When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

Re-balancing … everything?

By Joern Fischer

In a particularly insightful comment to a recent blog post of mine, Jahi Chappell challenged the ultimate benefits of ever-increasing specialisation. Having thought about this a bit, I was struck by the generality of what this may mean. I was amazed by just how often, the problems we discuss in sustainability science result from society having favoured specialisation over balance. In this blog post, I just want to substantiate this observation by highlighting well-known examples where re-balancing would have benefits for sustainability. There is no particular order to these examples.

The time budgets of individuals. Let’s start with the point that Jahi raised – the time budgets of individuals are increasingly lob-sided. We’re encouraged to be super-stars (= workaholics) in one thing, rather than spreading our time across a variety of things; rather than “just being” (in Jahi’s words) in our communities. “Academia’s obsession with quantity”, as we called it, is just one manifestation of this general societal push towards specialisation. The time budgets of many modern people appear to need “re-balancing” – to embrace a wide range of things that give meaning, rather than focus on one thing primarily.

Global equity. Clearly, to sustainability scientists, it’s no news that the distribution of global wealth could do with some re-balancing. The wealthy nations are causing most of the environmental problems, directly or indirectly, because of lifestyles that require more resources than we have available per capita (on average). At the same time, too many people in poor nations still struggle to make a half-decent living, and lack access to services (education, medical) that are taken for granted in many rich nations. According to a recent Oxfam study (thanks Tim Lang, for your Tweet!), 1% of the global population owns 48% of wealth and 80% owns only 5.5% of wealth. More balance would be preferable from a sustainability perspective (i.e. intra-generational equity).

Knowledge generation. For a long, long time, Western scientists have valued specialisation. Knowledge has been divided into disciplines and sub-disciplines. Any given (modern) scientist knows a lot about a very narrow set of issues. As Konrad Lorenz put it (as I’ve learnt from my dear friend Tibor Hartel): “Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.” From a sustainability perspective, we’re now arguing for re-balancing knowledge generation. We’re arguing that having lost sight of the whole has caused all kinds of problems; and that we must get out of our disciplinary silos and embrace different ways of knowing. That’s where the terms interdisciplinarity and transdiscipinarity stem from.

Supply of ecosystem services. As famously summarised in Jon Foley’s paper in 2005, and also highlighted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the ecosystem service bundles of intensively used agricultural landscapes are highly skewed towards provisioning services – while everything else is taking a heavy toll. Many scientists have argued for more balanced sets of ecosystem services. Recent concepts such as “ecological intensification”, for example, have suggested that we can have high levels of provisioning services while also having higher levels of other services – advocating a more balanced set of services, in other words.

Beneficiaries of ecosystem services. Recent work on ecosystem services has highlighted that the benefits of ecosystem services typically do not reach all possible beneficiaries equally. Rather, some people get a lot, while others get very little. Perhaps not surprisingly, one might argue that those places where the bundles of ecosystem services are least balanced might also be those places where the benefits are least equitably distributed… time to re-balance both, perhaps?

Resilience versus efficiency. Last but not least, an obvious example is Meffe and Holling’s classic “pathology of natural resource management”. They argue, basically, that a desire for narrowly focused efficiency has undermined the resilience of natural resource systems; making them less able to absorb shocks and continue functioning.

Perhaps this has been obvious all along, but I was quite struck really by how widespread this phenomenon of “need for more balance” appears to be. From personal lives, to ecosystem services, to knowledge generation … and I’m sure there are many more examples I could have included.

Quote: “What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics”

By Joern Fischer

Does this quote seem suitable for current discussions on climate change you may be following? Probably — as well as for lots of other public discussions about sustainability that you read about. And for the record: This quote is by Barack Obama, from his book “The Audacity of Hope”. When it comes to climate change, and sustainability issues more general, is there still room for hope? Is there any sign that the “smallness of our politics” will somehow change in the foreseeable future?

It is difficult not to be disillusioned when looking at the public discourse on climate change. Germany is sometimes hailed as a positive example of real progress on this front, partly because it decided to phase out fossil fuels within the medium-term future. But a closer look at Germany, to me at least, does not reveal big and bold politics either — sustainability here is more of a mainstream issue than in some other countries, but the dominant set of drivers that Germany is fundamentally based on seems just as unsustainable as elsewhere.

That said, ranting about this is not terribly helpful, and a more meaningful question may be to ask what scientists can do. Not very much perhaps, because decisions are not made by scientists (though civil society can be critically important!). But still, scientists can, and ought to, do more than provide just “data”. Most importantly, we should be questioning the world, and asking fundamentally important questions. That is, I see an urgent need for us scientists to look beyond the proximate causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, and instead open our eyes to the ultimate drivers underpinning these global trends. To me, too much of sustainability science is occupied with tangible solutions to tangible problems — when it’s the nasty, big, intangible problems that we most urgently need to grapple with. It’s for this reason that I previously put together an open letter (already signed by over 200 fellow scientists) stating the need to reflect on society’s core values.

Is there room for  hope? To my mind, not unless we start asking fundamental questions related to global equity, our core values, and what it is to lead a good life. It’s not just the smallness of our politics, but also the smallness of our “science” (in a broad sense) that needs to change. As Donella Meadows pointed out long ago: the most influential way to change complex systems in a big way is to transcend the paradigms underpinning the system. Based on this, we should ask (prominently!): which paradigms underpinning our modern global society remain largely unquestioned, but ought to be challenged?

Rethinking agricultural systems: first impressions, part II

By Joern Fischer

Tim Benton also gave his plenary talk at the conference I already reported on in the last blog entry. To start with, he highlighted that the average American family consumes more unequal food bundles, and vastly more calories than – for example – a sub-Saharan African family.

Regarding food security, Tim very quickly argued that food prices were important, implying that the supply side therefore was important. Given dietary changes then, it was inevitable to increase global food demand. Moreover, the food system was very much globalized; again, this highlighted the inevitability of taking a global perspective on how to address food security.

Unlike Jon, Tim was somewhat more pessimistic. Regarding climate change, for example, we are currently tracking the worst case IPCC scenario – a 4 degree increase by 2100. Extreme climate events that happened only every few centuries now happen as commonly as (almost) every decade. Tim highlighted that climate change was very much going to reduce food production in the decades to come, in several of the areas currently responsible for producing most of the world’s food.

In a nutshell, Tim’s argument went like this: Land is finite, and demand is growing, hence if the market works, reducing yield in one place (e.g. due to climate change), will put pressure to increase yields elsewhere (like it or not). Based on this assumption of market economics, Tim predicted there would be pressure for intensification on Europe (because other areas will be more severely affected by climate change).

Tim went on to talk about sustainable intensification – he actually cited the Brundtland definition, thereby signaling the need to consider social, economic and environmental issues (i.e. not only environmental issues). Right now, Tim highlighted, natural capital was providing free subsidies to agriculture. What if these subsidies decline in the future? Such decline could risk that systems may actually collapse. Moreover, different indicators of sustainability in farming systems can be negatively correlated, suggesting there may be uncomfortable trade-offs. Having more of everything therefore may be difficult.

Importantly, Tim emphasized that there was no simple solution as to what constituted sustainable agriculture. The benefits of organic farming, for example, may only be useful for biodiversity if we are dealing with low yielding organic production (Gabriel et al. J Appl Ecol). A key challenge thus is to manage entire farming landscapes, including areas that harbor ecosystem services; which in turn, may cause trade-offs with other variables (such as yields and profits).

One potential solution might be to select landscapes that can be safely intensified without losing a lot of ecosystem services, while avoiding intensification in areas that would be costly to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Smart multi-functional landscapes therefore need to be designed, and incentives must be developed for farmers to actually implement  such spatial planning – despite incentives to intensify likely growing in the future. Tim mentioned that diversification of landscapes may improve the resilience of farming systems, and this could be a possible incentive for farmers (Dave Abson wrote an earlier blog entry on this – Tim cited his work).

Finally, Tim emphasized the importance of the need to change our attitudes towards food. To have everything, cheap and abundant, just won’t be possible. Tim emphasized that it was not all about production – indeed, an increasing number of people is obese, and a lot of food gets wasted. The current situation is one where we expect that more consumption will endlessly improve human well-being – in a food context, this is not true and is causing a lot of environmental as well as health problems. Changing diets therefore could be a particularly powerful strategy to foster sustainability. At this point, Tim gave a beautiful quote by Tim Lang: “The rich have to consume less and differently so that the poor consume more and differently”.

Key challenges ahead, according to Tim, were lengthening the view of governments; finding a business case as to why it is worthwhile to invest in the environment (e.g. a resilience argument?); and we needed organizational cultural changes. Finally, academics needed to communicate their messages more clearly, and needed to better articulate how something can change, and what the actual societal impacts were going to be. Just stating that “we need conservation”, for example, was not enough, because this comes at a cost to other aspects of well-being …. and ignoring these costs was something that ecologists had done for a long time.

Like Jon Foley before him, Tim gave a great overview of some of the most pressing issues of our time, with many important facts and nuances that cannot be ignored.

Pluralism in conservation: the metaphor of love

By Joern Fischer

In a recent blog entry, I pondered what to make of changing values and approaches in conservation biology. On the one hand, we have “classic” biocentric thinking by people like Michael Soulé and Reed Noss (e.g. this paper, or this one) who argue for the intrinsic values of biodiversity and emphasize human greed as a major problem to life on Earth. On the other hand, we have people like Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier who argue that we need to be pragmatic, who emphasize ecosystem services, and who argue that we must join forces with big business where it helps to achieve conservation outcomes (their recent paper is here).

On reflection, what troubled me so much about the paper by Kareiva and Marvier was that, to me, it felt like an attack on Soulé’s original vision for conservation biology; it felt to me like it argued that the new, pragmatic conservation science was superior to the old, dreamy conservation biology that Soulé had envisioned. My reading of this may not be what the authors intended, but to me, that’s how it came across.

I find this troubling because it causes polarization between two positions in conservation biology that probably can co-exist quite happily – if only they accept each other’s emphasis, and see that their own approach does not need to be “better” or the only one. After reading the paper by Kareiva and Marvier, I’ve found it quite difficult to work through this, because it sounds just so different from the original vision of Soulé’s – can we really have both positions co-exist? If so, how? Can we make the two fit together – or are they truly opposed paradigms that cannot co-exist?

Personally, I can’t imagine a lasting conservation science that is how Kareiva and Marvier paint it, pragmatic and dispassionate, and lacking interest in even engaging with normative arguments. But I do see the point in using not only biocentric arguments for conservation: after all, some nature is useful to people, and why not investigate the conservation possibilities arising from interdependencies between people and nature?

Here, I propose that conceptions of love can provide a useful metaphor to argue for balanced pluralism in conservation. In his seminal work “The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm defines motherly and fatherly love. In his words: “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved… Motherly love by its very nature is unconditional.” On fatherly love, Fromm suggests it is quite different, based on the principle: “I love you because you fulfill my expectation, because you do your duty…” (Fromm recognized, by the way, that motherly and fatherly principles were not necessarily related to people’s gender.)

What do these conceptions of love have to do with conservation? Well, perhaps nothing. But perhaps, we can use them as a metaphor to see differences in views on conservation “science” – and as a metaphor for how and why we can sustain pluralism in approaches in conservation biology.

Motherly love is unconditional and pure, just like conservation motivated by the intrinsic values of nature. It demands nothing in return; it’s not always practical; and it may break your heart – but it is pure and gives us a safe haven.

Fatherly love, on the other hand, expects good behavior. It demands, provides rules, is more strict, and love is only forthcoming if the potential recipient performs adequately. This is quite pragmatic, and there are important lessons we can learn from fatherly love: master the harsh realities of life, and you will succeed. This has parallels with conserving nature for its utilitarian values: we will preserve the wetland, if (and only if) it provides us with clean water.

Using this metaphor, what does a healthy conservation family look like? To this day, many of the world’s most humble people have maintained that the only kind of real love is that which does not expect anything in return. A family without motherly love is cold, but still, the pragmatic demands stemming from fatherly love can also be grounded in love.

We can have both. This was beautifully captured in an interview with Gretchen Daily in Nature in 2009. In the interview, she states: “I think it is going to be a long haul for biodiversity for its own sake. For me, ecosystem services is a strategy to buy time as well as getting buy-in.” The article continues to explain: “Such sentiment reveals that the ecosystem-services approach is not necessarily that different from conventional environmentalism. Advocates of both viewpoints believe that nature is intrinsically valuable, and they hope to preserve nature by appealing to this belief in others or, where it is absent, by creating it. The difference is that Daily works to convince others by showing them the profitable side of nature first.” (The full interview is here.)

I’m not sure that things are quite this harmonious in the conservation family at present as suggested here, but at least in principle, they probably could be. To put it bluntly, an intact conservation family will benefit from motherly love as well as fatherly love. This can’t be a debate about one being better or more important than the other, but we need to have respect for both kinds of positions. Many teenagers know they can learn from both of their parents – but to me at least, things get unpleasant when the parents start arguing.

There’s no need to dismiss conservation biology as Soulé defined it, just because we also want to be pragmatic. Pragmatism needs to be grounded in something that goes deeper, and to me, Soulé’s original vision is just as relevant today as it was 28 years ago.

On Jesus, resilience, and why not to influence policy

By Joern Fischer

The title of this blog entry is a bit all over the place, but I’m aiming for the content to be as crisp as ever.

Just a few days ago, an engaged discussion that I had with a colleague (who shall remain unnamed) led to one of life’s truly grand insights — well, perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt. To all religious and non-religious people alike, don’t be offended by this insight, because indeed, it’s just a metaphor that is neither pro- nor anti-religious. So, please, don’t interpret the following metaphor as either religious zealotry nor as anti-religious propaganda, because it’s neither.

But now, the all-important metaphor: “Jesus was a basin shaper” (Anonymous, 2013)

(What??)

Here’s the explanation.

Many scientists interested in sustainability or conservation believe that it is necessary to do good science — but they also see part of their mission as somehow informing (or even influencing) policy. It has become somewhat of a mantra among “sustainability scientists” that we need to work on problems and find solutions. I, personally, strongly favour science that is solution-oriented rather than “fundamental”. But perhaps I’m wrong? Here’s why.

Policies are fickle. They come and go, and they usually address problems within the boundaries of what is deemed politically feasible. Often, this amounts to managing “fast variables”, or symptoms of sustainability problems. Favouring science that is policy-relevant thus means limiting science to questions that are relevant to current policy — it implies working on things that can be tackled rather than pondering fundamental problems (or “slow variables”) that ought to be tackled, but very likely won’t be by any policies at this point in time. Fundamental sustainability questions relate to how we live, what is a good life, and how we ought to share this planet with other creatures. These are key questions: but they are not directly policy-relevant.

In some settings, you find that nobody wants to hear your science. You may find your science policy-relevant, but policy makers may feel differently. This might be because you’re doing a bad job of communicating your science; but it could also be because the question you are asking do not match the symptoms or fast variables currently on the radar of policy makers.

To those who feel their work is not relevant enough to policy, or has failed to influence things for the better: perhaps you’re wrong. Some work is hugely influential by gradually contributing to changes in how we think about problems. Thinking about problems in new ways, shedding light on problems that previously were not considered, and infecting others with such new ideas amounts to shaping an intellectual basin of attraction. If your ideas are good, others become attracted and possibly infected, and one thing leads to another…. take resilience: it started as a specific concept but gradually turned into resilience thinking, with a whole body of scholarship attached to it. We should not (only) judge Holling’s original paper by its specific relevance to forest policy — its bigger contribution may have been that it has helped to shape an increasingly influential intellectual basin of attraction.

Many people have left legacies not because of policies that they changed but because they influenced people’s thinking.

So, should we engage with policy? Probably. But perhaps an equally important service is to contribute to the shape of intellectual basins of attraction.

The mobility delusion

By Joern Fischer

Funding for researcher mobility programs, international conferences, pan-European research consortia, and trans-continental analyses: Our research lives have become global.

kofi

Globalisation has had much to offer to researchers – insights, colleagues and friends we could not have had otherwise, exposure to systems far beyond our own experience, and ways of working that are so different from we knew from our own institutions. There are certainly a lot of interesting things to be learnt from living in a global world.

But this blog post wouldn’t be called “the mobility delusion” if I was here to talk about how wonderful it is to roam freely across the globe. Quite the opposite. Both in my professional and personal lives, I’m increasingly finding that mobility has high costs, but these are rarely acknowledged.

Ecology happens in the real world, in real places. I have deep respect for naturalists (and many members of “traditional” communities) who know their patch of the world inside out. Often, they truly understand the connections between human and non-human life, whether they are good at applying the scientific method or not. When I compare myself to these people, I find that my understanding about the world is at some abstract meta-level – there are a handful of places I understand a little bit (ecologically and socially) but none that I know inside out. It takes a lifetime of embeddedness in a place to truly build locally applicable wisdom. I know that the way I currently operate professionally, I will pay that price – I will probably never gain as complete an understanding about any place as many people who have chosen to simply stay put. I argue that the incentives to travel have gone too far: not only do they have environmental costs that are unlikely to be offset by the benefits of the insights obtained, but they also stop people who should be place-based scientists from actually focusing on any particular place in depth.

For our personal lives, the sum of everybody’s mobility (at least in academia) amounts to a bunch of uprooted individuals floating freely (but often lost) around the world. To grow you need roots, but many of us are no longer able to put our roots anywhere – chasing the next project, job, or international collaboration, we forget that rootedness in a local place can be a source of strength and inspiration.

Perhaps we can have both? The virtual world enables us to communicate with individuals in far places, without having to go there. I argue that “staying put” is an immensely important strategy for personal and professional growth; potentially just as important as “branching out”. To my mind, it is the balance of the two that leads to insight. If I’m right, this is quite different from what we’re being told by existing incentives: I’d argue for an “intermediate mobility hypothesis”, with intermediate levels of mobility being most conducive to personal and professional development.

We are in a globalized world, and nothing is going to change this anytime soon. This has advantages and disadvantages. The challenge is to make use of the advantages without being blind to the disadvantages.

A critical appraisal of a new paper on “big data and the future of ecology”

By Joern Fischer

“Simply put, the era of data-intensive science is here. Those who step up to address major environmental challenges will leverage their expertise by leveraging their data. Those who do not run the risk of becoming scientifically irrelevant.”

Hampton et al., 2013, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (p. 158)

I just read Hampton et al.’s new paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, entitled “Big data and the future of ecology”. In a nutshell, the paper encourages ecologists to more routinely share their data. The underlying premise is that data sharing will lead to bigger and better (or at least additional) insights, because there are large amounts of small datasets that – if widely shared – would allow more effective quantitative analyses using lots of those small datasets in a big way. Other disciplines, according to Hampton et al., are ahead of ecology in sharing their data – among ecologists, only geneticists share their data widely (partly because they have to), while many others don’t.

Several journals have now made it a requirement to share data (unless there are strong reasons why you can’t), e.g. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B and Journal of Applied Ecology. What’s going on here? Is this an obvious case – so much more could be gained if only we all had access to more data?

That, it seems, is what Hampton et al. genuinely believe. They suggest there are four things we ought to do:

  1. Organise and preserve our data for posterity, no matter how small the dataset, including appropriate meta-data.
  2. Share data through publically accessible databases.
  3. Collaborate in networks where data are shared, e.g. to combine the insights of multiple case studies.
  4. Address issues of data management with students and junior researchers in your labs.

I immediately agree with points 3 and 4. One my recent posts in this blog was about the PECS network, for example – which is exactly about the kind of thing raised in point 3. It is a network of people who each do local-scale studies, but would like to see their findings synthesized in a useful way.

I kind of don’t have much of a problem with point 1, but I’m not terribly convinced about point 2. I see the following issues with a generic “you ought to share your data”:

  • I think there is a misunderstanding that “big data” is what is needed to solve today’s problems. From data, we need to get to information that is usable; from their to analysis and insight; and from there to wise societal decisions. I would argue that if there is one problem we DON’T have in our modern world, it’s a lack of data! I would argue the opposite in fact: that the ever-increasing availability of data is blinding us from the real problems. It looks as if additional data would somehow help – it’s an enticing prospect to have all this data! Wow! But as I argued in “Human behavior and sustainability” (also in Frontiers), a lack of data, information, or knowledge is not the problem for sustainability. We know well enough what we ought to be doing; we lack the means of putting our knowledge (based on information, based on data) into action.
  • I think there is a serious risk that data is misinterpreted if used by others who are NOT explicitly chosen collaborators in a network. This is not a matter of meta-data. It’s a matter of ecological field data coming from places, and being appropriately understood only if one understands the place. That is why Discussion sections of journal articles aren’t auto-generated once you have written the Results, but require (subjective!) expertise. Meta-analyses channel our focus towards questions that can be asked, not towards questions that must be asked. There is a real risk that we search for universal truths across study systems, at the price of glossing over local details that are fundamentally important. A simple example is what constitutes a “patch”. This is assessed differently in different parts of the world. Just using people’s data on “patches” could lead to serious misinterpretations about many things, including patch-size-effects (for example). I am critical of many existing meta-analyses for this reason already – having all data available to everyone, to my mind, will simply increase this trend away from deep, locally based ecological knowledge.
  • Following on from the previous point, what happened to the argument by Lindenmayer and Likens on losing the culture of ecology? Ecology is about places, just like geography and anthropology are. Good ecologists go in the field and learn about life there; they develop an ecological intuition, which is the only way to stop them from writing nonsense in their Discussion sections. I am deeply concerned that a trend towards yet more data will even further erode the field-based culture of ecology. Yet more PhD students will make their careers out of modeling, rather than going in the field.
  • Finally, this raises important ethical issues. Modeling experts will then “own” top journals like Ecology Letters, and (I hope not) Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. But none of those will be field ecologists!… those, in the meantime, have to publish their work in “regional journals” (i.e. not widely read ones) because their stuff is less relevant. Basically, they had to spend months in the field for someone else to get a free ride out of it in a more esteemed journal.

I’m all for addressing big questions. I’m all for synthesis, though I believe much of the societally relevant stuff will be qualitative not quantitative. I’m all for sharing data with the right people for the right reason – but I do not believe that universal sharing either is a safe recipe towards a better science of ecology, nor do I believe that a lack of data is in fact the primary problem we face today. And universal sharing does have risks of data being used wrongly by others, and some taking a free ride on the backs of field ecologists.

Big data? Sure, it can be a part of what ecology does, too. But I found that Hampton et al. were far too one-sided about this issue, essentially seeing no downsides or limitations.

Finally … (deep breath), this is an issue I may yet change my mind on. For now, I don’t buy the arguments put forward, but undoubtedly I will be confronted with this over the next few years again and again (say because I want to publish in one of the journals requiring data sharing!) … so who knows, I may yet change my mind. It’s worth putting the issue on the table, and Hampton et al. have done that nicely. As I said, some of their points and conclusions I agree with – but some I don’t, and so overall, I’m a lot less enthusiastic about big data than they are. According to the quote above, my skepticism towards big data will render me scientifically irrelevant in the near future… I can’t wait.

I’d be really interested in other people’s comments on this!

About nature and people

By Tibor Hartel

I am reading the book of Juhász-Nagy Pál entitled “Nature and people: small variations for a big theme” (the book is in Hungarian, the translation of the title is just a trial). In one of his insightful essays, starting with the name of the UNESCO program called “Man and Biosphere” he reflects about the need for recognizing the right/healthy order of things when we speak about something, especially if we address nature conservation issues.

He highlights that the order of things in this title (i.e. man first and then biosphere at the second level) reflects human arrogance and is somehow similar with the situation when someone places himself/herself in the front of his/her own mother (i.e. by saying: “Me and my mother”).

Such an order, in his view, is against some ethical fundaments which need to be considered both at societal and nature conservation levels. These hidden/latent ethical/philosophical fundaments may greatly influence our attitude toward nature, our ability to find our correct place in the biosphere, and ways how we build our strategies and the outcome of our activities. It seems that certain fundamental things in our thinking about the nature and us and our relationship with the broad ecological systems around us never change: the caveman seem to be similar with the modern “conservationist” (ok, I am a bit extreme, but I am aware about this and about the fact that I am not an exception from this general and probably sad rule) in this respect, i.e. both say “me and nature” (with its variations, but always the same order).

This writing was published in 1993 but it was finished much before that. The author died in 1993. He therefore is unaware about the fact that a new framework is starting to get roots in the academic thinking: the social-ecological framework. What would Juhász-Nagy think about this? What you think about this? How it would sound to reverse the terms, e.g. to say “ecological-social systems”. To be honest, when I reversed the term, I had a strange feeling. What about you?

Have a nice weekend!

Reference

Juhász-Nagy Pál 1993: Természet és Ember. Kis változatok egy nagy témára. Budapest, Gondolat.

About valuing people – quote of the day

by Tibor Hartel

Here is a quote for this day from Béla Hamvas, a Hungarian philosopher. Replace ‘people’, ‘true values’ and ‘actorial performances’ from the second sentence with ‘scientists’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘ability to sell’ and ‘impact factors’ and see how beautifully this statement of Hamvas decades ago became a very (and sadly increasingly) actual problem even in science. (PS: the selected picture about Hamvas is to show the fate of an extraordinary person and thinker, who was unable to make compromises when it was about strong principles. He then preferred to be outsider, and resist even to high level invitations from western Europe which promised a better intellectual life.)

‘The world is that place where things are not valued as they are, but rather through their impact. People are judged not according to their true values but according to their actorial performances.’ (Béla Hamvas)