Monthly Archives: April 2013

The New Conservation?

In a recent book “Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene” edited by Mihael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (Breakthrough Institute, 2011) Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michel Le Marvier present a vision for conservation in a paper: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond solitude and fragility” that bears some analysis. It is available on the Breakthrough Institute website. It is a rather misleading vision, like many visions, partly correct, partly wildly inaccurate, and partly tilting at dragons that do not exist.

In general any subject that ranges out from science into policy starts to walk on thin ice when opinions masquerade as scientific information. A few quotes can give you the flavor of this article. “By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline”. A strong statement but how has anyone decided that conservation is failing? If the evidence is that biodiversity in some groups and some places is being lost, then any ecologist can agree. If conservation is failing, then we might expect some guidance of how to prevent this failure.

The next quote grabs the issue directly: “Conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so.” I know quite a few conservation biologists and I can not think of one who would disagree with this statement. There could be some who are promising a return to pristine landscapes, but they must be rare, as are those that still think the earth is flat. So here is Straw Man # 1. (This is not sexist by the way, no female conservation biologist would make such a silly Straw Person.) So let us proceed by agreeing that we cannot go back to pristine nature, and humans are indeed having a large effect on the Earth.

Now we are getting into the center of the proposal with this quote: “But conservation will be controversial as long as it remains so narrowly focused on the creation of parks and protected areas, and insists, often unfairly, that local people cannot be trusted to care for their land.” Alas this is hardly what most conservation biology focuses on. So we might call this Straw Man # 2. The goal of most conservation is to protect biodiversity in all its forms, in parks, in nature reserves, in agricultural fields, in forest woodlots, and in cities. I cannot comment on situations in which local people are adversely affected by conservation activities. In the few cases I know the local people are happy to cooperate in conservation programs, but I can imagine there are conflicts I am not acquainted with. So can we agree that conservation is NOT narrowly focused on parks? Parks and reserves are part of the conservation picture but far from all of it.

The reason conservation biologists have adopted this narrow agenda is captured in the next quotation: “But ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever. Some ecologists suggest that if a single species is lost, a whole ecosystem will be in danger of collapse, and that if too much biodiversity is lost, spaceship Earth will start to come apart.” Now I have to start looking under the carpet to find such an ecologist. Really this is quite silly, and an insult to current ecological knowledge. As a reductio ad absurdum this is a prize quotation and we can call it Straw Man # 3. I have no doubt that we could find someone on earth who would say this, but that is hardly evidence that ecologists agree on such nonsense. That it is nonsense of course is no argument that one can keep removing species from ecosystems with no consequences whatsoever.

We now come back to a more modest quote: “The trouble for conservation is that the data simply do not support the idea of a fragile nature at risk of collapse. Ecologists now know that the disappearance of one species does not necessarily lead to the extinction of any others, much less all others in the same ecosystem. In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function.” Since no ecologist supports the thesis of the previous paragraph, we can certainly agree with this quotation, so perhaps we are back on track.

The next quote however puts us back into the perceived picture: “Nature is so resilient that it can recover rapidly from even the most powerful human disturbances…. Even that classic symbol of fragility — the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block — may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals.” Alas we are back to serious nonsense again. The literature on restoration ecology is one long litany of rejections of the idea of resilient recovery from human disturbance. It simply does not occur except perhaps on a time scale that is geological. And polar bear biologists do not think they will go extinct at least in the next 100 years that we can project. So here is STRAW MAN # 4 (or perhaps straw bear?).

We are now led to the final conclusion: “If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers… Conservation is slowly turning toward these directions but far too slowly and with insufficient commitment to make them the conservation work of the 21st century. The problem lies in our reluctance, and the reluctance of many of conservation’s wealthy supporters, to shed the old paradigms.”

If the first two premises in this last quotation are highly questionable, and the third is and has been agreed by all conservation biologists for many years, how do we get to the conclusions given the questionable premises? While it sounds exciting to shed the old paradigms, we have to be careful rather to take the valid points from all our approaches, and try to correct the failings of conservation science. As in much of ecological science, the truism that “the devil is in the details” applies with much force to conservation issues, and there is no one path to glory.




In Praise of Luddites

We are certainly in the midst of a new era of luddites but instead of the original concept of a person opposed to technology that would reduce jobs, we now have luddites in politics opposed to scientific information. Not that this is terribly new historically but it seems to be part of a new conservative government agenda. The operating principle of the new luddites is quite simple: what you do not know cannot hurt you. This principle is illustrated every day by a person typing a text message as they walk across a busy road intersection, but it has now been adopted by several governments in western countries. The politicians involved of course would never recognize themselves as luddites but would argue that they are responsible spenders of the taxpayers money. When a large government agency faces a budget cut, what is more responsible than to cut out people who do the environmental work. Close down scientific research stations. Reduce funding for environmental monitoring. Eliminate the need for environmental impact studies. After all what environmental scientist of recent time has ever given good news to the government or indeed done anything to increase GNP. Since environmental problems are large-scale, long-term issues, they need not be dealt with today or even in the next 6 months. The result is that today we are locked in an arms race with environmental scientists arguing that we should do something now about climate change, species under threat, or other ecological problems, and the political world arguing that we can deal with these issues later after we increase economic growth. Since a large part of the research effort that explores environmental trends comes from the government, a simple way to turn down the thermostat is to reduce funding to environmental science and to prevent government scientists from talking to the public.

We awake only when there is an environmental disaster that cannot be covered up. This is a bit like thinking about getting fire insurance once you realize your house is on fire, not exactly forward planning. So we too often continue down the path of the luddite, with elections being fought over the economy with barely a mention of the environment. At a meeting of first nations people recently the opening statement was that we are responsible for the next 7 generations following us, the grandchildren of our grandchildren. What politician could say this with a straight face these days? Don’t worry, she’ll be right.

On the benefits of natural history knowledge

I am reminded today about the importance of ecologists knowing a good deal of natural history. Every species is in some sense a unique experiment in evolution, and our job as population and community ecologists is to understand how these species operate in the ecosystems in which they live. But this means we must know the details about how the species operates, what it eats and who eats it, and in some sense how it thinks about its world. I suspect that this is easier to do with higher vertebrates than it is with insects or protozoa but we need to do the same with all forms of life if we are to achieve ecological understanding.

There is in my experience a great lack of this approach in the universities I have seen. We no longer tend to teach about angiosperm systematics, or mammalogy, or ornithology. These are completely old fashioned, the world’s most condemning epithet. So we turn out biology students in British Columbia that cannot identify a Douglas fir tree (perhaps the most important forest tree in the province) and California students who think the eucalyptus trees originated in Berkeley. That would all be well if we perfected bar-coding on our iPhones for species IDs so we could spend more time learning about where and how these species live and die. But too often we seem to think there is a short cut to understanding species roles. It is always worth exploring short cuts to understanding if we can effectively make a simpler way to explain the world. But we try and fail at this enterprise again and again. Hope springs eternal. We need to know now, so let us assume that all algae can be grouped as one ‘superspecies’ in our models, and all ‘rats’ are bad and need to be exterminated, and adding CO2 to the air will make all plants grow faster. We learn by a lot of difficult and extended research that these are oversimplifications. But then the problem becomes communicating this complexity to politicians and the public who desire simplicity rather than complexity.

This whole task is much easier if you talk to a birder who being keen on birds knows that they all differ in many interesting ecological characters, that some individuals of the same species behave in quite different ways, and that the ecosystem continues to operate with this amazing complexity. So I think one solution to ecological oversimplification is to quiz those who start to tell you about harvesting whales, or poisoning rats, or bringing in genetically modified crops to find out how much they know about the natural history of the species they talk so confidently about. A dose of humility would not hurt our discussions of the current controversies of wildlife and fisheries management.

On publishing in SCIENCE and NATURE

We are having an ongoing discussion at the University of Canberra Institute for Applied Ecology about the need to obtain a measure of our strength in research. We have entered the age of quantification of all things even those that cannot be quantified, and so each of us must get our ranking from our citation rates or h-scores, or journal impact factors. And institutes rise and fall along with our research grants on the basis of these numbers. All of this seems to be necessary but is quite silly for two reasons. First, the importance of any particular paper or idea can only be judged in the long term, so trying to decide if you should have a job because of your citation rate is a cop out. Second, this quantification undermines the importance of judgment of scientists and administrators as adjudicators of the relative merits of specific research and specific scientists. The problem is that as a young scientist in particular you are caught in a web of nonsense and you have to play the game.

The name of the game is to get a paper in SCIENCE or NATURE. To do this you must shorten the presentation so much that it is nearly unintelligible and violates the staid assumption that a scientific paper must have enough detail in it that someone else can repeat the study and test its conclusions. These details are typically left to be put in the supplementary materials that one can download separately from the published paper. So these papers become like headlines in a newspaper, giving a grand conclusion with little of the details of how it was reached. But this publication is the hallmark of success so one must try. The only rule I can suggest is to have a Plan B for publication since about 99% of papers are rejected from SCIENCE AND NATURE.

There is a demography at work here that we must keep in mind. If scientific output is doubling every 7 years approximately, then getting a paper into SCIENCE or NATURE now is twice as hard as it was 7 years ago, on a totally random model of acceptance. So when your supervisor tells you that he or she got a paper in SCIENCE xx years ago, and so should you now, you might point out the demographic momentum of science.

Editors of any journal especially SCIENCE and NATURE are under great pressure, and if anyone thinks that their decisions are completely unbiased, they probably think that the earth is flat. All of us think some parts of our science are more important than others, and editorial decisions are far from perfect. The important message for young scientists is not to get discouraged when rejection slips appear. Any senior scientist could paper the hallways with letters of rejection from various journals. The important thing is to do good research, test hypotheses, make interesting speculations that can be tested, and move on, with or without a paper in SCIENCE or NATURE.

Finally, if someone wants an interesting project, you might trace the history of papers that have appeared in SCIENCE and NATURE over the last 50 years and see how many of them have been significant contributions to the ecological science we recognize now. Perhaps someone has done this already and it has been rejected by SCIENCE and is sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere…….