The Future

Ecology seems to be approaching an explosion of understanding. While the last century gave us lots of neat computing tools (matrix calculations actually became doable! statistical tests on thousands of points of data! elevation models that didn’t take 4 years to digitize by hand!), to address the true complexity of the natural world requires something much more powerful. On the one hand, we need a better understanding of systems. There’s this thing — you might have heard of it — called the internet that has exploded our understanding of networks (‘Network Theory: A Key to Unraveling How Nature Works’, Carl Zimmer). Now it’s a matter of continuing to translate that into our research.

Networks are complex. I believe the current average for food web connections modeled is on the order of 10². That’s it? Can we reliably say we have an understanding of nature if we don’t imagine what happens as that number approaches the infinite? I expect we’d find an entirely different set of behaviors. But how do we begin test any of that, or gather data? How about designing a National Ecological Observatory Network? Sweet! How about getting $20 million in funding to get it started from the new Obama budget? Awesome. Or you could start tracking every tiger death in India.Or an application to map sudden oak death from your iPhone?

Networks are also resilient. But I suppose the thing that keeps most ecologists up at night is the fact that we’re on this threshold of technology that will dramatically reshape our understanding of how the world works. And the tragedy is that all of those intricate connections might all collapse before we have a chance to really get it.

Posted by Tim on February 8th, 2010 • • Comments Off

Triage

At ConservationBytes, Corey’s reviewing the idea of conservation/ecological triage, and does a good job of covering the pros and cons of the argument. I just wanted to add that there’s an interesting conversation in the current issue of TREE about this very topic. Spurred by an article from December (“Is conservation triage just smart decision making?” Bottrill et al., TREE: 23:649-654), a number of people wrote responses both for and against.

In the pro camp:

  • Darryl MacKenzie (“Getting the biggest bang for our conservation buck,” TREE, 24: 175-177). Key quote: “The more limited the resources, the greater the desire should be to use those resources as wisely as possible.”
  • Daniel Faith (“Phylogenetic triage, efficiency and risk aversion,” TREE, 24: 182). Maybe a cautious pro-, this letter more deals with the methodological problems of triage, highlighting the importance of phylogenetic diversity.

In the anti camp:

  • Jachowski and Kesler (“Allowing extinction: should we let species go?” TREE, 24: 180). I’ll quote them quoting Aldo Leopold: “The first rule of an intelligent tinkerer is to keep all the pieces.”
  • Parr et al., write under the banner of the Alliance for Zero Extinctions (“Why we should aim for zero extinction,” TREE, 24: 181). “A narrow triage approach might have written off the Whooping Crane, the population of which stood at 15 individuals in the early 20th century; however, thanks to conservation efforts, >500 cranes now survive. There are many similar examples.”

And, of course, the original authors in defense. Bottrill et al., “Finite conservation funds mean triage is unavoidable,” TREE, 24: 183-184).

Phew! I think the key argument that Bottrill et al. highlight in their response is that we need to separate this conversation between messaging and action. Actual triage — that practiced on the battlefiled — is accepted because it is seen as the best possible outcome to save as many lives as possible. The assumption is that human life is fundamentally important, and that death is objectively bad. You don’t (or at least I haven’t) seen any “Pro-Life” people protesting MASH units, and that’s because triage acts within a framework of trying to preserve as many human lives as possible. What makes conservationists nervous about ecological triage is that it might send the wrong message: that extinction might be acceptable. I think it’s a valid point from a messaging standpoint, but pragmatically, triage really is (tautologically) the optimal solution to preventing extinction.

On the other hand, Parr et al., write quite convincingly that triage might not be the best metaphor. If we humans were so inclined, no species would have to go extinct because of us, and whooping cranes, American bison, peregrine falcons, &c. &c. are great examples that sufficient effort really can turn around a critical situation.

What is generally not discussed in this conversation is how funding plays a role. Conservation organizations are (non-profit) businesses, and like any business, they take action based on economics. They are restricted by limited funds, and they make decisions all the time about what, where and how to prioritize their resources. The part of the equation that is typically left out is how conservation prioritizing might result in additional funds for the organization. A panda bear is a much more attractive logo than some abstract notion of phylogenetic diversity. Picture a plot with one axis being “conservation effectiveness” and the other axis being “funds recouped.” Somewhere in there is a sweet spot where you’re earning a lot of money to pay for on-going projects, while still doing effective conservation. I imagine most people in our field have an idea in their head of where each big conservation NGO falls.

In other words, I think this is really a conversation about funding. Some people are arguing that if you don’t ask for enough money to stop all extinctions, you’ll never get that much money. Others are saying that, within the amount of funding available, we need to prioritize. In terms of messaging, the former are correct. In terms of action, the latter are.

Posted by Tim on March 27th, 2009 • • Comments Off

IUCN Red List Vulnerable

As we approach next year’s CBD meeting, people are beginning to speak up about the quality of the IUCN Red List. My basic philosophy is, yeah, it’s not great, and it’s definitely not scientific, and people shouldn’t be publishing papers about extinction risk using the Red List, but we just aren’t in a position to assess every species on earth comprehensively, and this is our first, best attempt. And the architects of it are aware it’s not perfect, and they’re trying to improve it. That said, there are a couple of good, fairly even-handed articles and editorials from The New Scientist (+editorial) and the Telegraph. Given that climate change appears to be undergoing a small (hopefully dead cat bounce) renaissance of non-believers (“Rising View that Climate Risk Exaggerated“), it’s easier to recognize that it’s important not to over-state the case for endangered species. I know I’ve argued for an over-statement of climate change dangers — well, to be more nuanced, I want scientists to present their knowledge within the framework of public discourse, not the framework of scientific discourse — but if doing so has increasingly led to a fear of exaggeration, I might have to re-think that. Unfortunately, it’s unclear who’s causing that fear of exaggeration: maybe people are reading big, scary headlines, but then mis-hearing scientists as saying it’s no big deal*. In that case, the problem would be scientists not being hysterical enough.

Since I’m more familiar with the IUCN Red List and its problems, it’s easier for me to say that we shouldn’t depend too heavily on it. Nevertheless, as in most things conservation, if used properly and with the correct understanding, and so long as people

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are working to improve it, it’s a good start. As far as I can tell, that’s becoming my conservation mantra: a good start.

*Recall that, while the IPCC report has a specific definition of “very likely” as >90% of happening, most people view that as a less than 66% chance of happening.

(Also see: Framing and climate change).

Posted by Tim on March 17th, 2009 • • Comments Off
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Climate Change Lobbying

The Center for Public Integrity has put together a database of who’s been lobbying on climate change issues (both pro- and anti-). Who from the conservation world? Defenders of Wildlife spent over $850,000 in 2008, WCS spent $210,000, WWF $310,000 and TNC the big guy at $1.3 million. No CI?

Posted by Tim on February 25th, 2009 • • Comments Off

Advocacy and Accuracy

There’s been an ongoing conversation about Revkin’s post about Al Gore and George Will both “overstating” their case for and against climate change. On the one hand, Gore was presenting a potentially incorrect figure, that he has subsequently taken out of his talk. On the other, George Will represented a finding from the 1970s in the opposite way the authors had intended, been called out on it by the authors, and refuses to apologize (as does the Post ombudsman). In a followup, Revkin warns that “every time an overstatement is exposed, it threatens to further disengage people who are already either doubtful or misinformed.” Really? So then all those climate deniers who read Will’s column are going to concede that global warming is real? Are you insane?

Here’s how science in the public realm should work: scientists (and advocates like Gore) present evidence to the public. If some of that evidence is wrong, journalists and anyone else with an interest in the matter state that it’s wrong. The scientists and advocates then make a judgment about whether it’s actually wrong, and adjust their presentations accordingly. In that way, the uncertainty that is inherently involved in things like natural science (or, say, finance), is addressed. It would help if the general public were educated to the level of understanding the modern scientific process (as opposed to the dis-proving a Null that is hammered home in high school physics). But regardless of the public’s understanding, the Gore “overstatement” occurred exactly as it should.

Now consider George Will’s blatant mis-leading — no mistake, just out and out mis-representing the truth. There’s no way you read the paper he referenced and come to the conclusion he did. If you want to have a debate about something, have an honest debate. Concede when you’re wrong. Don’t lie. These seem so obvious, and yet for some reason Andy Revkin is now digging himself further into denial about the horrors of over-statement on both sides of the debate, as though there were equal interests and honest actors on both sides.

Unfortunately, environmental doomsdayers are put in an incredibly awkward position because journalists are so unwilling to present both sides of this debate honestly. There is uncertainty in climate models, but science journalists are doing a terrible job presenting the downside to the uncertainty. If we spend 1-2% of global GDP for the next 10 years on developing clean and renewable energy sources, and preventing deforestation, developing carbon-trapping technology, etc. etc., but climate modelers were wrong and global warming wasn’t going to be a problem, then we end up with a healthier planet and a stronger global economy. If we don’t do any of that, and climate modelers end up being right (and remember, the way things are going, pretty much every week we get new findings that show that, if anything, we’re underestimating the effects), then we have global catastrophe. But because those risks are so uneven, and journalists so incapable of presenting them accurately, it almost becomes necessary for advocacy groups to become shrill and over-state the dangers. It would be preferable if the world understood the ways of science, but it’s not happening. So we get Gore, somebody who’s immersed himself in climate science for decades, presenting some potentially incorrect evidence and then correcting it versus George Will, baseball guy in a bow tie, deliberately mis-leading his readers. What on earth is his motivation for doing so? I guess we’ll never know, since they’re both to blame.

Posted by Tim on February 25th, 2009 • • Comments Off
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Disneynature or Nurture?

This year will see the first films released by Disneynature, making good on Mickey’s New Year’s resolution to produce two nature documentaries annually for the foreseeable future. Reports on the endeavor (including the National Reviews’ always hilarious Planet Gore blog) portray it as novel. Yet, in its own press release, Disney speaks of “balancing heritage and innovation,” as Disneynature is a resurrection and rebranding of what the studio sold sixty years ago as “True-Life Adventures.”

Then as now, Disney’s motives are financial. Its early animated features (those without the iconic princesses) hemorrhaged money. Time consuming and labor intensive, they sent the studio’s producers looking for some way to balance the books. They tried propaganda for the military and industrial films for Detroit. And then in 1948 they landed on Seal Island. A fanciful trip to Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, which in mating season (according to Roy Disney himself) “looks like Coney Island on the Fourth of July,” the documentary cost a fraction of Bambi to make, raked in more money, and won an Oscar to boot. Eleven additional nature films would follow in the next twelve years, as the series begot the studio’s own distribution apparatus, Buena Vista, and raised its profile on primetime television. Today, as a recent restructuring has cut Disney’s annual production schedule in half and its first-quarter profits are down by 33%, it’s no wonder Chief Executive Robert Iger revealed to the New York Times his envy of March of the Penguins, the $3 million shoestring Warner Brothers used to lasso $127 million at the box office. The shining knights have been dispatched from Cinderella’s castle to try once again to, as Gregg Mitman’s writes, “mine the frontier of nature.”

Mitman takes us through the fascinating history of the “True-Life Adventures” in his Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film. Though Walt Disney liked to say that “nature wrote the screenplays,” (more…)

Posted by Brian on February 11th, 2009 • • Comments Off
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Passion

Last night, the Berkeley chapter of SCB hosted Brian Williams, founder/executive director of the Red Panda Network. Brian started his NGO after doing Peace Corps (& then research) in Nepal and finding himself inspired by the “original” panda. I have to say, he was pretty inspiring. It was refreshing to have somebody come in and, rather than present lots of data slides on the science of conservation, talk about what he was doing to protect something he cared about. More importantly, he talked about why he wanted to do it. Which (obviously) is not to downplay the importance of science in our work, but if you’re going to talk about your work, at least show a little passion for it. Cute photos of a red panda pooping never hurt.

Brian does all of this in his spare time — he says 10 hours a week for the past 4 years, which you will quickly note adds up to about 1 year full time. He’s hoping to be able to switch to full time by the end of 2009. He says he gets money from his Adopt-a-Panda program about every other day. Which is to say: if you love something, you will know how to promote it. And if you know how to promote it well, it’s a lot easier to succeed.

In Orion Magazine, Randy Olson says it better than I: “Taking risks to protect the environment is not just about standing up in front of bulldozers in a forest. There is a courage needed for mass communication, too. You can stick with only the facts and figures, but they will never reach the heart of a mass movement. To truly motivate the nonacademic public, you have to take some chances, come down out of your head, and reach for the other organs of the body.”

Posted by Tim on February 4th, 2009 • • Comments Off
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Deep and Shallow Ecology

This editorial by Giovannia Bearzi in Conservation Biology reminds me that Arne Naess died recently. First, the editorial:

We think of ourselves as professionals who are aware of environmental problems and work hard to solve them, but we pay little heed to what we do, buy, and consume…I know excellent biologists who spend much of their professional lives condemning unsustainable fisheries or reporting high levels of toxic contaminants in marine megafauna, yet when eating at a restaurant they order swordfish or tuna from overfished and declining stocks. At this point their study subjects cease being endangered wildlife and become food…

The immense, complex, and global problems of our times will not disappear by the time all the members of our conservation elite have abandoned their unsustainable habits. Yet, only then will there be convincing evidence that responsible individual behavior can spring from science-based understanding of cause–effect relationships and only then will there be any hope that, beyond theory and preaching, the inspired and knowledgeable choices of a few visionaries may affect a larger community in a growing spiral of understanding.

And now Naess’ 7 tenets of deep ecology (adopted by Earth First! among others):

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital human needs.
  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

Compare these two (especially Naess) with the current ecosystem services “movement” (if policies supported pretty much top-down by NGOs with billion dollar endowments can be called a movement). As with any contentious issue, this obviously comes down to an ideological vs. pragmatic debate. The ecosystem service argument seems to work a lot better in our capital-driven world: people need to put numbers to things in order to value them. There is no intrinsic value in capitalism. But I also have to believe that people in my field are, at heart, Deep Ecologists (and I don’t mean just, like, really effective at estimating alpha in the Lotka-Volterra model): that is, they subscribe to most of the first 7 tenets, and believe they are adhering to #8. It’s hard to live like that, though. As an ideologue. As somebody once said, “the question we ask today is not whether our [ecology] is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

I think we (I?) have to come to grips with the fact that the world’s human population is not about to change wholecloth into deep ecologists. Especially the ones whom we’re supposed to want to “decrease”! So, then, we must take what is really important from that philosophy, identify the goals inherent in the tenets, and work towards them instead. The ecosystem services crowd have effectively identified the weakest part of the philosophy (that diversity has intrinsic value) and flipped it to say that, not only is diversity important to human survival, it is, in fact, vital. Similarly, I think a lot of Deep Ecologists need to take that next step: that consumption is not inherently bad (an intrinsic cost?), but that our current methods of consumption are. And we should fight the methods, not the root, instead.

Posted by Tim on January 21st, 2009 • • 1 comment
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“We are not the only experiment”

A number of weeks ago, Nature published an editorial on the meaning of “nature.” If defined as anything absent humans, the authors argued, then nature no longer exists. Man is everywhere! How can we ever manage wilderness, when our very act of management would make it no longer nature by definition? Then they got a response from Fern Wickson that basically called it out as nonsense: “if we define nature as including humankind, the concept becomes so all-encompassing as to be practically useless.” So if nature is everything without humans, nature doesn’t exist on Earth. If nature includes humans as embedded, or a part of, nature, everything on Earth is natural. Neither seem terribly useful.

I think it helps to think of all conservation actions as having clear objectives. Nobody’s trying simply to restore a place “to nature” — there are specific species, or processes, or services that we want to protect, preserve, conserve or restore. In that way, our actions as humans are (tautologically) natural, and our objectives have rationales beyond just “because that’s what’s natural.” Conservation for its own purpose. Personally, I find this article from Orion on protecting the silent places in the United States (“One Square Inch of Silence”) particularly inspiring for my own vision of what we want to save, but we try to have a big tent here at a Conservation Blog. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s hard to type with my gaze firmly embedded at my navel.

Posted by Tim on November 11th, 2008 • • Comments Off

Models Fail

From an essay by Jean-Philippe Bouchaud in Nature a few weeks ago:

Compared with physics, it seems fair to say that the quantitative success of the economic sciences has been disappointing. Rockets fly to the Moon; energy is extracted from minute changes of atomic mass. What is the flagship achievement of economics? Only its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises, including the current worldwide credit crunch.

This sort of talk is going around quite a bit these days

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about the failure of economic / financial models. Jonah Lehrer draws a comparison between economics and the collapse of the cod industry, with good discussion — some commenters take him to task on the possibility that the models of the cod fishery were good, it was the implementation that was dishonest.

Now, Bouchaud (who appears to be both an economist and a physicist) is being a bit disingenuous. In physics, it is much easier to falsify a model, and therefore much easier to reject it. Any science that includes human input is necessarily more nuanced and difficult to understand. So revolutionizing economics, or conservation, takes longer. But it also requires a willingness of actors to acknowledge that the models aren’t working in the first place.

Attacking conservationists for being blind to what isn’t working is a pretty good straw man. We could re-forest the Amazon with the papers written fretting over what does and doesn’t work. But where is the revolution? Who is demanding real change these days in conservation?

[Trying to catch up on this Veterans Day, so some links may be a little... stale]

Posted by Tim on November 11th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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