Recently I read an article in the Guardian with the headline “The solution for the melting polar ice caps may be hiding in the rainforest”. It was written by Dr Paul Salaman, the CEO of Rainforest Trust. The article was, at least tangentially, about a recent paper by Houghton et al. in Nature Climate Change about the carbon stored in the tropical forests (which can be found here). The Houghton et al. paper is purely a biophysical assessment of net primary productivity in rainforests. Dr Salaman used that scientific paper as a starting point to argue:
“Rainforest conservation is also incredibly economical. One acre of Amazon rainforest in Peru, which stores up to 180 metric tonnes of CO2, can be protected for just a few dollars; the same is true elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. The implications here are astounding and should give us pause: for the cost of a meal – or even a coffee – each of us could save an area of forest about the size of four football pitches and safely store about 725 metric tonnes of CO2. To put this in perspective, the annual emissions of a typical passenger vehicle in the United States is less than 4.5 metric tonnes of CO2.”
On reading this I had two thoughts (two more than my usual daily ration). My first thought was: “Hmm he is confusing stocks and flows…” This is not a very helpful way of relating a stock carbon in standing trees to reducing emissions, which are flows.
My second thought was: “Why am I letting this technical issue (stocks versus flows) occupy my mind when there is a much bigger and more important issue of ‘pre-analytical frames’ To be honest I not sure where the term ‘pre-analytical frames’ comes from or even if it exists, as I understand it, outside my own befuddled mind. For what it is worth, to me, pre-analytical frames are those, often unexplored, views and assumptions we hold about the world. By this I don’t just mean the really abstract stuff like ontology and epistemology, but also more pragmatic things like our ideas of progress, justice, the role of science in society, social and ethical norms.
So why do pre-analytical frames matter in science? Both the paper and the newspaper article essentially frame the conservation of rainforests as being of instrumental value to humanity. Because rainforests can sequester carbon we appropriate and burn from elsewhere it buys us precious time to change our polluting ways. The paper provides an essentially a consequentialist, pre-analytical framework for making judgements about conserving the rainforests (things will be better if we do). Dr Salaman deftly takes this broad consequentialist starting point to provide a narrower utilitarian argument, and one based on aggregate utility maximization (another pre-analytical frame) – no consideration of the distribution of costs and benefits of that choice. I would argue there are many other important underpinning assumptions such as Dr Salaman’s call for buying rainforests, because it is an “economical” means of mitigating climate change, implying that notions such as efficiency and cost effectiveness are the metric by which we should judge such choices. What role does that leave for notions such as rights, justice, or responsibility (as expressed in traditional deontological arguments for conservation)?
There is an argument that multiple ethical arguments can co-exist, that we can simultaneously ascribe to utilitarian and deontological ethical arguments for conservation. Certainly I would say I do this as an individual, even if it is sometimes awkward. However, the rub (as I see it) is that that adherence to these ethical frameworks is to some extent a social construct. Our ethics and world views are shapes by our experiences, relationships, and what we learn (and are told) about the world. This matters because, we can reinforce and legitimize certain ethical framings through the institutions of science and the pre-analytical frames science is built on.
Science holds a unique position in our societies. Scientific knowledge has legitimacy, and therefore power, because it is still seen as disinterested, observation of the world. However, here I would argue that science is built on a tradition of instrumentalization of the world. When science abstracts complex reality it has traditionally done so with the questions like “what causes this”, or “how does this effect that”. And indeed Utilitarianism itself comes out of the same tradition. Science and Utilitarianism share some of the same pre-analytical frames. So when traditional descriptive (describing states of the world), natural sciences evolves into normative (making judgements about states of the world) science, like conservation biology, it seems natural that it gravitates towards an instrumentalist (i.e. utilitarian) ethical framing, even if the individual scientists hold quite different personal ethical positions.
I would argue that because other ethical frameworks are not so amenable to instrumentalization, they do not receive the same legitimization through science. I believe this can lead to an, unintended, crowding out of other equally legitimate ethical framings for conservation science and sustainability science more generally. This crowding out is both in terms of dominant social and political discourses and ethical crowding where one ethical framework becomes the legitimate framing for judging states of the world. For example, the influential planetary boundaries discourse, is largely premised on and legitimizes an (aggregated) consequentialist ethical framing of sustainability. Ditto for the land sparing versus land sharing debate (with added assumptions about efficiency as an intrinsic good; food security as a technical rather than social problem; scientists as those responsible for defining how states of world should be judged etc, etc..).
So, what does these all mean (other than rehash of an old, possibly tired, debate)? Well for me it suggests that we need to think more about the scientific models we create. We should be mindful of the pre-analytic frames our models are the based on, and what discourse and values these in turn legitimize. I know there are thoughtful, erudite debates on these issues in the literature, but these ‘academic’ debates seem very isolated from the ‘sharp end’ of conservation and sustainability science.
As scientists not just our models of the world, but also our methods and metrics shaped by these value laden pre-analytical frames. Here Shannon diversity is not a million miles from $ per hectare in terms of the strength of the worldview that shapes that measure. Not that that there is anything wrong with those methods, metrics, or models (I thought I might not be able to slip an alliteration in here but that is quite smooth!), their normativity is unavoidable. For me it is crucially that if our science makes judgements about states of the world, in however an abstract of unattended way, it behoves us to make the basis for those pre-analytical judgments as transparent as we do the methods by which we do our science. A discussion of these, to me, fundamentally important issues seems puzzlingly missing from ‘every day science’.
As always I would be very interested in others’ opinions.