Ecology is failing and needs to be freed from our limitations

Tangled up in ourselves: facing up to the fundamental shortcomings of our intellect and science is necessary if we are to limit the damage we do. Flickr/sergiohs391

The splendour of nature diminishes day by day despite the strenuous efforts of ecologists and all manner of scientific understandings and interventions. Biodiversity is in decline, and crucial resources become ever scarcer. Meanwhile the human population continues to rise, as do atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and long-term global temperatures.

Governments, corporations, and community groups all over the world invest in conservation and restoration programmes, but to depressingly little end. Obviously far more could be spent and far more could be done, but that would be no guarantee of success - not when our very approach to ecology is fundamentally flawed and wrong-headed.

As we shall explore below, our current approach to ecology projects universal assumptions about nature onto the ecosystems we study. In other words, we see what we want to see instead of what is there. We also tend to look down instead of forward - puzzling over what is in our hands instead of imagining what we want, and then doing what must be done to get there. Having an overriding focus on how to realise healthy rivers, thriving grasslands, abundant animals, and so on, can be called a translational ecology.

Now if we tried to develop a translational ecology – akin to translational medicine which goes from “bench to bedside” – it might look something like the following.

Translational ecology would:

  1. successfully link ecological science to real-world management, effectively making the link from discovery to delivery

  2. apply ideas, insights, and discoveries generated through basic ecological inquiry to the reduction of water pollution, loss of biodiversity and habitat and increased sustainability

  3. seek solutions by having outcomes in mind from the start.

Translational ecology is not a linear process; instead it fosters “joined-up thinking” and weaves together science, practice, policy, and institutions into a complex web of interaction over time.

As I pointed out in my last article we are not having huge success with ecological restoration programs; documented success rates can be as low as 10%. So if translational medicine were translational ecology, we’d all be dead! No wonder biodiversity is declining.

Right now ecology doesn’t work this way and it is clear that we are not succeeding with what might be called a predominant “science-push” approach. We hear many calls from the science community for environmental action – based largely on model-based analyses and predictions – but there is resistance from the broader community. The much vaunted sustainability science (driven largely from the USA) also, to my way of thinking, smacks too much of the academic, modelling-based approach. I have few problems with this rationalist, universalist approach in situations where physical laws apply, but I have many more problems when we get to predicting what living systems (including people) will do in the future.

We face many wicked problems and these problems are complex and unpredictable when they combine the dynamics of the natural world with the activities of human beings. In particular, wicked problems have many unique, localised peculiarities which defy universal, top down, solutions. One size does not fit all.

As Robert Ulanowicz points out, life is different; it is complex, heterogeneous, adaptive and is, in many respects, formally not computable. Stephen Carpenter has also highlighted the problems of ecological modelling and prediction. So solving wicked problems by rationalist argument is largely failing on two fronts; there is uncertainty in knowledge, and uncertainty in action.

Pride’s heavy toll: Niobe felt she was equal to the Greek gods, and as punishment the gods killed her children. Flickr/maryn0503

The “science push” approach is what Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson called a knowledge-based worldview in their book, The Virtues of Ignorance. Knowledge by itself, they argue, is not sufficient to get us out of the many holes we have dug for ourselves. Science push is being resisted by many and “facts” are being denied and debated. There is a noticeable push back, in fact.

Instead, Vitek and Jackson call for an ignorance-based world view predicated on the assumption that human knowledge will always be exceeded by our ignorance. This, they argue, would lead us to be more cautious, ethical and consultative in our approach.

We have built a coupled system of systems with pervasive unpredictability. Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz in their book The Techno-Human Condition argued that in such complexity no single world view is privileged: science-push can work in simple situations when there is a strong link between action and outcome, and the consequences of action are not too controversial. In situations of pervasive complexity where the stakes are high then a new approach is required – and this is precisely where translational ecology is situated.

Wicked problems have many local peculiarities so subsidiarity is central to making progress. In Australia we have invested much time and effort in recent decades in building regional capacity in Catchment Management Authorities and Natural Resource Management Boards. We now possess a unique social infrastructure at the appropriate scale to address these problems and to ensure local engagement and consultation. This is a model many others could copy.

Translational ecology would therefore turn the “science-push” approach end-for-end and instead begin with the desired outcomes – based on local culture and values – and then use the science to support the search for local solutions. This is not a fully relativist approach because part of the dialogue must be recognition on the part of science and society that there are limits and uncertainties, and that we may no longer be able to achieve all we seek.

Along with the critique of the knowledge-based approach we see strong arguments from those who would assert that all knowledge is socially constructed; to the point that we have recent commentaries in the journal, Nature, that much science is biased, even useless. Such words are uncharitable.

Unlike the horse we don’t even know we’re wearing blinkers. Flickr/Alex E. Proimos

There always will be biases and distortions in our knowledge. As often as not these are driven by various perverse drivers on human behaviour; including incentives such as university administrators’ constant drive for recognition, status, and research income. Research is focused on easily-soluble problems which yield quick returns that can be published in the most highly-cited journals. Such biases affect all disciplines equally; even science-policy studies. Trans-disciplinary approaches, like translational ecology, are often hard to fund, difficult to publish, and do little (under present arrangements) for academic status or career advancement.

Translational ecology has no privileged worldview: it merges the knowledge-based and ignorance-based worldviews and seeks the requisite simplicity amidst both scientific and social complexity, and uncertainty. There are simple evolved constraints on human action which we can know and must observe. Similarly there are many aspects of belief, culture, and values that constrain our actions. What are we to do when there is great uncertainty, prediction is difficult, and achieving what we want is very hard?

This is not all doom and gloom. Some restoration efforts do work, so a concerted focus on what works and why would be a good place to start. There are patterns in nature, all is not chaos. The next thing to realise is that we are but limited beings, and our philosophy must recognise this. We are all fallible and there always will be biases and uncertainties. Democracies exist to debate and balance world views over time.

What we need is a more constructive debate about what we can know and do - always cognisant of the drivers and distortions, but cognisant also of the constraints on our actions. Finding a way to achieve what we feel we must will require some faith in the future, some hope, and a lot more charity.

Nonetheless the task is urgent and the potential rewards are enormous. The cost of action is small, the cost of inaction is incalculable.

Comments welcome below.