Flexible framings and human agency: implications for conservation

By Joern Fischer

What is the most effective way to conserve biodiversity? Much of the answer seems to depend on how we approach the problem – and which variables we believe can or cannot be altered. This little blog post is a call to more often jump between framings and assumptions about the future. The result, ideally, would be a resilient portfolio of conservation actions.

Take this introduction by myself and co-authors from 2006 (full paper available here):

“Only about 12% of Earth’s land is located in protected areas, and less than half of this is managed primarily for biodiversity conservation (Hoekstra et al. 2005). Although protected areas are an essential part of any credible conservation strategy (Margules and Pressey 2000), it is becoming increasingly clear that reserves alone will not protect biodiversity because they are too few, too isolated, too static, and not always safe from over-exploitation (Liu et al. 2001; Bengtsson et al. 2003; Rodrigues et al. 2004). For these reasons, it is now widely recognized that conservation within protected areas needs to be complemented by conservation outside protected areas (Daily 2001; Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002).”

This framing makes it quite clear that this particular set of authors simply doesn’t have much faith in protected areas. Basically, we stated that they only cover a small proportion of land – and an implicit assumption is that this is unlikely to change. In other words, our framing leads us to believe that protected areas are inherently limited. We do not believe that humanity would choose, collectively or otherwise, to set aside substantially more land than the (then current) level of 12%.

At the other end of the spectrum, we’re experiencing a rise in people once again arguing for more protected areas – these are the scientists advocating re-wilding, or advocating land sparing. But interestingly, too, papers advocating more reserves also often start with specific framings that include implicit assumptions about humanity. Most common is the “Tilman statement” – that food production must double by 2050 to meet rising demand. Authors who take this as an unalterable fact do not believe that humanity – collectively or otherwise – will get its act together to improve food distribution issues, eat less meat, and waste less food. So, just like in the previous framing, some things are considered feasible, and hence worth studying (e.g. increasing the amount of reserves), while other things are considered not feasible and hence not worth studying (e.g. reducing the need to double agricultural production).

As we jump between topics, we see that the perceived limits of human agency will again and again shape what a particular group of scientists believes we need to do. Depending in your assumptions, you will believe cities are the solution or you see them as the problem, you believe nuclear power is the solution or part of the problem, and technology in general is inherently problematic or might yet come to the rescue.

Ironically, scientific papers are devoted to describing the specific analyses following such initial, largely implicit framings. And so, more often than not, analyses will confirm what a given set of scientists already believes in: the analyses by the pro-nuclear scientists will confirm the need for nuclear energy, while the analyses by the anti-nuclear scientists will, usually, show the exact opposite.

Implicit framings cause many problems. Scientists do not come across as a united front, and as a result, science is not taken seriously by some decision makers – they pick and choose the science that most fits with their beliefs. Perhaps even more problematically, the existence of multiple truths that are contingent on framing, don’t sit easily with “objective” (positivist) natural scientists. Debates emerge, and technical details continue to be refined, when in fact misunderstandings arise from issues that are more hidden, as well as more important.

Ultimately, none of us know which assumptions about the future, and the ability of humanity to get its act together, are most reasonable. Two possible solutions emerge.

One, I would encourage scientists to try to check their own assumptions, and try to jump between different sets of worldviews. If somebody else arrives at the opposite conclusion, it’s most likely not because of different technical issues, but because of different a priori problem framings. The question then is, which bit of which framing is useful?

Second, I think this points towards us needing a portfolio of solutions. The answer is not nuclear power, nor everyone living in the countryside, nor bigger reserves. And equally, the answer most likely is not renewable energy, living in cities, and using wildlife-friendly farming. It’s not doubling food supply, and it’s not everyone being vegetarian. Uncertainty suggests we ought to be somehow prepared for all of these options – make cities more sustainable where possible, but cherish sustainable life in the countryside where that is more feasible. Make nuclear power safe where it is needed, but use renewable energy where possible. Reduce our consumption patterns as much as possible, but know this is going to be hard, and so be prepared that this alone might not be enough.

Somehow, this seems painfully obvious. Yet, disagreements on these very issues seem to be what many of us invest energy into – creating, again and again, polarized understandings in a multi-facetted world.

9 thoughts on “Flexible framings and human agency: implications for conservation

  1. Dear Joern,
    Good post – as always;)
    Not only in science is this a problem. Framing generally sets the limits to what we are able to imagine, and thus how we are able to act.
    As for a portfolio of solutions, the Stockholm Resilience Centre has started a new project: http://goodanthropocenes.net/. These are solutions for sustainable development, not limited to conservation. Hopefully, the project will grow to a substantial size allowing us to peruse the possible actions already undertaken. Also, they link to other such collections. Having all in one place seems like a good idea, though – let’s hope they are successful!

  2. Dear Joern

    I read your post just after giving a quick read to the recent BreakThrough Insitute report “Nature Unbound. Decoupling for conservation” (http://thebreakthrough.org/images/pdfs/Nature_Unbound.pdf). I had some thoughts similar to what you expose here. Probabbly lots of scholars would propose a different set of tools and alternatives to the same situation the authors describe in the report. So, I consider Ecomodernism (the name of the transtion they propose) and whatever transition we consider (e.g. ecological intensification) is not only based on scientifically sound premises but also on subjective aspects sucha as scientists values and ideologies. Best regards!


    • Thanks Sebastian! I think, in short, that the ecomodernist manifesto is largely ideology, not science. I oscillate between thinking it must be challenged in the strongest possible ways; and that it’s not even worth wasting time on engaging with it. There is a lot more nuance to the world than simplistic techno-fixes will be able to address! Cheers — Joern

  3. Why is the fact that ‘Scientists don’t come across as a united front’ a problem? I thought that’s what’s to be expected from organised scepticism?

    • Fair enough! I see your point. I guess it can be a problem when the policy community then randomly picks and chooses which “science” it believes in and acts on; irrespective of an understanding of the assumptions and framings underlying a particular piece of science.

      • OK, but you’re almost appealing to journal editors to avoid publishing land sparing papers in your latest post – is that much better? Surely if it gets through peer-review, get it published, them pick it apart if it’s poor science? We shouldn’t pick and choose which science to publish any more that policy makers should pick and choose which to take into account. We don’t want to get accused of gate keeping like the climate science lot have been.

  4. Thanks again, SCJ. Well, reviewers and editors do pick and choose all the time, as do authors (what they perceive worth writing about, and how they frame their work). What I’m saying is that we have had a lot of a certain type of framing (sharing/sparing), with its associated assumptions, and that it’s time to move on. This is not about the research being “wrong”, it’s about its framing and its assumptions being rarely reflected upon. So, yes, I’m all for multiple framings, and for publishing a diversity of those, but I think (1) those need to be well reflected upon, and (2) we have seen a lot of this sharing/sparing framing, and I’m not sure we’re getting much further with it. Hope that makes it a bit clearer!

  5. Pingback: The other Tilman paper we ought to know about | Ideas for Sustainability

  6. Pingback: Aspirational science | Ideas for Sustainability

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