Human Ambitions and Environmental Sustainability

Aldo Leopold noted that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor… (Leopold, A., 1953. Round River. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.)

For some of us, it is long past time to admit that more ‘healing’ is needed and to recognize that none of our past approaches has worked well enough.


What Is Needed

         Our planet faces urgent environmental threats. Actual and predictable impacts are at a range of scales from the global down to continental and regional and on down to watersheds and private woods.

Atmospheric and oceanic threats and impacts are understood only with the help of strong expertise. But some root causes trace back to individual citizens and particular policies.

Regional impacts such as species invasions and regional species extinctions can be detected and described by less complicated means but clear statements of the problems requires complex multidisciplinary teams. When clarified, the root causes of these issues also trace back to influences and actions of individual citizens and groups.

At the smallest geographic scale – the backyard, woods or subdivision ­­– evidence of impact is easily seen. But the relationships of that evidence to other processes may be less clear. Predicting results may require a complex combination of probabilities and historical knowledge and understanding the context of the changes.

From this shallow summary it is clear that solving problems arising from environmental threats and impacts will require approaches at all these geographic scales and at all the time scales that apply at each of the geographic scales. Very long and slow at the largest and very short and fast at the smallest.

It also is clear that a variety of people are needed to address each level of threat and impact. We can’t expect average citizens from ‘green groups’ to master the chemistry of ocean water changing its acidity, salinity, temperature and carbon dioxide content, nor the relationships of these chemical dynamics to the threats to coastal cities under these impacts from our oceans. It also is clear that the best people to observe and describe the context in which regional impacts happen will not be atmospheric scientists but will, rather, be the people on the land who know the local socio-economic values of regional cultures.

But all these various people must somehow communicate the understanding from their particular space and time scales to others focused on other scales.

To ensure that the coordinated understandings go toward applicable solutions for the perceived threats and impacts, some common foundation of knowledge must be shared. Random acts of stewardship may satisfy the actors but will not address the root issues. A common set of goals defined by sets of agreed assumptions must be shared.


What Did Not Work

Simply publishing strong scientific papers in professional journals and hoping that the new knowledge will somehow trickle down to where it is needed was for decades the total professional obligation of basic scientists. It also was the rationale for their associations, their institutions, their funds for research, and their professional status and advancement.

Separately, those tasked with applying science were under pressure to act with whatever information was available even if, in many cases, it was incomplete or outdated. Successful “applied science” often was shielded from the ‘trickle down’ that the basic scientists assumed would inform decisions required to solve problems. The goal of agencies was to develop policy and applications without the delay that would result from consulting the basic literature.

Informing the public, and, commonly, the politicians, was left to journalists. The results were unpredictable in accuracy and understanding. Widespread if dramatic. Ignored if fundamental but not colourful. Some accounts were remarkably insightful but how could a lay reader evaluate them?

The public got involved. ‘Green groups’ formed around issues that were encountered in daily life — smog, human health, E. coli-posted beaches, plastic bags. Citizens wanted action. ‘Citizen science’ arose and attempted to address selected issues by actually contributing ‘data’. Relationships to knowledge of basic science were tenuous at best. Issues were chosen from the media or from popular publications that often had no informed reviewers. Observations by one group were incomparable to those from other groups because common methods seldom were followed. Some projects prepared their volunteers with courses, and sometimes textbooks, or professionals provided hands-on guidance in the field. In these few cases, useful observations were gathered where they otherwise could not have been.

Public concerns were revealed; supporting evidence often came from the popular press. Some ‘citizen science’ was encouraged by applied science agencies often driven by political pressures and assumptions from consumer-based economic ‘models’. Fundamental new knowledge from basic research seldom reached solutions for popular concerns. It was not aimed there and was not easily available.


What Might Work

         Diversion of most research toward practical ends defined by potential for increased economic flow or increased convenience actually acts to increase the frequency and intensity of impacts and ignores clearly seen threats.

Basic, curiosity-driven research must continue. So must production of new knowledge and updating of existing understandings of threats and impacts.

However, some balance is needed in directing adequate research capacity toward solving definable problems that clearly will arise from known threats and impacts and have become public concerns. Otherwise, these issues will cause very large costs that will last long into the future. New criteria for allocation of research capacity should include as primary desiderata the influence on an enviro-socio-economic (ESE) complex variable. An important component of this ESE complex will be recognition of people’s aspirations and consideration of ways to move toward them while sustaining resilience of all parts of the complex variable. Some compromises will be required.

New criteria should replace the outdated “pressure to publish” for academics. Already common, publications by coordinated teams should be given higher value than publications by single authors. It also is necessary to develop new assessments for graduate training and degrees that acknowledge that research by a single author is outdated and learning to do team research is replacing it.

Reports on real-world issues should be authored without deference to authors’ advanced degrees. All contributing team members should be eligible authors. Contributions should be assessed by the research team and listed in brief in the report. This is essential to encourage attention to real-world context in problem-solving reports.


The Keystone

         If the people on the land are to be able to benefit from increasing knowledge there must be communication between those advancing the knowledge and those closest to the impending threats. The most critical communication need is to be able to share the evidence for making decisions.

         Investigating threats and impacts and their potential solutions will need to be evidence-based. Involving people with a wide range of abilities in these processes will require agreements on what is adequate evidence. What is the difference between adequate evidence and anecdotes? Traditions supported by historical usage will need to be questioned, as will well-accepted belief systems that lack demonstrable foundations.

How can coordination up and down spatial and temporal scales be achieved so that system resilience will be sustained? Coordination of neighbouring problem sectors may be achievable. But the overall objective may need to be conveyed in different ways in different sectors of various problems. Scaling and scoping of investigations and of application of solutions should not be haphazard or dictated by available funding programs or commercial interests. Spatial scales and accompanying temporal scales should be chosen to match the question being asked or the threat being addressed. Mismatches generate failed attempts and misguided policies. Policy directions should be subject to Brundtland’s ‘precautionary principle’; possible serious threats to sustainability from change in policy direction should not be risked until adequate knowledge of the threat is procured.

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