The current divergence of paradigms in conservation biology and applied ecology

By Joern Fischer and Tibor Hartel

So here’s a slightly emotional rant about things that we think are concerning about current developments in conservation biology and applied ecology. We think it’s important to take a step back and look at what’s happening in our discipline (and its context), rather than blindly run along with current developments. So, here’s the rant.

If you strongly disagree, or strongly agree, or mildly (either way), feel free to comment. Our aim is not to attack any individuals – we strongly believe in multiple perspectives being needed BUT we also think that some perspectives dominating, and insisting on being superior, can be very dangerous. When discussion gets very heated, let’s keep in mind that we ultimately share similar goals, regarding “life on earth”!

1. There appears to be a divergence of how different groups of people tackle the same issues. The recent land sparing- land sharing debate beautifully mirrors this, but the trend is broader. There is agreement that the world is facing big challenges, regarding more than biodiversity conservation – including food, poverty, and so on. Two alternative approaches seem to emerge to deal with these challenges.

The first approach, which we favour (as readers of this blog know, so no big news here), is to try to grapple with the incredible complexity of the world through an approach of social-ecological systems. This kind of approach is also used in the Satoyama Initiative, for example. The logic is that unless we understand the linkages between people and nature, and try to improve those linkages in the future, everything else will be short-term band-aids.

The second approach is more difficult for us to write about because we are critical of it. But it still has its place. This is to seek firm, elegant solutions to complex problems. Green et al.’s model on land sparing falls in this category, and much of the evidence-based conservation movement also goes in this direction. This is about finding solutions, through better analysis, so that we have clearer facts, which in turn, end up leading to better decisions.

The problem with the second approach is that it typically reduces away much of the complexity of the real world. Food production does not equal food security. Higher yields have essentially nothing to do with less hunger. More reserves failed in the past. It’s like we went through two decades of writing about matrix management for a complete back-flip … since the evidence base for conservation in agricultural landscapes is poor, let’s just go back to reserves.

To us, this seems to be going backwards. But the more important thing is not what we think, but that there now is a big divergence emerging: while people like us try to say “we need to do better on social-ecological integration, since it’s not all working yet”, others seem to say “we need to give up on conservation outside protected areas”.

If we are right, this is a true divergence in paradigms. And we think it’s reflected increasingly in more and more separate narratives that are played out in separate journals and research groups. Ecology & Society probably is a big no-no for many of the authors that are naturally inclined to go for optimization models. Paradoxically, this divergence doesn’t have to be this way – as one of us argued a little while back in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. But… to us it seems the gap between paradigms is widening not narrowing.

2. Selection pressure regarding research paradigms is different in different settings. If you live in Romania, and are confronted on a daily basis with poverty, biodiversity, and sustainable land use practices, you see the world differently than if you operate in systems where connections with nature have already been lost – in those cultures, modeling seems to hold all answers, and field data is often collected by volunteers. Recent implicit or explicit calls for “less field ecology” fail to notice that field data is what keeps us honest. It’s not about more data, it’s about sound intuition for social and ecological complexities. You don’t get intuition about real-world systems just behind computer screens. We need both analytical skills and field intuition: advocating one over the other is counter-productive.

3. Not just different countries, but even the (inherent?) temperaments of people dictate what paradigm they will follow. The two paradigms proposed above have entirely predictable sets of followers. Those drawn to people, values, and underlying motives will be inherently more interested in social-ecological complexities than those individuals drawn towards facts, numbers, and rational choices. In Jungian psychology, this is the difference between “feelers” and “thinkers”. Jung also nicely observed that wisdom and personal growth come from balancing one’s inherent temperament – so, if you’re a feeler, it helps to train your thinking capacities – if you’re a naturally inclined thinker, you should learn to listen to feelings and intuition. This may make no sense to scientists, who hold rational truth above all else. But people, their cultures, and their values, are what’s shaping the world – we can’t change the world, unless we understand underyling value and belief systems (as we argued in a recent paper in Frontiers) – one might even argue that we essentially know all we need to know to do much better already. More facts and nicer models can be useful, at times, but greater precision on its own won’t make us any wiser: “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than the exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise (John Tukey).”

4.Cognitive synthesis has lost against meta-analysis. The human brain is incredibly good at drawing on all kinds of signals to understand the world. Many relevant conservation problems happen in a space that requires those many different signals to be integrated – including people’s motivations, scientific data, institutional settings, and so on. Meta-analysis is now favoured by leading journals. But it reduces synthesis to statistics – when statistics should be a subset, not a replacement, of holistic synthesis.

So what to do? We believe that we need a multitude of perspectives – but the divergence of narratives and research groups into extremes in either direction is unhelpful. And we need to recognize that although big journals like universal truths, most conservation issues are context-dependent. Those who go in the field and are interested in social-ecological complexities must see value in models and rigorous quantitative approaches – but equally, those interested in strictly quantitative approaches must know the conceptual boundaries of such approaches.

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