From counting carbon to commodifying nature: the pre-analytical ties that bind

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.

7 thoughts on “From counting carbon to commodifying nature: the pre-analytical ties that bind

  1. Hello from France! Very interesting debate indeed, we touch upon crucial issues…
    Is it possible, Mr Joern Fischer, that you take a glance at a very bold proposal: the introduction of a new type of money based upon the health of rich ecosystems. This currency would be created by The United Nations. Please take a look here: The shortest way to a soft and smart revolution: the Crocus Currency! | Le Club de Mediapart

  2. I’m going to start with a trivial point: your ‘pre-analytical frame’ is very close to what Herman Daly (citing Joseph Schumpeter) called ‘pre-analytic vision.’ So, it seems that this concept does not exist in your mind only;-)

    I am not sure whether I can contribute much non-trivial thoughts… As an economist with a rather anthropocentric worldview I’ve learned to accept utilitarian/consequentialist/instrumentalist arguments (I think you should differentiate more between the three terms, but this is a rather ‘academic’ point we needn’t pursue here and today), even though I don’t think they are unproblematic. You mentioned the idea that multiple ethical systems can co-exist. I have no idea whether your explanation that this is due to social contingencies and ‘culture’ is true, but after having read and thought a bit about ethics I would propose that there is no one-size-fits-all ethical ‘theory of everything’ which solves all moral problems in a satisfying way (where ‘satisfying’ means according to our moral intuitions, not internally consistent – internal consistency is not that difficult to achieve). So we cannot but adhere to different types of arguments in different contexts.

    However, you are sure in pointing out that when science makes value judgements (is it still science then…?), it has to make clear what its ‘pre-analytic vision’ is, including the ethical foundation. For instance, conventional economic arguments can have much appeal (to me at least) in many contexts, but it has to be kept in mind that they are based on a rather crude preference utilitarianism.

    In the end it is all, in a sense, about pluralism. It would be utterly stupid if we would base all our arguments on utilitarianism – in fact, it would be stupid to base them all on any single ethical theory, but utilitarianism would be particularly stupid because it is particularly deficient and problematic. There is a nice book by Amartya Sen (an economist, but a rather unconventional one), The Idea of Justice, in which he advances a similar idea of an ‘irreducible plurality of impartial reasons.’ Very recommendable.

    A last remark: I think it is particularly important that we are aware of where positive analysis ends and where normative arguments start. This is often a huge problem in the area of science, particularly climate science, conservation biology and the like – science has, as you rightly pointed out, a ‘halo’ of objectivity. So people tend to think that what scientists say about their subject is objective. Often it is not. We scientists are just human beings like any other and thus constantly make value judgements – sometimes without being aware of that (e.g., because we just have a specific pre-analytic vision).

    • Thank, as always a very eloquent and informative comment.

      I entirely agree with your post. I guess I would describe myself as (largely) a consequentalist, and even a (troubled) equity maximizing utilitarian with regard to many sustainability issues, especially with regard things like common pool resource management. So my concern is not so much with the alignment of ;traditional’ scientific disciplines with a consequentialist world view, ro the inherent problems with such ethical frames, but rather the extent to which that alignment crowds out other legitimate ethical frameworks.

      I am also interested in the potential disconnect between the ethics we build into our ‘objective’ models of the world and our own held values and beliefs as scientists. While I suspect this is relatively unproblematic for economics (I suspect that most economists are at least grudging utilitarians of some form – and as you say – in some circumstances), but for conservation biology it is potentially a real problem. I know many ecologists I that I would regards as holding strongly deontological positions on conservation, but their ‘objective’ models of the world and the framing of those models in their academic work is strongly consequentialist. At the very least this seems to be an issue worthy of a bit of head scratching.

  3. I was looking for an excuse to bring this to your attention, Dave, and lo, here is one!

    On first, or even second, glance it may appear entirely unrelated–but it actually, in my mind, quite directly speaks to some of your concerns. The proposal that we dedicate more of our time sharing tasks outside of our main interests is, to me, one of the “operating rules” that is not included in Ostrom’s “8 principles” but may be a future contender for reaching that lofty level. That is to say, spending time doing a greater diversity of work, and/or working from within other’s contexts, seems to create unparalleled drivers and results in increasing empathy and, in the long-term, “efficiency”, if we take that simply to mean objectives widely agreed upon happen with less effort on the part of many or all.

    There are a lot of assumptions packed in that paragraph, but long story short, I think it behooves most of us (particularly academics) to be less specialized, such that our ability to understand empathize with other approaches and points of view can come from direct contact and working together with different groups rather than simply thinking the market or our own intellect can appropriately allocate our individual and aggregated attentions to the right priorities.

    I’ve often explained this as the idea that not everyone should be doing everything, but all of us should be doing a little more of something else. We shouldn’t all try to work in all disciplines or take on all moral frameworks, but all of us should spend more time with a couple more than we would otherwise.

    I’ve quite a bit more thoughts on this, but I will uncharacteristically leave off for now!

  4. Pingback: Aspirational science | Ideas for Sustainability

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