iPad, iDiv, iRant

BY JAN HANSPACH

DISCLAIMER: In the following blog post, I demonstrate that I am an evil, cynical person. If you feel offended, just keep that in mind (and take it with a sense of humour). Blogs are meant to initiate discussion after all…

Our world has been changing since the very first second and from a human perspective, and with huge human impact, especially so in the last 50 to 100 years. We were ‘fruitful and increase[d] in number and fill[ed] the Earth‘ (Genesis 9:3), developed technologies, communication, improved transportation, and produced a lot of substances that will influence Earth long after we have gone. We have managed to change the climate and get rid of most of what was natural around us. Open your eyes and enjoy the Anthropocene at its peak.

All that makes me think about myself (yes, I am one the first world blokes having a pretty comfortable life; without an iPad though) and about my role as a scientist. I started out as an ecologist, being excited about pristine nature and trying to understand it. Having learnt that there is nothing left worth calling pristine and that we are on our way to destroy what felt so valuable to me, I turned more towards the conservation side of ecology, and now I work in an interdisciplinary project trying to find ways to move a bit closer to sustainable land use, together with the people in the region we work in.

Doing that feels much more like doing the right thing (though it might still fail…). And so I wonder why there are not more ecologists moving in this direction. Looking at the research agenda of the newly installed German biodiversity research centre iDiv makes me think about that point even more.

To evaluate your opinion, I have put together two (slightly polemic) polls

POLL 1:

Imagine you are a librarian and you are about to catalogue the books of your library (it was poorly maintained in the past) when suddenly a fire starts in one of the corners of your library. It is spreading very fast. What would you do?

POLL 2:

Imagine you are an ecologist faced with global environmental change in the 21st century. A research funding body gives you a enough money to do whatever you think is most important. What would you do?

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8 thoughts on “iPad, iDiv, iRant

  1. Hi Jan,

    no question about your motives (btw., where’s the evil part? ;), but I feel bit uncomfortable with parts of what you seem to imply, namely

    1) The main responsibility of a researcher is to solve our social and environmental problems

    2) Neither the question of what exactly constitutes biodiversity, nor how it emerged, is of urgent relevance for conservation

    I don’t want to dive into 1) because this is the perfect topic for endless discussions, but a comment on 2: Assuming that society does not provide the funds for maintaining all aspects of the current diversity of ecosystems and species (and given that we need space for 9 billion people I would say it’s pretty much set that we won’t get back the area needed to compensate for the extinction debts that are already locked in), conservation science has to come up with a solution for how to select those aspects that are most valuable (e.g. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2008.07.007). So far, I haven’t seen any convinging solution to that problem (see e.g. the excellent paper by Brooks http://www.sciencemag.org/content/313/5783/58.full.pdf), so I would say, yes, I find points 1 and 2 important questions for ecology, both from a basic and from an applied viewpoint.

    • Hi Florian, thanks for your reply.
      Let me shortly respond to 1):
      I would be perfectly fine with continuing reading if the library wouldn’t be burning. Or more directly: I have the feeling that many ecologists give the right answers to the wrong questions.
      And 2): Yes, and there is a reason for that. In a crisis you can’t bother about the details, but try to make the best out of a situation. Without having read the two papers (thanks for highlighting them), I‘d say that it is not enough to point at the aspects that are most at risk, but to help to eliminate the causes of threat.
      …but maybe I am just a bit naïve and/or arrogant here.

      • Hi Jan, I feared that we would get back to point 1 🙂

        OK, good to pick research questions that seem important to you. However, I find defining questions as “right” and “wrong” a slippery slope. With this logic, you might as well argue that everyone should rather go into medicine because the fire is burning much hotter there. In fact, on the danger of relativizing, we had fires since the early days of civilization (plague, famine, war, injustice), the only thing that changed is that the fire spread to the ecology section. Would you say that Darwin was wrong to persue the question of evolution while he could have used his time to develop a fertilizer that would feed starving children in England? Maybe so, but I think as diversity of species is a value in its own right, so is the diversity of thoughts.

        As for 2), and this also relates to what Jahi was saying below: for me, the “right thing to do” is often not clear at all. In particular, I think we still have major uncertainties regarding the consequences of in/decreasing species/functional/genetic diversity, so I don’t find the iDiv questions irrelevant for the crisis at all. A policy maker might e.g. ask: what happens if we transfer half of the European conservation / AES budget to paying Brazil for X km^2 avoided deforestation?

        1) I don’t see that we are currently able to predict the full consequences of such an action at any level of certainty that would be appropriate for an informed decision. This is not to say that we couldn’t say that protecting rainforest is better than not protecting it. However, what is exact gain, and how does it compare to what we have to give up to get it? And you always have to give up something else, we have to give up money or diversity, or the Brazilians have to give up development.

        2) Additionally, even if we were clear about the consequences, I’d be curious if we would come to any agreement among conservationists as to whether such a tranfer would be preferable – in most cases, my bet would be no!

  2. If I could be so bold, I have a different but similar take to Jan in response to Dr. Hartig. Florian said “…conservation science has to come up with a solution for how to select those aspects that are most valuable (e.g. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2008.07.007). So far, I haven’t seen any convinging solution to that problem…”

    The problem with this, to my mind, is two-fold.
    1) “Most valuable” — this simple term carries a nearly unfathomably vast raft of questions. In short, how do we define “value”? Within the scientific perspective proper, we have to ask — are the areas with the most biodiversity the most valuable? Does that mean areas should be focused on in descending order of species richness + evenness + level of endemism? That’s roughly true in how we go about right now, but given Florian’s correct point about limited resources, does that mean certain “sacrifice zones” of lower diversity/higher disturbance are fair game for razing? (Or diverting development/expansion into, were it possible.) How do we balance the value of top predators vs. lower trophic levels (e.g., charismatic mammalian “keystone predators” vs. “to a first approximation, all animals are bugs”)? Are, say, carbon-storing biodiverse systems more valuable than equally biodiverse systems that are (say) at carbon equilibrium? Are more “resilient” biological systems more valuable? How do we measure resilience, and at what level? What about neglected below-ground biodiversity, which we have even more limited knowledge about? And what about other values–going a bit outside science proper now, value (should be) decided through some kind of democratic process. How do we rate aesthetic value vs. other ecosystem service (respiration, sequestration, water purification) values? Are systems that the poor depend on more valuable than systems preserved more for aesthetics, or systems that, while important, are less directly important to livelihoods?

    2) Once we settle that easy question , there’s additionally the question of “how much science is enough”? I’m curious about how many scientists would answer this (another poll?), but given the fact that we know we never *completely* understand any system, how will we know when we understand it enough? How do we deal with continuing lacks of consensus among researchers? The conservation literature is full of compelling cases for different approaches, conceptualizations, prioritizations, etc. Insofar as there is likely to be a dominant synthesis, history would suggest it will come after several more decades, minimum, if not 50-100 years. That is, we can only “know” an idea is sound not just when the empirical and theoretical case looks good, but when that case looks good as it is challenged and contested. The “obvious winners” are only ever so in retrospect. But, said quite simply: how will when we know when we have a “right enough” answer from science, and how many scientists and/or citizens have to agree that this answer is “right enough”?

    This may make it seem like I think the situation is insoluble. It is not, and I do not. However, I think we make far more progress through action (say, action research–research leading to social action in cooperation with non-scientist communities), and I think the dominant stumbling block is not a lack of science but a lack of action. Scientists, in my humble opinion, need to be part of such action as citizens. We have no less obligation than other citizens in democratic societies to *lobby for societal action we consider to be important*; arguably, we have more.

    See also Chomitz et al’s “Viable reserve networks arise from individual landholder responses to conservation incentives” and Hagerman et al’s Observations on drivers and dynamics of environmental policy change: insights from 150 years of forest management in British Columbia.

    Briefly yours… (hah! sorry) Jahi

  3. Hmm… interesting thoughts, Florian. You say “However, I find defining questions as “right” and “wrong” a slippery slope. With this logic, you might as well argue that everyone should rather go into medicine because the fire is burning much hotter there” — while this is true, it seems to me that the first part is an enduring problem for scientists. We cannot (in my opinion) simply say “right and wrong have no clear answers, therefore we have no clear obligation to engage in conversations about it with larger society.” The clearest answers can only come from frank and open conversations with and among society. After all, while individual researchers may have no obligation to, say, all switch to medicine, it would be within society’s (e.g. citizens and their democratic governments’) rights to, say, switch all, most, or some funding to medicine. Or, indeed, to continue current relative funding levels that do seem to (appropriately?) favor medicine to some extent.

    I can’t remember where I read this, but there is also the point that the presence of a slippery slope does not mean that no distinctions can or should be drawn; rather, it means that one must be careful in doing so. To me, the point here is simply that conservation biologists nominally have conservation as one of their chief concerns. Doing what is most urgent within one’s own area is less slippery, I’d say. The question, to me, has long been “what is the most effective, and important work I can do to advance conservation alongside justice”. While there’s much to be said for research of all types, I don’t think most of us have asked this question in earnest, with a willingness to change what we do, rather than asked it and quickly answered that what we’re currently doing already is the most important–or, is important enough, or, is what we like and are good at doing, so it’d be no use for us to do something else badly. I’m not trying to say that the answer is clearly more direct action on the fire, or that the answer will be the same for everybody. But I think most of us ask ourselves these questions indirectly, or only with a strong bias towards continuing what we’re already doing, or want to do, rather than considered if we have any obligations to try to do something else or something more. My own choices may indeed be the wrong ones, but I think this process & conversation needs to be had more often and openly!

    To some of the other points, I find Hagerman et al useful:
    “Decades of research in this field have shown that the domains of science and society cannot be neatly separated in practice. Evidence from these researchers and others does not support assumptions of a linear model of objective scientific information passed untainted by human values to inform policy decisions. Rather there are subjective values at play during all phases of knowledge production and application in policy debates (Jasanoff 2004). Furthermore, historical research has shown that “scientific proof is rarely what is at stake in a contested environmental….issue.” And that in environmental policy, there is “no need to wait for proof, no need to demand it and no basis to expect it” (Oreskes 2004).”

    I suspect Oreskes’ point will raise some hackles, but I strongly recommend reading her whole piece–she is definitely in no way arguing for the superiority of ignorance or unimportance of knowledge. She’s arguing about the way policies actually work, and the perpetual and insoluble partiality (incompleteness) of scientific understanding. Again, in terms of consequences for example, how much understanding would be “enough”? And is there any reason to think “complete enough” understanding will come “soon enough”?

    Forgive me, but a last quote:
    “Evidence would suggest that a great many “enlightened” choices concerning the environment have been taken in the absence of pricing. Early efforts at disease control through water purification in major urban centers of Europe and America certainly come to mind. Similarly, air pollution programs in these same cities did not await decisive evidence that the citizenry was prepared to pay an aggregate sum in excess of the anticipated “costs” imposed on those whose actions were to be modified. The dedication of large tracts of the American continent as public domain lands for the eternal enjoyment of all-regardless of their economic situation-is yet another reminder of the historical irrelevance of pricing and valuing of the sort that now seems de rigueur. Recent efforts to reduce the chemical contamination of groundwater and to staunch the loss of millions of tons of valuable topsoil also suggest that collective choices about the environment need not await definitive proof [of willingness to pay].” Vatn and Bromley 1994. — I suggest that one could replace “valuation” here with “[ability] to predict the full consequences of such an action at any level of certainty that would be appropriate for an informed decision.”

  4. Pingback: Technocratic and economic ideals in the ecosystem services discourse | Ideas for Sustainability

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