If you can’t beat them, join them

By Joern Fischer

In the 1980s, conservation biologists wrote about the intrinsic value of biodiversity. — Now, conservation “scientists” write about payments for ecosystem services.

In the 1970s, excessive consumption was seen as a key problem for sustainability. — Now, leading ecologists analyse how to best meet global demand for ever more resources without thinking to question if all demand must always be met.

In the first half of the 20th century, ecologists used t-tests but understood their local systems. — Now, ecologists do complicated meta-analyses and produce global maps depicting systems they have never been to (risking a loss of the culture of ecology).

The intuition and morality of people like Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson has been replaced with an understanding that we need hard evidence to convince those in charge (whoever they are, and whether or not hard evidence is actually what’s missing … see here or here).

As late as 1999, Donella Meadows wrote about the importance of changing paradigms for sustainable development. — And now?

Looks like the paradigm shift at a societal scale hasn’t happened.

We couldn’t beat them.

And so … we joined them.

Surely this is the obvious thing to do to ensure biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Right …?


19 thoughts on “If you can’t beat them, join them

  1. Hello Joern, your first point is true: there are a lot of discussion, which neglect the principle reason behind the environmental problems. May be, discussions which raise your liefstyle in question are anything but comfortable? But I don’t think, you will beat them when joining them. And there are still a lot of people discussing this uncomfortable questions necessary to find out to sustainability – especially within the environmental movement like Friends of the Earth, to give an example. Join them – if you not already did. Best regards, Christian

    • Hi Christian — I agree with you on all fronts. Unfortunately though, academia seems to no longer the an origin of “uncomfortable truths” — the environmental movement, yes, and NGOs, yes … but academia seems to have become more of a “realist consultancy agency” to work largely or solely within the status quo … perhaps that’s too negative, but that’s my sense a bit.
      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hi Joern – thank you for this, it is very germane to the PhD topic I am embarking on here at Fenner School. In short, what has happened to the ‘ecological’ in sustainability? There is a relatively strong debate in economic circles – e.g. weak versus strong sustainability – which seems to have conceptually dominated how we think about sustainability and policy decision-making these days, but such a debate is less apparent in the ecological disciplines and consequently its contribution to the debate, beyond trying to point out the idea of ‘limits’, is underwhelming. Why is this the case? It all seems to fall back to a question of eliciting people’s value preferences – hence the dominance of economics – and not a question of how to maintain system health and essential life support systems.

    • Thanks Jim, interesting, isn’t it? How come that ecologists have got more “economic-sy” than economists themselves?! Quite puzzling, in a way …

      • I am not convinced that ecologists have become more “economics-sy”. I ran a workshop with ecologists and economists about valuing nature several years ago. One of the questions I asked was “when should you apply economic values to ecosystems?” While the economists (and some ecologists) generally had quite thoughtful responses regariding what is to be valued, the pluralistic nature “value” and the problems of value ascription, however, several ecologists replied “when it gives the right value”. For them economics was a tool to effect change, they cared very little about how the economics was done, only if it would make policy-makers listen.

        In a sense I think many ecologists feel that there hands have been forced. They would prefer to make arguments about “intrinsic” value, but feel that no one listens.When you combine this with a culture of “big science”, global analysis and evidence (read as quantative evidence) based conservation, this is where you end up.

  3. Thanks Dave, I think that is a good explanation for the pattern, which I think is real (i.e. I may be imagining the reasons for the pattern, but I do think the pattern is real). — J.

  4. So what is the argument for intrinsic value?
    Is it no more than an ethical consideration of the rights of nature?
    Not that that is unimportant, but if that’s the case, whenever push comes to shove and there are other economic instrumental values to be traded off in a decision, it is the latter that will usually come up trumps. Hence the advent of ecosystem services, and the pattern Joern has described.
    I find it odd that, at one level, we all know we’re fundamentally connected and dependent on natural systems yet we find it so hard to articulate this in a way that influences policy beyond the commodification argument.

    • Hi Jim … you’re right. And I don’t have a problem with ES at all — it’s useful and one important consideration. But overall, it appears conservation science has become part of the dominant paradigm, rather than questioning whether that paradigm is problematic. Sometimes I wonder if we have become part of the problem, rather than being part of the solution…

    • Hi Jim,
      like Joern I don’t have a problem with ecosystem services in principle (it is what I do for a living), but that does not mean the concept is problem free, In particular, talking about the trade-offs berween “intrinsic value” and “instrumental values” is inherently problematic, because those two values are based on different and potentially incompatable philosophical frameworks – deontology (rights based ethics) and consequentialism (consequence based ethics).

      So for me the issue is not that the ES approach leads to commodification of nature(although clearly it can), but that it requires the adoption of a consequentialist ethical framework when many ecologists are probably more naturally inclined towards deontological ethical approaches.

      The orginal motivation for the ecosystem services approach was that it should compliment the “ethical” aregument for conservation, To some extent this is true and does happen. However we should not ignore that the ecosystem services approach actually provides an alternative, not complimentary, ethical framework for deciding what is “good” in human-nature interactions.

  5. Thanks a bunch Joern for raising this matter and i fully agree that our ways of doing ecological science have fundamentally changed since Leopolds time (incorporating all those new exciting tools).
    What makes me curious is how did ecology become like this? Leaving the obvious technological and statistical advance out, the most obvious reason i can think of is higher competition for even more limited amount of fundings and positions. I guess that nowadays there are more students and workers in the “ecology” business than ever before and this led people to compete against each other. And while quality takes more time, effort and money(!), quantity can lead to a faster likelihood of sticking out of the crowd of willing workers (publication numbers, h-index, … ).
    Even sustainability was more a word for forest engineers before the 90s until it became a global buzzword and research was spreading out in all different dimensions and directions.
    So i really guess that the ecologist themselves drive their field into this direction. In some sort of an unconscious collective thinking where individualistic needs and desires are the underlying reason.


    ps: As a graduate student i still can not decide if i wanna be a taxonomically experienced field-ecologist or a theoretical modeler and ecological statistician. I think i will just do both 😉

    • Hi Martin – I think you are right. I would be happy to see more thinking about how ‘our’ (i.e. academics) demographics shape the diversity of disciplines (and inter- and trans disciplines…which from a distant point are just more disciplines added to the many others, but with more sexy wording) we address. Each new discipline (including the discipline of trans-discipline) means a new ‘niche’, and more space to be filled with brains. I exagerate a bit (as usually). I suspect that we are unable to shape our thinking and scientific directions rationally, but it is the demographics and innovation (to make space to new brains coming into the population) which shape things. This is not necessarily bad, but lets see what will come out of this at the end. It is clear that while we are talking about sustainability, ecosystem services, and all possible and impossible theories, in my country people are beaten because they dont want corporations to violate their properties. The real world is one thing, and the ever complicating theoretical world is a totally different dimmension, no matter how ‘solution oriented’ is declared to be. That is why I increasingly join activist groups. It was funny to hear that in Bucharest, a homless guy joined protestors and his arguments were similar with those presented in papers in high IF journals. So how solution is the solution oriented research if even a homeless guy knows those basic things? Anyways, just thoughts. The ‘brain space’ was clearly wider in Leopold`s times than now. That is why those people told wise things. Nowadays, lots of money are spent to say trivial things:) Anyway, just chaotic thoughts (just me), the post is great and the discussions too.

      • ups, something is missing from here: ‘So how solution is the solution oriented research if even a homeless guy knows those basic things?’
        so add: ‘and he still suffers from corruption and unjustice, plus, the knowledge needed to solve his problem is indeed in the air, no need for pan-continental complex and expensive consortiums to say trivial things.’ Or something like this. Cheers!:)

  6. Wonderful conversation here.

    I think one point that perhaps has been missing is the dynamics behind this–> “whenever push comes to shove and there are other economic instrumental values to be traded off in a decision, it is the latter that will usually come up trumps”. Jim said this in his comment, but and I think this is correct but incomplete. This is broadly true among policy-makers, which is the audience to whom ecologists more and more want to turn, and to influence. The problem with this is three-fold: (a) policy-makers respond to many kinds of incentives: it’s not as simple as economic instrumental values, but it’s even MORE not as simple as presenting the “right evidence”–politicians don’t take “right actions” (in general) that don’t benefit them either electorally or personal clout- or resource-wise; (b) hence, attempts to speak more directly to policy-makers misses one of the two most important levers–convincing the PUBLIC, the citizens, who may then hold their politicians to account. An emphasis on peer-reviewed pieces, and on talking to politicians, seems to be pushing out outreach, though perhaps this is not everyone else’s experience? In any case, while NSF in the US, for example, is emphasizing broader impacts more, the push for “quantity over quality” that Joern and colleagues have talked about on this blog and elsewhere has also pushed out the time and brainspace for many academics who might desire to do more work with communities. And certainly, the reward systems reward talking to other “elites” –other academics, an perhaps policy-makers, but NOT citizens as a primary, or even secondary, audience of import, where you get highly rewarded (tenure, grants) for successfully working with them in ways large and small. In other words, academics are trying, unsuccessfully, to short-circuit democracy by convincing policy-makers before and without convincing fellow citizens. (c) This model of speaking directly to policy-makers works for many groups with lobbyists–but the reason it works for them, I’d argue, is that they are also linked with big donors (implicitly or explicitly), or other elites who can give politicians clout (in systems where campaign contributions are not insanely underregulated as they are in the US). Ecologists are, in essence, following the model of their fellow cultural elites–and quite possibly classmates, friends or spouses who went into the private sector and government–by trying to speak directly to Power. Yet ecologists haven’t the lobbying power, financial clout, or “job-creator” status of private groups to give them effective direct rhetorical or political power. We are trying a strategy that works through suasion and financial and societal clout, using only suasion.

    In short, we’d be better served developing constituencies among communities, where economics *sometimes* trumps intrinsic value, but where (in my experience), the tensions between these are actually both more acute and more openly recognized–and the choice of “economic instrumental value” is not necessarily straightforward or a foregone conclusion. This is long, sometimes tedious, and less-flashy work, but while politicians usually respond to economic instrumentality, they practically *always* respond to electoral instrumentality: if their election depends on an issue, you can count on them, typically, to work on it.

    We have to make our case to polities, not politicians. We might fail, or might face the similar or same problems, but trying to talk to politicians and not polities will surely fail.

    • As often — great analysis, and I wholeheartedly agree that we need to think more about speaking to the public, in addition (and perhaps even more so) than to policy makers. Especially in democracies, in which many of us operate!

      • Hi! Great analysis! In fact, it addresses what I have been thinking already for a while… who are “decision-makers”? Who holds what power(s) for changing undesirable situations or preserving desirable ones? I think it might be about the right time to acknowledge openly (as anthropologists already did long ago) that even us (ecologists, sustainability scientists…), particularly when doing research in precise case studies (not the “global” ones), are interfering the system, which has unavoidable ethical consequences: (1) we are never just observers; (2) we are in fact “stake”-holders; (3) if we want to be coherent with the changes we proclaim to be needed towards sustainability there is always something we can (at least try to) do (i.e. be political -not necessarily Politician or Decision-Maker). This brings us again to activism, outreaching, citizen-science… Obviously it takes time, effort, commitment and it will not be rewarded (even potentially criticized…) by the “academic industry” of indexes, impact factors and so on. Thank you for the entry and the nice debate! Cheers!

  7. Oh, and there are reasons to think we can be successful. Polities often have more “sophisticated” concerns with balancing intrinsic/sustainability values with short-term economic gain, but often lack the power, or the real prospect, of creating situations where they can fulfill these broader concerns. In long and short, we will need redistributions of both power and wealth to effect better ecological policy. This kind of socialist talk is exactly the type of thing most academic ecologists would rather not talk about in public–or at all–though many will admit this seems true over a beer or in a quiet comment. We have convinced ourselves that these kinds of approaches are impossible, and have tried to argue in the hard logic of economic/political pragmatism–yet such pragmatism simultaneously says dramatic change isn’t possible. So we (for some values of we) are attempting to change the system within an approach that practically precludes system change…

    • Thank you, these are excellent comments and I agree about the need to work with the broader polity and ask questions about how broader power structures work in our various governance systems.

      But it does make me wonder how much progress we’ve made if there is a continual lament amongst scientists about existing or looming ecological crises and the threat of collapse.

      Is it easy to provide a convincing g case why biodiversity really matters at the various scales that people relate to and decisions get made?
      Cheers, Jim

  8. Pingback: Evidence based policy and the problem of problem framing. | Ideas for Sustainability

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