Tag Archives: conservation

On Political Ecology

When I give a general lecture now, I typically have to inform the audience that I am talking about scientific ecology not political ecology. What is the difference? Scientific ecology is classical boring science, stating hypotheses, doing experiments or observations to gather the data, testing the idea, and accepting or rejecting it, outlined clearly in many papers (Platt 1963, Wolff and Krebs (2008), and illustrated in this diagram:

Scientific ecology is clearly out-of-date, and no longer ‘cool’ when compared to the new political ecology.

Political ecology is a curious mix of traditional ecology added to the advocacy issue of protecting biodiversity. Political ecology is aimed at convincing society in general and politicians in particular to protect the Earth’s biodiversity. This is a noble cause, and my complaint is only that when we advocate and use scientific ecology in pursuit of a political agenda we should be scientifically rigorous. Yet much of biodiversity science is a mix of belief and evidence, with unsuitable evidence used in support of what is a noble belief. If we believe that the end justifies the means, we would be happy with this. But I am not.

One example will illustrate my frustration with political ecology. Dirzo et al. (2014) in a recent Science paper give an illustration of the effects of removing large animals from an ecosystem. In their Figure 4, page 404, a set of 4 graphs purport to show experimentally what happens when you remove large wildlife species in Kenya, the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment (Young et al. 1997). But this experiment is hopelessly flawed in being carried out on a set of plots of 4 ha, a postage stamp of habitat relative to large mammal movements and ecosystem processes. But the fact that this particular experiment was not properly designed for the questions it is now being used to address is not a problem if this is political ecology rather than scientific ecology. The overall goal of the Dirzo et al. (2014) paper is admirable, but it is achieved by quoting a whole series of questionable extrapolations given in other papers. The counter-argument in conservation biology has always been that we do not have time to do proper research and we must act now. The consequence is the elevation of expert opinion in conservation science to the realm of truth without going through the proper scientific process.

We are left with this prediction from Dirzo et al. (2014):

“Cumulatively, systematic defaunation clearly threatens to fundamentally alter basic ecological functions and is contributing to push us toward global-scale “tipping points” from which we may not be able to return ……. If unchecked, Anthropocene defaunation will become not only a characteristic of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but also a driver of fundamental global transformations in ecosystem functioning.”

I fear that statements like this are more akin to something like a religion of conservation fundamentalism, while we proclaim to be scientists.

Dirzo, R., Young, H.S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B. & Collen, B. (2014) Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Science, 345, 401-406.

Platt, J.R. (1964) Strong inference. Science, 146, 347-353.

Wolff, J.O. & Krebs, C.J. (2008) Hypothesis testing and the scientific method revisited. Acta Zoologica Sinica, 54, 383-386.

Young, T.P., Okello, B.D., Kinyua, D. & Palmer, T.M. (1997) KLEE: A long‐term multi‐species herbivore exclusion experiment in Laikipia, Kenya. African Journal of Range & Forage Science, 14, 94-102.

Large Mammal Conservation

The conservation problem is largely focused on large things, birds and mammals, with a few pretty things like butterflies thrown in. What concerns me is the current distortion in the conservation knowledge base available for large animal conservation. I will talk largely about mammals but large birds are equally a problem.

The difficulty is this. It is nearly impossible to study large mammals because they are scarce on the ground, so census methods must be spatially extensive and thus very expensive. One needs a big budget to do this properly, and this effectively rules out university scientists unless they can collaborate with government biologists who have large budgets or private consortia who need the large mammals so they can shoot them. But even with a large budget, a large mammal ecologist cannot be very productive as measured in papers per year of research effort. So the universities in general have shied away from hiring young scientists who might be described as large mammal ecologists. This produces positive feedback in the job market so that few young scientists see this as a viable career.

All of this would be changed if governments were hiring large mammal ecologists. But they are not, with few exceptions. Governments at least in Canada and Australia have been shedding ecologists of all varieties while all the time professing how much they are doing for conservation of threatened species. The advantage of this approach for governments is that they shed high cost biologists, and cover their tracks with some hiring of public relations personnel who have no field costs and perhaps a few biologists who concentrate on small creatures and local problems. So we reach a stalemate when it comes to large mammal conservation. Why do we need polar bear scientists when all they do is make trouble? We can escape such trouble easily. Count the polar bears or the caribou every 5 years or so, so there is consequently much less information that scientists can put their fingers on. (Imagine if we counted the stock market once every 5 years.) The consequence is that in many areas we have large scale, long-term problems with few scientists and only small scale funding to find out what is happening in the field. For polar bears this seems to be partly alleviated by private funding from people who care, while the government shirks its duties for future generations.

For caribou in Canada the situation is worse because the problem is spread over more than half of Canada so the funding and person-power needed for conservation is much larger, and this is further compounded by the immediate conflict of caribou with industrial developments in oil, gas, and forestry. When dollars conflict with conservation needs, it is best not to bet on conservation winning. What good has a polar bear or a caribou done for you?

The potential consequence of all this is that we slowly lose populations of these large iconic species. If this loss is slow enough, no one seems to notice save a few concerned conservation biologists who do not own the newspapers and TV stations. And conservation ecologists grow pessimistic that we can save these large species that require much habitat and freedom from disturbance. The solutions seem to be two. First, build a big fence and keep them in a very large zoo (Packer et al. 2013). This will work for some species like caribou, as Kruger Park in South Africa illustrates so well with African large mammals (but some disagree, Creel et al. 2013). But the fence-solution will not work for polar bears, and our best response for their conservation may be to cross our fingers and hope, all the while trying to slow down the losses in the best way we can. A second solution is to decide that these large mammal conservation situations are not scientific but sociological, and progress can best be made by doing good sociological research to change the attitudes of humans about the value of biodiversity. If this is the solution, we do not need to worry that there are no biologists available to investigate the conservation issues of large mammals.

I think perhaps the bottom line is that it takes a spirited soul to aim for a career in large mammal conservation research and we hope that this happens and the conservation future for large mammals in Canada grows brighter.

Creel, S., 2013. Conserving large populations of lions – the argument for fences has holes. Ecology Letters 16 (5): 635-641. doi: 10.1111/ele.12145.

Packer, C., et al. 2013. Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence. Ecology Letters. 16: 1413-e3. doi: 10.1111/ele.12091.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 430.

What is Policy?

One seemingly popular way of muzzling scientists is to declare that they may not comment on issues that impact on government policy. In Canada and in Australia at the present time this kind of general rule seems to be enforced. It raises the serious issue of what is ‘policy’. In practice it appears that some scientific papers that discuss policy can pass the bar because they support the dominant economic paradigm of eternal growth or at least do not challenge it. But the science done by ecologists and environmental scientists often conflicts with current practices and thus confronts the economic paradigm.

There are several dictionary definitions of policy but the one most relevant to this discussion is:

“a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body”

The problem an ecologist faces is that in many countries this “high overall plan for the country” involves continuous economic growth, no limitations on the human population, the minimization of regulations regarding environmental pollution, and no long-term plan about climate change. But probably the largest area of conflict is over economic growth, and any ecological data that might restrict economic growth should be muzzled or at least severely edited.

This approach of governments is only partially effective because in general the government does not have the power to muzzle university scientists who can speak out on any topic, and this has been a comfort to ecologists and environmental scientists. But there are several indirect ways to muzzle these non-government scientists because the government controls some of the radio and TV media that must obtain funding from the federal budget, and the pressure of budget cuts unless ‘you toe the line’ works well. And the government also has indirect controls over research funding so that research that might uncover critical issues can be deemed less important than research that might increase the GNP. All of this serves the current economic paradigm of most of the developed countries.

Virtually all conservation biology research contains clear messages about policy issues, but these are typically so far removed from the day to day decisions made by governments that they can be safely ignored. A national park here or there seems to satisfy many voters who think these biodiversity problems are under control. But I would argue that all of conservation biology and indeed all of ecology is subversive to the dominant economic paradigm of our day so that everything we do has policy implications. If this is correct, telling scientists they may not comment on policy issues is effectively telling them not to do ecological or environmental science.

So we ecologists get along by keeping a minimal profile, a clear mistake at a time when more emphasis should be given to emerging environmental problems, especially long term issues that do not immediately affect voters. There is no major political party in power in North America or Australia that embraces in a serious way what might be called a green agenda for the future of the Earth.

The solution seems to be to convince the voters at large that the ecological world view is better than the economic world view and there are some signs of a slow move in this direction. The recent complete failure of economics as a reliable guide to government policy should start to move us in the right direction, and the recognition that inequality is destroying the social fabric is helpful. But movement is very slow.

Meanwhile ecologists must continue to question policies that are destroying the Earth. We can begin with fracking for oil and gas, and continue to highlight biodiversity losses driven by the growth of population and economic developments that continue the era of oil and natural gas. And keep asking when will we have a green President or Prime Minister?

Let me boil down my point of view. Everything scientists do has policy implications, so if scientists are muzzled by their government, it is a serious violation of democratic freedom of speech. And if a government pays no attention to the findings of science, it is condemning itself to oblivion in the future.

Davis, C., and Fisk, J.M. 2014. Energy abundance or environmental worries? Analyzing public support for fracking in the United States. Review of Policy Research 31(1): 1-16. doi: 10.1111/ropr.12048.

Mash, R., Minnaar, J., and Mash, B. 2014. Health and fracking: Should the medical profession be concerned? South African Medical Journal 104(5): 332-335. doi: 10.7196/SAMJ.7860.

Piketty, T. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, Harvard University, Boston. 696 pp. ISBN 9780674430006

Stiglitz, J.E. 2012. The Price of Inequality. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.


Identifying the Most Critical Problems in Environmental Science

A common perception of government policy makers is that ecologists fritter around doing interesting tidbits that produce nice 7 second sound-bites for radio or TV, but they never address the most serious environmental problems that the government faces in environmental science. So the question we need to address for any developed nation is this – what are the most critical environmental problems that ecologists could help to address? Since most critical environmental problems are long-term, one constraint would be that goals have to be achieved in the short term so that people could see progress. There would be funding constraints but let us assume that if we hit the right buttons, funding would be plentiful (think military).

There is no question that not all countries would have the same detailed list of critical environmental problems. But there ought to be communalities so we ought to cast a wide, general net to define problems. Start with some clear ecological principles: there is only one Earth and we ought to take care of it with a time frame that follows the First Nations principle of ‘seven generations’, about 300 years, as our time horizon. We know the solution to some environmental problems but new ones are continually a challenge. We need in every country the equivalent of an Environmental Army monitoring environmental problems.

1. Food security. All populations need food yet modern agriculture violates many simple ecological rules. Is the system sustainable in the long term? Probably not so the first major problem is how might we move modern agriculture toward sustainability. Subheadings here abound – pest control and alternatives to poisons, biological control of insect pests, cultural pest control, soil fertility decline, quarantine control, the list goes on. Implicit in all this is a regulatory framework that prevents the introduction of new miracle agricultural practices without adequate ecological background checks. The neonicotinoids-and-bees problem immediately comes to mind. We must get away from the attitude of ‘do it now’ and ‘clean up the mess later’ when we find problems.

2. Pollution effects. This is the hard one because it is climate change in the long term which must be emphasized. But in the shorter term detailed measurements of air quality and harmful effects of smoke and diesel fumes among other things on human and animal health could give an immediacy to such a detailed research program. The same principle applies here – do not put something new out in the environment and ask questions later. Fracking for natural gas and oil comes to mind, as well as the whole recycling system. Electricity generation is a key driver and mining for carbon-based energy ought to be eliminated gradually.

3. Conservation. Could our country be the first on Earth to have a complete inventory of species in all the taxonomic groups? It is a scandal that we do not have a list of life on Earth, and we need to get this message across with clever advertising. Taxonomists ought to be more important than bankers and be paid accordingly. Again many subheadings here – endangered species problems, pest management interactions with agriculture, disease ecology (always a hot button), monitoring, monitoring interacting with citizen science where possible.

4. The Oceans. We ought to be responsible for the health of at least our near-shore ecosystems, and monitoring protocols should be established so that we have ecosystem health scores presented as frequently as stock market reports. As global citizens we should be contributing to studying global problems of the high seas, the Antarctic Continent, and acting together with other nations to solve global issues.

The advantage of all these 4 topics with respect to convincing a politician to fund them is that they are interdisciplinary and consequently can be addressed only by carefully selected teams of ecologists, physicians, molecular biologists, geologists, chemists, and social scientists. A call for research proposals in these areas would soon build teams of scientists to address the major issues of our time. Money can help glue together scientific teams.

All of this will cost a lot of money and our current political philosophy seems to be that environmental costs are the lowest priority, and taxes for protecting the environment should be as near zero as possible. This must change soon lest the Earth become a garbage can unfit for human habitation.

Dicks, L. et al. (2013). What do we need to know to enhance the environmental sustainability of agricultural production? A prioritisation of knowledge needs for the UK food system. Sustainability 5, 3095-3115.

Sutherland, W.J.,et al. (2010) The identification of priority policy options for UK nature conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 47(5): 955-965.

Are We Destroying the Planet?

My question for everyone to ask themselves today is this: are we humans destroying Planet Earth? This is perhaps a strange question to ask and one would expect most people to say, ‘no, of course not’. So perhaps we should put a constraint on this question that this pertains to the next 100-200 years. So it is not an immediate question, something that will happen in the coming six months, but a long-term question about what will happen in the next centuries.

So the immediate response is, ‘how could we be destroying the whole of planet Earth?’ The answer might be to look at the newspaper this week, and ask yourself what will possibly happen when we run out of resources. Like food and water. As a simple paradigm of our problems we might use the sewage disposal problem of Victoria, BC. Victoria for years has simply dumped its untreated sewage out into the ocean in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The ocean, as we seem to believe, is a very large garbage dump. But might we think that a useful assumption of a civilized society is that you should not dump your garbage across the fence into your neighbour’s back yard? So then we say, we need to spend the money to construct a proper treatment plant. But the Victoria-area municipalities cannot even agree on a location for the sewage plant, and there are loud protests that we cannot possibly afford a modern treatment plant. What can we say about humans who think it is acceptable to dump their garbage over the fence into the ocean? One interpretation is that they have made the correct decision, and this will not affect them during their lifetime since it has been going on now for more than 100 years, so carry on. Yet this is a perfect mimic of the problems of the world today.

Climate change is all about what we dump into the atmosphere, in particular greenhouse gases and perhaps most obviously CO2. But we take no responsibility for this because it will not affect us in our lifetime and surely some clever engineer will solve this problem in the next century. Preferably at no cost to the taxpayers.

So yes, you might argue that we are indeed destroying the planet. But since Victoria, BC, and indeed all of Canada are only a small part of the global problem because of a low population base, why should we have to do anything? Well, many people think we should be doing something, but yet the majority continue to elect politicians who ignore the three major problems of the world today – climate change, population growth, and food security or at best say they will do something about it by 2020 or 2050. Most of the political parties of the developed world today subscribe to three propositions – growth is good and more growth is better, climate change is a minor problem, and implicitly we do not care one bit about what kind of a world we leave to our children and grandchildren. Spend now, they can pay later.

Now you will be hard pressed to find any business person or politician of any stripe saying any of these things, and all will protest loudly that they are doing all the right things. In their minds the main problems of our day are that taxes are too high and must be reduced, and that the 1% must be let free to improve the world as they choose.

None of this of course is ecological science or even sustainability science. The argument rests on only one simple principle – that the environment is not a garbage can. And what we do now impinges on what kind of Earth we wish to leave to the coming generations. So it might help to ask your favourite politician if he or she thinks we are destroying the Earth, and if not, why they do not read the newspapers. And why they do nothing about the major problems of our day?

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. (2013). Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, 20122845. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2845.

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. (2013). Future collapse: how optimistic should we be? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, 20131373. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1373.

Kelly, Michael J. (2013). Why a collapse of global civilization will be avoided: a comment on Ehrlich & Ehrlich. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1193.

Does Forestry in British Columbia Make Money?

While driving around British Columbia, one cannot help but notice the forestry industry – bare clear-cuts on the hills, logging trucks on the road. This simple observation leads me to this question: is the forest industry that now exists in BC profitable when one does a full-scale life-cycle analysis of its environmental impacts?

The answer to this question is obvious to most people – forestry is a good renewable-resource industry that provides many jobs and promotes economic growth. There is much literature from the government and the forest industry about how BC utilizes sustainable forestry. Most people accept this positive view of the forest industry. But I am concerned that we might find a different answer if we look behind the smoke screen of advertising and the government’s rosy view that all resource extraction industries are valuable for BC. Why might this be? I cannot analyse the economics of the forestry industry because I am not an economist, so in some sense all I would like to do here is ask some questions that others who are more qualified might help to answer.

The first question is what to include in such an analysis. If forestry is considered only trees, rather than the whole ecosystem with all its biodiversity, you would get one answer. If you worry about biodiversity you might get another answer (e.g. Drever 2000). If you worry about climate change and carbon dioxide dynamics, you can view forests as carbon stores that might be valuable if there is a price on carbon in the future. If you value the forests of BC as ecosystems that ought to be left as a legacy to our grandchildren, you might again take a different perspective. Do you include in your balance sheet the costs of fire-fighting and the government departments that manage the industry? What external costs are left out of a broad overview of forestry in BC?

At present it would appear to me that forest harvesting is not sustainable in BC, even if you take the narrow view that only trees matter in the calculations. If it were a sustainable industry, there would be no need to harvest old growth forests. But you could be certain that if any government actually said ‘no more cutting of old growth’, there would be an outcry. But if we continue as we are, we will cut our way to the North Pole, as long as we can find trees. The Yukon is next, if not now then for our grandchildren. But trees grow back again, so all will be well. Restoration ecology to the rescue. If you take a biodiversity perspective, you might find that what grows back is a pale imitation of what was there before. And if the ecosystem does restore, the time frame may be very long, looping back to the question of what sustainability means. If the forest ecosystem restores itself in 300 years, is that sustainable? How about 500 years?

If we treat forestry like any other agricultural enterprise, we might allocate some fraction of land to this activity and use the rest for recreation, tourism, and truly sustainable activities like berry picking. Suppose we planned that by 2020 forest companies could not cut anymore on crown land, and by that date land would be allocated to companies to purchase like any farmer would buy a farm. I can hear the howls of protest to such a suggestion. Is it correct that forestry then is really a mining industry operating on non-renewable resources – crown land that has old growth that belongs in theory to the people of BC in perpetuity? There are reports of how some forest companies are short-changing the government in their cutting practices because of the failure of inspection of the amount of wood taken off an area (e.g. see Parfitt, 2007) Short-changing the government is short-changing the people of the province and the people of the future who would live here.

But it seems to me that a much larger issue is that much of the planning for forestry in BC ignores the biodiversity issue. To be sure an iconic bird or plant might have some small areas saved for it, if it is included on the threatened species list. But as any ecologist might suggest, these protected areas are postage stamps that are in the long-term insufficient for the conservation of the species of concern. The major conservation issues of our day are those where economic growth produced by harvesting trees, natural gas, oil or coal collides directly with protecting our ecosystems for future generations. By any measure, the economic agenda wins the day, and the biodiversity agenda is peppered with good advertising telling us that all will be well.

It is fortunate that the First Nations of BC are rapidly awakening to these issues, and progress has been made in giving them more authority over their traditional lands. This is a bright side of the global issue of conservation in Canada.

The political issue that flows from this discussion is to ask how much subsidy our BC government provides to aid the exploitation of our natural resources, resources that ought to be managed for the future of the people of BC. Are we subsidizing environmental destruction with our tax dollars and all the while being told that even more economic growth is necessary? There must be another way, and for an ecologist concerned with biodiversity and the protection of the natural resources of our province, the current policies look like a Ponzi scheme.

Drever, R. 2000. A Cut Above: Ecological principles for sustainable forestry on BC’s coast. David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver, B.C. ISBN 1-55054-689-9, Available at http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/reports/2000/a-cut-above-ecological-principles-for-sustainable-forestry-on-bcs-coast/

Parfitt, B. 2007. Over-cutting and Waste in B.C.’s Interior: A Call to Rethink B.C.’s Pine Beetle Logging Strategy. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Vancouver, BC. ISBN: 978-0-88627-533-4, available at www.policyalternatives.ca/BC f

The Conservative Agenda for Ecology

Many politicians that are conservative are true conservatives in the traditional meaning of the term. Many business people are conservative in the same way, and that is a good thing. But there exist in the world a set of conservatives that have a particularly destructive agenda based on a general belief that evidence, particularly scientific evidence, is not any more important as a basis for action than personal beliefs. Climate change is the example of the day, but there are many others from the utility of vaccinations for children, to items more to an ecologist’s interest like the value of biodiversity. In a sense this is a philosophical divide that is currently producing problems for ecologists in the countries I know most about, Canada and Australia, but possibly also in the USA and Britain.

The conservative political textbook says cut taxes and all will be well, especially for the rich and those in business, and then say ‘we have no money for ‘<fill in the blank here> ‘so we must cut funding to hospitals, schools, universities, and scientists’. The latest example I want to discuss is from the dismemberment of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia by the current conservative government.

CSIRO was sent up in the 1950s to do research for the betterment of the people of Australia. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was one of the world premier research organizations. If you do not believe this you can look at how many important papers, awards, and the occasional Nobel Prize came out of this organization. It had at this time perhaps 8500 employees in more than 25 Divisions. Divisions varied in size but in general they would have about 200-300 scientists and technicians. Divisions were run by a Chief who was a scientist and who decided the important directions for research in his or her area, whether it be horticulture, wildlife, energy technology, animal science, or mathematics and statistics. CSIRO itself was led by eminent scientists who provided some guidance to the Divisions but left the directions of science to the Chiefs and their scientists. It was a golden development for Australian science and a model for science that was appreciated all around the world.

This of course is dreamland in today’s world. So by the late 1980s the Australian federal government began determining scientific priorities for CSIRO. We know what science is important, the new leaders said, so do this. This would work well if it was not guided by politicians and MBAs who had no scientific training and knew nothing about science past or present. Piled on this were two neo-conservative philosophies. First, science is important only if it generates money for the economy. Coal mining triumphs wildlife research. Second, science in the public interest is not to be encouraged but cut. The public interest does not generate money. Why this change happened can be declared a mystery but it seemed to happen all around the western world in the same time frame. Perhaps it had something to do with scientific research that had the obvious message that one ought to do something about climate change or protecting biodiversity, things that would cost money and might curtail business practices.

Now with the current 2014 budget in Australia we have a clear statement of this approach to ecological science. The word from on high has come down within CSIRO that, because of cuts to their budget, one goal is as follows: “Reduce terrestrial biodiversity research (“reduced investment in terrestrial biodiversity with a particular focus on rationalising work currently conducted across the “Managing Species and Natural Ecosystems in a Changing Climate” theme and the “Building Resilient Australian Biodiversity Assets” theme in these Divisions”).Translated, this means about 20% of the staff involved in biodiversity research will be retrenched and work will continue in some areas at a reduced level. At a time when rapid climate change is starting, it boggles the mind that some people at some high levels think that supporting the coal and iron ore industry with government-funded research is more important than studies on biodiversity. (If you appreciate irony, this decision comes in a week when it is discovered that the largest coal company in Australia, mining coal on crown land, had profits of $16 billion last year and paid not one cent of tax.)

So perhaps all this illustrates that ecological research and all public interest research is rather low on the radar of importance in the political arena in comparison with subsidizing business. I should note that at the same time as these cuts are being implemented, CSIRO is also cutting agricultural research in Australia so biodiversity is not the only target. One could obtain similar statistics for the Canadian scene.

There is little any ecologist can do about this philosophy. If the public in general is getting more concerned about climate change, the simplest way to deal with this concern for a politician is to cut research in climate change so that no data are reported on the topic. The same can be said about biodiversity issues. There is too much bad news that the environmental sciences report, and the less information that is available to the public the better. This approach to the biosphere is not very encouraging for our grandchildren.

Perhaps our best approach is to infiltrate at the grass roots level in teaching, tweeting, voting, writing letters, and attending political meetings that permit some discussion of issues. Someday our political masters will realize that the quality of life is more important than the GDP, and we can being to worry more about the future of biodiversity in particular and science in general.


Krebs, C.J. 2013. “What good is a CSIRO division of wildlife research anyway?” In Science under Siege: Zoology under Threat, edited by Peter Banks, Daniel Lunney and Chris Dickman, pp. 5-8. Mosman, N.S.W.: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M.M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 355 pp. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4

Shaw, Christopher. 2013. “Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change: Public representations of the decision making process.” Global Environmental Change 23 (2):563-571. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.012.

Wilkinson, Todd. 1998. Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books. 364 pp. ISBN 1-55566-211-0


Wildlife Management Dilemmas

The science of wildlife management has moved from the good old days of worrying only about deer and ducks to the broader issues of conservation management of all species. But it operates in an impossible squeeze between human activities and wildlife responses. One key problem is the incremental creep of land use decisions. If we log half of the forest surely there is plenty left there for the wildlife to thrive, or so many people believe. So a central dilemma is habitat loss. The simple approach using ‘cow arithmetic’ says that if you have a farm one-third the size of what you have now, you will be able to have only one-third the number of cows. So habitat loss is critical but there seems to be no way of stopping it as long as the human population continues to expand.

To solve this problem we set up parks and reserves. That will please most of the botanists because if you have a plant species you are concerned about, you need set aside only a few hectares of land to keep it safe. This approach is at the core of wildlife management’s dilemma. You keep the plant species but lose the ecosystem. Certainly you can keep many of the small insects in a few hectares, so you protect not only the plant species but more of the biota. But you will lose all the birds and the larger species that need much larger areas of habitat. One of the defining moments in wildlife management and conservation ecology occurred when several ecologists recognized that even large national parks were not large enough for the charismatic megafauna.

Maybe we can rescue it all with metapopulations, islands of good habitat close enough to each other to permit dispersal. That will work in some cases and is a useful addition to the management arsenal of tools. But then we have to cope with additional problems – introduced pests and diseases that we may or may not be able to control, and global problems of air and water pollution that respect no neat geographic boundaries.

We cannot control species interactions so if we tinker with one aspect of the ecosystem, we find unintended consequences in another aspect of the ecosystem that we did not expect. We brought rabbits to Australia and to many islands with dire consequences no one seemed to anticipate. We also brought rats and pigs to island inadvertently with many well documented problems for bird and plants. We take predators away from ecosystems and then complain to the government that there are too may deer or Canada geese.

So part of the dilemma of wildlife management in the 21st century is that we do XYZ and then only later ask ecologists whether it was a good idea or not to do XYZ. Decisions are made by governments, companies, farmers, or city dwellers to change some element of the ecosystem without anyone asking a wildlife manager or an ecologist what the consequences might be. We love cats so we pass laws that prohibit managers from culling wild cats and only allow them to sterilize and release them. We love horses so we do the same. So wildlife management decisions are driven not by ecological studies and recommendations but by public demands and weak politicians. Wildlife management is thus a social science, with all the dilemmas generated when one part of society wishes to harvest seals and one part demands protection for seals.

Wildlife management has always been handicapped by the hunters and fishers who know everything about what management should be practiced. There is no need to have any professional training to decide management goals, management actions, and funding preferences for many of these people. I suppose we should at least be grateful that the same approach is not applied in medical science.

Wildlife management has always been a low priority activity, underfunded and moved more by political whims than by science. This is not at all the fault of all the excellent wildlife and fishery scientists who try their best to protect and manage our ecosystems. It is a victim of the constraints of making decisions on the spot about long term issues without the time or money to investigate the science necessary for knowledge of the consequences of our actions. The world changes slowly and if our memory is on the time span of 1-3 years, we are not on ecosystem time.

Much action must be spent on trying to restore ecosystems damaged by human activities. Restoration ecology recognizes that it is really partial restoration ecology because we cannot get back to the starting point. None of this is terribly new to ecologists or wildlife managers but it is good to keep it in mind as we get lost in the details of our daily chores.

Humans are destroying the earth in their quest for wealth, and simultaneously producing the problems of poverty and obesity. Led by politicians who do not lead and who do not seem to know what the problems of the Earth are, we keep a positive view of the scientific progress we generate, enjoy the existing beauty of biodiversity, and hope that the future will somehow cope with the changes we have set in motion.

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem”.   (Schindler 1997, p. 4)


Estes, J.A. et al. 2011. Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333:301-306.

Likens, G.E. 2010. The role of science in decision making: does evidence-based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8:e1-e9.

Newmark, W.D. 1985. Legal and biotic boundaries of Western North American National Parks: A problem of congruence. Biological Conservation 33:197-208.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10:430.

Schindler, D. W. 1997. Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5:1-6.


Why The Environmental Sciences Always Lose Out

One of the basic observations of our time in almost all countries is that some sciences are held in high esteem while others are not popular. Science is often confused with technology, so positive marks are typically given for new types of cell phones, tablets and computers, and the sciences that give rise to these technological advances like physics, chemistry, and engineering are viewed as gold stars. Medical advances are also highly regarded out of self-interest and most medical science from basic to applied is given high support in our society. At the other end of the ranking is ecology and in general environmental science. These are viewed poorly by many, so that action on climate-change and biodiversity conservation are supported by a dwindling few. Why are some sciences highly praised and others damned?

Part, but only part, of the explanation lies in religious beliefs. I do not know of any major religious group that condemns Iphones and computers, or medical advances, or even space research. But many people seem to have objections to biological concepts like evolution and question the role of humans in affecting the earth’s ecosystems. Possibly a larger part of this rejection of environmental science is explained by the fact that environmental scientists bring mostly bad news to the social table, while physicists promise infinite free energy and medical scientists promise cures for diseases. We prefer good news to bad.

The most prominent bad news story currently is climate change and the role of humans in causing these changes. Climate change science is easy to deny. The data are always variable, sometimes it still snows in the wrong month of the year or the summer is particularly cool. But most importantly the problem is slow moving, and humans are not very good at assessing slow moving catastrophes. Few of us will be alive when the climate problems get so serious only a fool would deny them, and our penchant for demanding fast solutions to problems will not work when the reversal of the cause (e.g. CO2 enrichment of the air) takes 100-200 years. So it is better to put our head in the sand and deny everything.

The problem with conservation ecology and biodiversity loss is similarly long-term and slow. To solve these problems we have to do something and we are all in favour of doing something if it does not reduce economic growth. So population growth is favoured since exponential growth is the new God pushing economic growth, and biodiversity loss does not seem to impact on most of us living in large cities. Sustainability thus becomes a meaningless word in both politics and business, talk much and do little. If there is an apparent conflict between economics and the environment guess who wins. Convincing people that economics cannot exist without the environment is the challenge of our time. We could start by electing governments that cultivate environmental concerns on an equal basis with economic concerns.

Oreskes, N. and E. M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press, New York. 365 pp.
Washington, H. 2013. Human Dependence on Nature. Routledge.144 pp.

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.