly more tempting and convenient to sit back and simply accept what we are being told instead of critically examining the ideas and arguments being bandied about. And although a vast majority of these voices do indeed speak truthfully, the fact of the matter is that it is now all too easy to pay lip service to an idea we do not understand, for the cause of the environment and our natural heritage to be rendered as nothing more than the high-minded platitudes of the modern day wet liberal. To adopt this sense of unthinking conviction would therefore make us just as susceptible to the insidious depredations of those lesser minds who, for ideological reasons or otherwise, would seek to detract from the importance of environmental conservation with their fallacious, if seemingly convincing arguments. The argument that conservation is rubbish is at its most persuasive only when we are too ignorant to even question its basic premises. While this does not mean that pro-conservation arguments are themselves infallible, it does mean that we must be mindful of the ideas we accept as truth and think critically about the ideas that are presented to us as truth. Conservation is only rubbish when we advocate it without truly knowing what it is.

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Owls on Campus – Yale and NUS

For those of you who have been following the news lately, you would doubtless be aware that Yale and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have both been receiving no small amount of attention, mostly because of the collaboration between Yale and NUS over a brand new liberal arts college set to open during the next academic year.

yale-nus

But while most of the press coverage surrounding Yale and NUS has largely been aimed at explaining why Yale and NUS are so different as to be incompatible for one another, I want to spend some time talking about one of the striking similarities between Yale and NUS instead.

Now, if at this point you’re anticipating some sort of politically-charged, anarcho–liberal treatise or some sniveling nationalist-apologist (I see you, Jim Sleeper) piece on why Yale can learn from NUS or vice versa, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed because the similarity I want to talk about is something far less ideological.

So what’s the similarity between Yale and NUS? The answer is Owls. No highfalutin metaphorical double meaning here. By owls I actually mean the wide-eyed nocturnal birds that have become the subject of many an internet meme.

Yarly!

Yarly! (Source: knowyourmeme.com)

Being a birdwatcher, I happened to be wandering around the Yale campus with my binoculars and camera (as you normally would) after struggling with a particularly intractable essay. The time was approximately 4:30pm and because days get shorter as winter approaches, it was already getting dark by then. As I was walking down Hillhouse Avenue, near the Yale Economics Department, a couple of grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) suddenly broke into a frantic scamper even though there wasn’t any sort of noticeable disturbance. Curious, I decided to investigate, and that was when I saw this dark blob-like shadow about the size of a teddy bear perched on a branch midway up a tree. This was what I saw:

Barred Owl_1This bird is a Barred Owl (Strix varia) a fairly large owl that can be found all over the east coast of the United States, and there it was, sitting right there less than 10 metres away from my face! Imagine the excitement of being able to get so close to such a beautiful and majestic bird. It’s like winning the lottery AND meeting Sir David Attenborough in person at the same time!

This was a particularly exciting find because Barred Owls aren’t often sighted deep in urban areas, generally preferring to stay within forested areas and marshland. Seeing a bird of prey as large as this so deep within an urban area was quite the shock indeed.

But this wasn’t my only sighting of the Barred Owl. Two weeks after my initial sighting, the Barred Owl showed up again! This time right in the heart of the Yale campus at 2:30pm in the afternoon just outside the William L. Harkness Hall.

IMG_7190

Because the bird was in such a conspicuous location, it naturally attracted quite a lot of attention from passers-by, many of whom would pause for a couple of minutes to admire the bird and snap a couple of pictures with their iphones.

But how does this actually relate to NUS? Coincidentally enough, NUS also has its very own urban owl. And even more coincidentally, the resident NUS owl is a closely related species to the Barred Owl of New Haven.

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This owl is the Spotted Wood Owl (Strix seloputo), a similarly large and wide-eyed bird of prey that comes from the same genus as the Barred Owl – if you look at the scientific names of the two birds, you’ll notice that they share the same first name – the genus StrixStrix owls, also commonly known as ‘wood owls’, are very distinctive birds because unlike other owl species, they have rounded heads with no ‘eyebrows’. This makes them easy to distinguish in the wild because in the darkness sometimes all you’ll be able to see is a silhouette, and being able to distinguish the head shape is a very important part of identifying owl species. 

strix_1

Like the Barred Owl, the Spotted Wood Owl is also more often found in wooded areas and is less commonly found hanging around in urban areas, so why these two owls would venture out into the highly urbanised campuses of Yale and NUS remains a mystery.

spotted-wood-owl

There are some possible explanations for this coincidental co-occurrence, though. One of the reasons why both the Yale and NUS campuses might be appealing to large Strix owls like the Barred and the Spotted Wood Owls is the prevalence of tall, old trees.

New Haven, also known as the ‘Elm City’, was one of the first cities in America to have a public tree planting programme and today many tall Elm (Ulmus spp.) and oak (Quercus spp.) trees continue to thrive in New Haven, providing an ideal habitat for Barred Owls. Likewise in NUS, the many small patches of tall Tembusu (Fagrea fragrans) and Rain Trees (Albizia saman) provide ideal roosting spots for large birds of prey like the Spotted Wood Owl.

IMG_7200Another possible explanation for the sudden appearance of large owls in the urban campuses of Yale and NUS could be the abundance of viable prey animals, especially small rodents such as squirrels and rats. Both Yale and NUS have large populations of native squirrels, the Grey Squirrel and the Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) respectively, and as with most urban areas, rats and other assorted vermin also have a strong presence in both places. This in turn provides more than ample food supply to large birds of prey like owls and might account for why these nocturnal birds might find the campus environment so attractive.

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What all this points to is the importance of having mature groves of tall trees in urban areas and how this can serve as remarkably productive habitats for all manner of wild animals. While we generally think of urban areas as species depauperate landscapes dominated by only a handful of extremely abundant species, the presence of large, mature trees gives rise to a variety of microhabitats and resources that provide an avenue for animals not usually associated with urban centres to slowly establish their presence.

So there you have it, a quick introduction to a pair of charismatic birds that call the urban campuses of Yale and NUS home. If you happen to belong to either one of these two institutions, you might want to keep a look out the next time you walk through the campus in the evening. Who knows, you might just have a close encounter with one of these beautiful birds.

*Note: Unless otherwise stated, all photos are my own. Please feel free to use them for non-commercial purposes but I would greatly appreciate it if you could credit the image to me if you should use it. Thanks.

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Earning a Quick Buck – Some Thoughts on MLM

Earning a Quick Buck

Having recently become jobless, I was called up by a friend of mine, saying he wanted to introduce me to a company he was working at so that I could earn a little bit of extra cash. BIG BONANZA! You might say, but a combination of several things made me more than a little skeptical about this “job offer”.

Firstly, this friend of mine (whom I still count as a friend and so won’t be naming here) was very vague about what the job entailed (“You have to come down and see to understand, too complicated to explain in person”). Secondly and slightly more obvious, he was rather insistent that I drop by his workplace to ‘see what was going on’. If alarm bells rang for you too, give yourself a pat on the back.

Turns out, he was running a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scheme for a company peddling TCM, fuel additives, slimming pills and diamonds.

Now I know many of us students find ourselves constantly strapped for cash, and the chance to earn a quick buck is always a welcome prospect and engaging in MLM schemes may be a tantalizing opportunity, but before you launch headlong into one with the hope of striking it rich, I think some understanding of the way MLM works and the risks involved should be properly laid out.

So How Does MLM Work?

MLM comes in several guises. At different times, it has been called Network Marketing or Direct Selling, though they all mean the same thing (for the purposes of this post, I’ll be referring to this phenomenon as MLM).

MLM schemes work by charging promoters an upfront “membership fee” in exchange for the license to sell the company’s products, which will have to be purchased at additional cost. In turn, these promoters (also known as Associates, MLMers, Partners or Investors) are rewarded for recruiting more promoters to the company. These rewards range from commissions on sales made by recruited promoters to elevated status. Examples of these include being appointed as a Director or gaining access to executive facilities. These serve as incentives to encourage promoters to recruit more and more people into their marketing network. The end result is a multi-layered network of marketers in the shape of a pyramid, with many marketers at the bottom level, and few at the top.

For the more visually inclined, this is what an MLM scheme looks like:

Bear in mind, though, that while MLM is commonly associated with a similar marketing tactic called Pyramid Schemes, the two differ on one fundamental point. While MLM participants earn money through the product sales of both themselves and the people they recruit, pyramid schemes merely deal with the exchange of money for introducing more people into the scheme. As such, the likelihood of a pyramid scheme actually having a product or service to sell is highly unlikely and is thus an illegal practice in Singapore (and in many other countries). For a similar kind of scam, you might be interested in looking up Bernie Madoff and Ponzi Schemes.

But Isn’t MLM Illegal in Singapore?

No it isn’t. Although pyramid schemes (see above) are banned by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), MLM schemes are legally permissible in Singapore so long as they conform to certain rules and regulations. You can find the terms and conditions here on the MTI webpage.

So Is MLM Bad?

Although MLM schemes have generally garnered a bad reputation in Singapore (after a brief craze in the early 2000s during which many fingers got burned), it’s not really entirely possible to judge MLM schemes as either fundamentally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To be fair, there are successful companies that run highly effective MLM campaigns such as Tupperware and Amway and if you’ve ever been to a ‘Tupperware Party’, that’s MLM at work right there. Instead, it would be more beneficial if we look at the weaknesses and strengths inherent MLM as a marketing strategy.

Ok, So What Are The Weaknesses Of MLM?

As mentioned earlier, MLM as a marketing practice is generally frowned upon in Singapore, and all for a good reason. Although MLM schemes have the incredible potential to produce remarkable results when applied creatively, Multi-level Marketing has a great many inherent weaknesses and limitations that make it incredibly risky, especially for the uninformed.

  1. Supply without the demand – The main problem of MLM is that it messes around with the rules of Supply and Demand. While I may not be an economics student, it is quite plain to see that MLM creates a system which ignores consumer demand in favour of a situation where supply remains well in excess of any kind of projected demand. By requiring individual promoters to buy stock directly from the company and having these promoters recruit more and more promoters, the number of promoters and by extension the supply of products will increase exponentially. What you will eventually find is a market entirely saturated with that particular product since it is not consumers that shape the demand, but rather the number of promoters at any one time. In a situation where a product is fairly unique and popular, this might not pose so much of a problem because natural demand is already very high (as is with Tupperware). However, if the company’s product fails to draw a sustained amount of interest to drive a continuously high level of demand, then sales per promoter will eventually plunge as the numbers of promoters grow. Although promoters do have the option of selling stock back to the company for a refund, bear in mind that by the time promoters realise that the product isn’t selling; the market has probably already reached its saturation point. At that point, the product would be worth less than it originally did and the promoter would end up selling the product back to the company at a loss, and the company earning just enough to cover overheads with minimal risk.
  2. Potential impact on personal relationships – Although many consider this to be a trivial issue, the reality is that being part of an MLM scheme can deeply affect your personal relationships with others and has a high likelihood of causing strained relationships with both family and friends. While much of the problem stems from the already tarnished name that MLM has among Singaporeans, part of it is also due to the nature of MLM and its target audience. By selling through referrals and networking, MLMs rely on an individual’s ability to use his or her own circle of family and friends to not only advertise but also recruit new promoters. All this, with the sole aim of generating revenue through direct sales and downstream commissions. The reason why this is ripe opportunity for friction to develop is because MLM breaches the boundary between work and friendship, thus exploiting personal relationships for the sake of profit. It creates a situation the breaking point will come when either the promoter runs out of friends or when his/her friends run out of patience, and neither of these are desirable consequences.
  3. What’s my motivation? – The third problem with MLM lies not so much with the system, but the kind of people the system attracts. For what reason will someone join an MLM scheme? Although companies involved in MLM are prohibited by law from advertising MLM as a get-rich-quick scheme, it is implicit in many MLM pitches that MLM offers an easy way to earn a quick buck, and many (if not most) MLMers sign up simply because of the money. At its very core, MLM schemes hinge on tapping an individual’s desire to earn more money, also known as Greed. It’s a moral question, without doubt, and one that you will have to ask yourself before taking part in any MLM scheme; do I care about what I’m selling? Or is it just about earning as much money in as little time as possible? Add the fact that family and friends are usually the ones on the receiving end of MLM, and you have a situation where MLM promoters are essentially earning money at the expense of the very people they care for. Be mindful though, that while this issue is one of grave importance, it is a generalisation and is by no means true for every single MLMer. There are those who genuinely believe in the product they are selling and are incredibly passionate about what they do, though they are more often than not viewed as exceptions to the norm.

The points mentioned above are but a fraction of the inherent weaknesses of MLM as a marketing strategy, and from the ones raised it is quite clear that there are some serious deficiencies associated with the practice of MLM. While this doesn’t mean MLM is evil or bad (value judgements we should seek to avoid), it means that anyone who wishes to be part of an MLM scheme must be aware of the potential problems that MLM can cause in order to take steps to prevent unwanted consequences.

So What Are MLM’s Strengths?

Although I’ve just painted a rather grim picture, MLM is not without its redeeming features. Flawed though it may be, MLM does have several properties that make it an excellent learning opportunity for young people and could possibly, under the right circumstances, make for a rewarding and meaningful job experience.

  1. An excellent opportunity to gain sales experience – An important transferable skill, knowing how to market a product is something that is highly likely to come in useful later in life and MLM offers a good opportunity for people to pick up such skills. In selling a particular product or service for a company, you will learn how to craft a proper pitch and deal with the inevitable cases of rejection. But more than that, since MLM usually entails selling the product/service to family and friends, it will also be possible to get constructive feedback from these people on how best to refine your sales techniques, something that would not be so readily available were you to be selling to complete strangers.
  2. Plenty of opportunity for self-enrichment – Another reason why MLM can prove to be incredibly useful is because many of them offer training courses and seminars for MLM participants. While these courses are unlikely to be professionally accredited by external bodies, they present a valuable opportunity to learn something new or at least engage in some form of self-enrichment. Although these course are more geared toward improving sales and recruitment numbers, do approach them with an open mind and who knows, maybe you might acquire a new skill, learn something about yourself and come out of it a better person.
  3. Autonomy over how you work – For those who prize job flexibility as a very important point, MLM can also be attractive because it allows participants to work in any way they want. In an MLM scheme, you set your own working style and you work whenever you want. Obviously the harder you work, the more rewards you are likely to reap but if you already have academic commitments and still want to earn some money on the side, MLM does offer a potential way of earning some much-needed cash. However, whether or not that cash is earned through morally justified means or whether the amount earned is significant enough to matter is up to you to decide.

So as you can see, MLM isn’t all bad. In fact, when approached with the right attitude and a proper understanding of the risks involved, MLM can potentially be a very rewarding learning experience and you might even earn some money through it.

If you’ve done some background reading, however, you will notice that I’ve left out many of the traditional plus points commonly cited in MLM’s favour. Very often you will hear these points being raised when a company representative is trying to convince you to join an MLM scheme, a ritual which I call ‘The Pitch’, and more often than not, these points are half-truths, fabrications or outright lies. As such, I’ll be going through some of the most popular points cited by MLM companies to convince people to join their little scheme.

The Top 10 MLM Misrepresentations

When you sit in for an MLM Pitch, you’ll usually be facing a very proficient smooth-talker, someone who can go on and on for 2 hours without losing your attention. During his/her speech, he/she’ll try to convince you why you should join their MLM scheme, and much of these will be fallacious or quite simply untrue. In this section, I’ll briefly run through some of the common misrepresentations bandied about by MLMers to convince people to sign up and why they might not be entirely true.

  1. MLM offers a cheap way of running your own business –Many MLMers will tell you that joining an MLM scheme is a cheap and easy way of running your own business; you don’t have to pay taxes or settle bills or handle any of the administrative matters, just sit back and let the money roll in. While running an MLM operation does emulate a business-like setting in many ways, all that the MLM company has essentially done is to outsource the sales and HR aspect of the company to you, along with all the risk of running a company. You will be responsible for making your own sales, recruiting your own people, and when you fail it will all be your own fault and not because the product is unpopular – the company doesn’t lose anything at all except for a rubbish salesperson. You’re not running your own business; you’re just purchasing all the risk of running one.
  2. Having a pyramid-structure doesn’t make MLM bad, all corporations are pyramid-shaped too – When the company rep said this to me with a straight face, I couldn’t believe my ears. He cited the example of a school having only one principal, many teachers and even more students, and this is a typical example of a false analogy. The only parallel between a school and an MLM scheme is the shape of the structure. Teachers do not have to recruit students, and neither do they have to pay a portion of their salary to the principal for recruiting more students. Just because other things are pyramid-shaped doesn’t make the structure of an MLM right or wrong, good or bad. Likewise for corporations, each employee works for the company and as such each company has a vested interest in the welfare of the employee (the employee is paid directly by the company too). In an MLM scheme, the flow is inverted. Instead, it is the employee that invests in the company and the company is not obliged to care about the employee or his/her productivity. Because of this there is no basis on which to say that an MLM’s pyramid structure can in any way be compared with that of other “conventional” companies.
  3. Our product is very respectable and reliable because celebrities endorse it – This is a good example of another common fallacy, the appeal to authority. Companies that resort to celebrity endorsements (regardless of whether or not they are MLM companies) rely on the supposed authority and influence that celebrities command in order to sell their product, and not on the salient qualities of the product itself. Whether or not a celebrity endorses a product rarely has anything to do with the effectiveness of the product or even whether the celebrity actually uses the product. Their only incentive is getting paid a buttload of money in return for plastering their pretty little faces all over the company’s advertisements. In some cases, even if the celebrity does use the product being advertised, he or she might not be aware of the effectiveness or potential side effects of the products. Probably the best known local example (for our Singaporean readers) would be the infamous Slim 10 saga, where Andrea de Cruz fell violently ill after taking the slimming pills, resulting in her husband having to donate part of his liver to rescue her failing one. Never assume that celebrities know better; after all, they’re human too.
  4. By selling this health product you’re helping your customers too – You will often hear this during pitches, especially if the company in question markets some form of health, slimming or ‘wellness’ product. The logic behind this is that, assuming the product works as advertised, not only will you be earning money from your friends and family, you can do it without guilt because hey, you’re making their lives better. However, with health being the sensitive topic that it is, it is always important to verify that the product you are selling has been adequately and rigorously tested in compliance with America’s Food and Drug Authority (FDA) standards. Very often if you ask to see some form of clinical documentation, you’ll be shown some vague lab reports, often from individual success cases and not as a result of comprehensive and methodical tests of the drug with adequate controls. Just because a treatment works for one person doesn’t mean it works for everyone else. And even if the treatment does work, are you confident enough or qualified enough to be prescribing any form of therapeutic treatments? And what if there are unknown or long term side effects? I hardly think it is necessary for me to point back to the Slim 10 case to illustrate this point.
  5. Our product can’t possibly fail because of its mass market appeal – If you look at MLM companies very closely, you’ll realise that most, if not all of their products are targeted at mass market consumption. Slimming pills; “Wellness” treatments; Traditional Chinese Medicine, these aren’t niche market goods, these are aimed at appealing to a very large and very broad customer base. However, if you’ve read the bit earlier about MLM and market saturation, you’ll realise that no matter how massive your market may be, MLM is designed to ensure that the market is so flooded that it eventually kills itself. This statement is only true from the viewpoint of the company. While a goodly amount of product will end up getting sold, the chances of you being a significant contributor to overall sales is low.
  6. Look at our top earner; he’s driving a Mercedes Benz! – I think it goes without saying that this argument very simply appeals to what has been discussed before, the greed impulse. You’re supposed to go “Hrmm, if he can earn enough to get a Mercedes Benz, I can too!” and this is clearly not going to be the case. Why? It’s simple. When you sign up for an MLM scheme, you are led to believe that you’ll end up like this:Whereas in reality, this is more likely to be the case:What MLM companies try to mislead people into thinking is that there is an equal chance of success. However, following from the market saturation argument, the further away you are from the top (i.e. the later you join), the less chance you have of even running a substantial network of salespeople and subsequently, the lower your chances of even coming close to even considering buying a Nissan Sunny.
  7. Many people from your school participate in MLM too – Another popular technique often employed by advertisers is very much evident here as well: the Bandwagon. Other people are doing it, and so should you. No you don’t. Other people in your school are failing their promos and getting retained. Should you follow suit? I’ll leave that decision entirely up to you.
  8. You can make money with minimal effort just by having a wide customer base! – The main problem with this argument is that it assumes your customer base/sales force is either growing or unchanging. However, remember that people come and go, and not everyone will find your product interesting over the long term or wish to continue with MLM and as numbers fluctuate, your revenue will also fluctuate. I’m not being cynical here, just realistic.
  9. Friends and family are easier to sell to than complete strangers –Just because people know you doesn’t mean they’re them more gullible or susceptible to your charms or wiles. Your family and friends are (hopefully) thinking people too and if the product you are selling one of questionable quality or relevance, then no amount of personal relationship or cajoling will convince anyone to buy your product, family member or not.
  10. Look at all these newspaper articles showing how effective MLM is – When the MLM rep starts pulling out all these newspaper articles, very rarely will you have the time to read the article in full. In fact, they’ll helpfully highlight a sentence or two to draw your attention to a line saying that MLM is good. If you actually take the time to read them in detail (and take note of the publication date), you’ll realise that many of these articles are quoted out of context or are completely outdated. Don’t be fooled by a misleading headline or a misquoted sentence.

So Should I Or Should I Not Participate In An MLM Scheme?

That, unfortunately, is a decision only you can make. While I personally disapprove of MLM and discourage most students from taking part, I can only go so far as to tell you what the weaknesses and strengths of MLM  are and ultimately, whether or not you actually join an MLM depends on a combination of factors unique to you. Do take your time to evaluate the pros and cons and if you feel MLM is a viable option, then be sure to take the necessary precautions to avoid getting cheated and go in with the right learning attitude.

If you wish to learn more about MLMs, here is a list of sources that I’ve consulted in the process of writing this much extended article. While everything you see here is (to my knowledge) written in my own voice, do let me know if I have inadvertently lifted or plagiarised any particular author’s work in any way. Also, if you should have any comments you would like to make or any inconsistencies with my arguments that you would like to point out, I strongly encourage you to post them here.

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