By Joern Fischer
In the 1960s, island biogeography changed the way ecologists think about species distribution. In the 1970s, the first ideas for reserve design were beginning to take shape. In the 1990s, we learnt about fragmentation and edge effects. In the late 1990s, the idea of ecosystem services transformed the way we thought about conservation.
What are our big ideas today? My (controversial and perhaps mistaken) impression is that we are too often replacing the generation of new ideas with higher levels of technical sophistication when implementing the old ones. Climate change predictions are getting ever more accurate, but that hasn’t changed climate change per se. Planetary boundaries have been defined and recently refined, but that we’re beyond the limits was well known for decades before that. Technologies to refine agricultural yields are becoming more and more refined, but food distribution remains inequitable. In short: much of the highest impact science seems to just add higher levels of technical sophistication to what is already well known, but does little to address the foundational issues arguably most in need to being tackled.
This is of course, just an opinion of mine, and it may (1) be wrong, and (2) be seen as arrogant, or (3) be just plain unhelpful. As in: if I don’t like what is being researched, what then do I propose scientists ought to do more of? This is tricky, and if there was a simple answer, perhaps everyone would be doing just that. I guess I’d just like more signs from the scientific community that “we care”, that we realize that just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic will not be helpful, and that we know that simply refining our estimates and tools – within existing conceptual boundaries – won’t ultimately lead to sustainability. Not knowing the solution doesn’t mean one shouldn’t at least try to find it, beyond the space that is already well explored.
And last but not least: along with a loss of genuinely new ideas, I feel we are also increasingly losing scientists who are willing to express their vision for real, substantial changes in how humans interact with one another and with the planet. When talking in the pub, many sustainability or conservation scientists will still frankly speak about the need for major changes. But in papers … it’s just not neat and tidy enough, I guess.