Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ecology, the social sciences, and enviromentalism

In my casual interaction with ecologists, I find no shortage of woefully uninformed yet forcefully stated opinions on the relationship between social sciences and the state of the environment. Fortunately, two recent essays recently published in the British Journal of Ecological Applications, provide refreshing, if sobering, perspectives. The first, written by the ecologist John Lawton, addresses why ecological science is (not) incorporated into policy decisions. In the second essay, economist Partha Dasgupta contrasts traditional accounts of economic growth (GDP and HDI) with indices of sustainable development that take into account the depreciation of natural capital. Neither essay paints a particularly rosy portrait for the future of the environment, but they succeed in highlighting why the belief that opining on social sciences doesn’t require specialized knowledge akin to natural sciences hampers progress. Since my comments on these essays turned out to be longer expected, I have posted the first part, on Lawton’s essay, below and will add another post on Dasgupta’s essay soon.

Lawton explains that ecology was not always an ‘activist’ discipline. Until moves in the 1960’s by the Ecological Society of America and the British Ecological Society, whom Lawton is addressing, these professional societies were not greatly involved in public affairs. Fortunately, in my opinion, this has changed. While I find ecology and allied sciences fascinating and intrinsically worthwhile, it would be a waste of knowledge and tax money, which funds most ecological research, if information were not disseminated to serve the public interest. Lawton highlights research that informed policy to curb acid rain in Europe as an example of success. In contrast, ecologists have not as yet been successful in using their findings to bring about policy change regarding other environmental problems, namely fisheries, GM crops, and climate change.

Lawton begins by dismissing two explanations for the failure of ecologically sound policy to take hold, namely corruption and the deficit model. While corruption is certainly rife in many developing countries, the evidence does not suggest that it is a major hindrance to environmental policy in developed countries like the UK. In the US, multiple political and business leaders recently or currently engaged in close, public judicial scrutiny seems to suggest that we do a decent job of rooting out blatant corruption. The deficit model, which states that politicians are simply too ignorant of science to make sound policy, is also wanting. While compelling, (as a biologist, I cringe nearly every time a politician, even an environmentalist, talks about nature), the deficit model provides little in the way of explanation because simply throwing more facts out does not make much difference. In reality, good science, however massaged and hand picked, often does eventually make it into political discussion, but even the best scientific evidence cannot immediately overcome competing interests and deeply held beliefs. Ecologists need to engage the economic, political, and cultural theories that account for resistance to reasonable environmental policy. At present, this is a rather humdrum assertion, but I have found that even those who acknowledge it usually do not move past a superficial engagement. Therefore, it is worthwhile to go over Lawton’s examples, adding my own thoughts along the way.

While there are still interesting questions to be answered, ecologists and fisheries scientists have essentially enough information to understand why so many fish populations are nearly depleted and how they could be rescued. First, how serious is overfishing? As a vegetarian, I am often asked if I eat fish. From a utilitarian perspective, I could argue that neurologically fish are advanced and sensitive to pain as any land animal eaten by humans. From an environmental standpoint, which is more important than animal suffering in my opinion, the case is no weaker. Studies that document overfishing are too numerous to list, though some are widely known, such as the collapse of cod fisheries in the northeast. For a more comprehensive view, quoting from Lawton, “the current biomass of large fish weighing 4–16 kg and 16–66 kg are 97.4% and 99.2% lower, respectively, than their pristine, prefishing state.” Furthermore, as discussed biologist Sean Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest, fisherman that preferentially catch larger and older fish, which is common, slow population recovery. Selection imposed by fisherman favors fish that reach maturity at a smaller size, which as a byproduct are less fecund than their larger ancestors.

Some argue that for certain fish, particularly salmon, we can reduce overharvesting through fish farming. Farming fish is just as harmful as farming livestock and poultry because it cannot circumvent two laws of biology: 1) animals need energy to grow, and that energy must be grown somewhere; 2) Fish, like cattle, produce waste which must go somewhere. Furthermore, fish farming creates unique problems. For example, salmon farms not only pollute nearby water systems, fish that escape farms threaten with natural populations through hybridization.

Through experiments, modeling, and observation, ecologists have shown that the adverse impact of overharvesting could be halted through innovative methods, such as establishing a series of no-take reserves. The idea is that in such reserves, fish can grow, multiply, and evolve more or less naturally. With sufficient and well-placed reserves, fishing can continue at high levels, while fish populations will not be overharvested or not evolve in undesirable directions. Resistance to no take reserves is multi-faceted. Clearly, special interest groups are threatened by regulations and anything that might reduce how much they can catch, even if the long-term sustainability of their industry is at stake. Fishing regulation is also opposed by conservative, which I use in the traditional sense of opposing change, elements of society. For example, fishing has played a role in shaping many cultures and economies. Others who enjoy the taste and purported health benefits may be reticent to give up or pay more for their cherished dining habits. More difficult still is the fact that fishing takes place largely outside the jurisdiction of individual countries, which can lead to suboptimal policy choices because no single country wants to move first without a guarantee that others will follow. Ecological knowledge is the not factor limiting sound fishing policy, but rather how we address and overcome the competing economic, social, and political resistance.

Lawton claims that ecologists have also more or less adequately addressed GM crops. The upshot is that genetic modifications may both harm and benefit, so crops must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The categorical resistance to GM in Europe, as opposed to the US where most soy and corn are GM, is, like resistance to fishing, motivated by conservative bias. It may come as counterintuitive, since GM is usually opposed by the left, while many biotech firms support the right. The reality is, however, that there is nothing liberal or progressive about opposing technology on the basis of a quasi-spiritual attachment to food prepared in a largely apocryphal pastoral agrarian setting in spite scientific (and historical) evidence to the contrary.

As opposed to fishing and GM crops, Lawton suggests that the climate change policy is scientifically less well informed. To be clear, he is not claiming that evidence for climate change is equivocal, but that ecologists are not certain how biological communities will respond and what that might mean for conservation. Interestingly, Lawton notes, policy is moving ahead of the science in this case, largely as an outcome of environmentalist’s success in overcoming opposition, also often ideologically conservative, to climate change. Specifically, plans are being drawn to prevent species extinctions due to climate change in Europe, but how this will be accomplished is awash in uncertainty. What is clear, from mesoscale experiments and theory, is that communities will not simply shift northward or evolve to meet the demands of the new climate. This is because communities are composed of diverse organisms, few of which respond identically, either within or between generations, to environmental change. The idiosyncrasy of species’ responses thus makes it difficult to predict with any accuracy the best conservation strategy. Much of what ecologists can recommend is rather general – a network of reserves that covers a diverse set of ecosystems, with corridors that may allow species’ ranges to adjust appropriately.

The lesson emerging from Lawton’s essay is that ecologists interested in effecting policy need not necessarily gather more data or simply educate politicians, but rather engage the social scientific understanding of resistance to evidence-based environmentalism. I have, more than Lawton, highlighted why conservative ideology (not always right-wing or republican) threatens policies related to fishing, GM crops, and (especially in the US) climate change. According to Lawton, tackling such entrenched belief systems and lifestyles is “messy, complex, and iterative.” However, the obvious sentiment provides little in the way of practical help. I personally advocate a greater emphasis on progressivism and rationality in education and public discourse, but these are hardly universally championed. The main point is that progress cannot occur so long as ecologists simply believe that anti-environmentalists are ignorant and need to be taught a lesson. Instead, we must understand the core social factors that motivate resistance and proceed from there. Let’s get going!

1 comment:

Kevin said...

You bring up some good points about "soft" ecology - the kind of uncritical news blurbs that populate many people's understandings of genetically altered foods. The question at the heart of this analysis is whether or not the body politic, even the so-called progressive and environmentally friendly, would be willing to pay the price for food the ultimately has little measurable effect on its source ecosystem. My guess, as you've demonstrated here and elsewhere, is no. The economic (beyond just money - the time, care, distance and energy involved is becoming staggering at all levels) costs will probably deter all but the most stalwart.