Evolutionary Theory and the Practice of Policy For the 21st Century (2))

Dr. Bill Libby and I at Unifying Perspectives of Evolution, Conservation and Breeding: A symposium in honour of Dr. Gene Namkoong

Dr. Bill Libby and I at Unifying Perspectives of Evolution, Conservation and Breeding: A symposium in honour of Dr. Gene Namkoong

In this section, I address different framings of the larger issue around forests, and explore how different framings privilege different scientific and other disciplines. This can occur whether a framing is helpful or not to decision makers, or accepted or not by stakeholders, simply due to how research is prioritized and funded (most often, by groups of scientists).

Below is a sample of some ways of looking at the important issues for forests, intended to show the breadth and diversity of approaches that different disciplines can take. As stated above, this tends to be done implicitly, with relatively little debate or discussion among disciplines. It seems likely that discussion across disciplines and with stakeholders and the public about the important issues might serve to focus research to provide better information for future decisions.

Is the basic problem in forestry how to allocate forests to different uses in a wise, just, and environmentally sensitive manner- “how should we manage a given area of land or landscape?” This is traditionally the area of planners, local governments, and landowners. These groups then use scientific information as available to help make decisions. Other valuable information they use in decision-making includes their own experience, experience of practitioners and indigenous people, history, the law, and the mixture of their own preferences and values.

The role of place is specifically linked to this framing of the question. In an era of globalization, land is the ultimate thing that cannot be moved or shipped. Carey (1998) describes the process of becoming located in a place in these words “over time our perceptions, thoughts and feelings undergo a process of integration with that place. We achieve an intimacy with climate and landforms. Adaptation gives way to coevolution. The place changes us even as we change the place.” He goes on to compare “space” and “place”, “space is defined by numerical coordinates, squares on a grid, longitude and latitude. By contrast place is defined by “human experience, by stories and a sense of connection that is born of years spent observing and interacting with a particular ecosystem.” The poet Gary Snyder (1995) calls bioregionalism and watershed consciousness “ a move toward resolving both nature and society with the practice of profound citizenship in both the natural and social worlds. If the ground can be our common ground, we can begin to talk to each other (human and nonhuman) again.” One of the key tensions in land allocation is between local, regional, national and international rights and responsibilities, and a tension between academic, scientific and local knowledge. Yet, framing the issue as helping local decision makers allocate land leaves a different center and clientele for research than some of the other way of asking the question.

From the forestry or landscape architecture point of view, is the question “how should we design landscapes?” McQuillan (1993) mentions both the aesthetic of architecture and aesthetic of participation in the urban or rural environment. McQuillan also points out that forestry is an art as well as a science, as acknowledged by the Society of American Foresters since 1971. Once again, in forests there is science, but what is its proper role- like that of engineering in architecture? Perhaps forestry and conservation biology have this in common, as Soule’ (1985) states in describing conservation biology “in crisis disciplines, one must act before knowing all the facts; crisis disciplines are thus a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.” Once again real world applications require some mix of intuition, art, and science. Still, looking at the issue as one of design rather than allocation brings art to bear, and a different lens than simply allocation. Framing the question this way leaves science, art, and intuition as partners in design, and on real landscapes, citizens and their political structures.

Is the key question for forests “what practices and technologies should be used?” Certain practices, such as home and road development, logging, and using automobiles, using or not using fire, have effects on water, soil, air, and organisms of all kinds. Can humans decrease our needs, substitute other products, or decrease the negative impacts of these practices? The difficulty with framing the question this way is that in many cases the critical question about practices for a policy maker is not whether it impacts the environment, but what the impacts compared to available alternatives. Often in scientific research, alternatives are not part of the study, which leaves the policy maker to potentially compare apples and oranges, or, more often, kiwifruit and ball bearings. This can lead to the plaintive cry of the scientist to the policy maker along the lines of “if you don’t use my ball bearing in your cake, you are not using the best science.”

Is the question “how can we change human culture to be more sensitive to the environment?” Again, this would be the province of the humanities. Is the problem too many people? Is the problem how to conserve biodiversity? If the question is seen as “how best to protect the environment from people?” or “how can we develop new technologies that provide for people’s needs?” the first group is not realistic because it does not consider that people have needs, while the second group does not consider the social or environmental impacts of its technology. While feeling smug and comfortable within disciplines, reducing the problem into these discrete units is ultimately a political and not scientific action, and leaves us bereft of potential solutions to the problem of harmonizing the needs of humans and other organisms.

Each way of describing the problem has several parameters: different mixes of humanities and sciences to be purveyors of information, different systems of stakeholders and decision makers, paradigms of preservation and use, and different focus on the local compared to general concepts and principles. The paradox is that to some extent each is the problem, the whole problem is each of these and larger than each of these. The paradox is that the answer is a function of the question and who picks the question is a function of values, not science. And we need to base our design of the future on what we know about people and the environment, but also on what resonates with the human soul, a world designed to be a place we would all want to live.


  1. Thanks, Sharon. Something to consider is what motivates the audience. City people see rivers, but not forests. Rural people see forests and maybe the river. What happens when emergencies are identified? Floods trump forest fires. More urban people see the danger from flood than rural people who see danger from fire. Urban people do not understand the role of proper forest management until the reservoir providing urban drinking water silts up. Urban people are unwilling to pay rural people to manage watersheds? Maybe rural people should advertise things that rural people do to keep watersheds intact? Target of the advertising would be urban people. The product being sold? The ida that urban people should put a few coins in the collection plate. The collection plate to pay for forest management.

  2. Sharon, I’m struck by your references to Snyder and Soule given your apparent interest in the anthro part of the eco paradigm.
    Both those fellows are pretty big into the nature without regard for human benefit camp, and especially irreverent of economic realities that affect the anthro creatures that mess up the eco perfection.
    However, I will agree that land management is an art as much as science. If it looks right, it usually is, and no better way to see that is on certain tribal lands where the management is seat-of-the-pants, paperwork free, and often.

    • Dave, my point with Snyder is that he said those things after living in the mountains in California so he must have meant them. If I said them, many people would write it off, but those same people would have trouble writing off Snyder.

      As to Soule’, more about his statements later in the piece. What I think was interesting about this quote is that often when dealing with environmental lawyers on the planning rule, they would say “you need to use the best science including the principles of conservation biology.” I asked “what principles?” and never got a good answer, as I could mostly argue that most of the principles are already being followed. Using scientific information is very different from following the personal views of scientists or groups of scientists.

      But Soule himself says about conservation biology “crisis disciplines are thus a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.” So we are to argue that one mix of science and art is science, and should determine decisions .. while other mixes of science and art, like forestry, are anecdotal and practitioner knowledge is “not science.” To me it’s really, OK to admit scientific information, values art and intuition are all mixed up in many research projects. But I think you need to pick a land.. if you’re claiming privilege for “science” stick to “science.” Of course, then we’d have to have a discussion about what it is and isn’t. But again, more on that later in the piece.

      BTW. I went to look up Soule’s website and along the top is a header of “nature conservation and sin.” http://www.michaelsoule.com/
      Sigh, if you’re an expert on conservation biology, and you argue that people should listen to you because you’re an academic expert, and then you talk about sin, and you’re not an expert on sin (except for the fact that he and most of us, are practitioners and not academics of sin), why should we listen?

      • Well, when I was a big bad forestry journalist, my first trip on the gut wagon was dredging into the origins (overtly political) of “conservation biology” as a field — the Beschta/Sessions war and the Donato disaster. I can’t remember the exact wording, but SCB had a direct mission statement that a goal was to influence policy in ways beneficial to the precepts of conservation biology.
        SCB was started as a means of legitimizing what I think is ideological, the deep ecology/intrinsic value stuff — Snyder, Naess, even Foreman. The EF’ers knew they needed a entre into peer review and science in order to gain political traction, so they got their campfire buddies together and started reviewing each others’ work. Viola!
        Ironic thing, I just learned that former OSU dean Hal Salwasser is now involved with Soule and the conservation biology stuff via High Lonesome Ranch/Institute. Now, I have known for a long time that Hal is not just a member of SAF but a founding member of SCB. And “conservation biology” makes sense in certain ways, its the implementation that is so bogus, as is the underlying ecocentric uber alles philosophy. Fine. It’s clever, and it’s going mainstream, sadly.
        Well, there was this student committee that tried to lynch Hal out of his job, right? I attended the kangaroo kourt, and was stunned to recognize one of the students — a Montana artist and loud Green who was at OSU studying “trophic cascades” — Bill Ripple’s new crusade that he stole from Charles Kay, basically. You know, Bill Ripple, Beschta Report?
        Fast forward six or so years. Little Miss Lynch Mobette now works under Hal Salwasser. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

  3. SharonF

    Re: “The paradox is that to some extent each is the problem, the whole problem is each of these and larger than each of these. The paradox is that the answer is a function of the question and who picks the question is a function of values, not science. And we need to base our design of the future on what we know about people and the environment, but also on what resonates with the human soul, a world designed to be a place we would all want to live.”

    –> While everyone sits around speculating and trying to pretend that, with enough logic and research, we can wrap our collective feeble minds around a problem that we can not even fully understand much less solve; someone else will step forward and say ‘to heck with this’ and whip out their sword and cut the Gordian Knot. Sometimes it turns out to have been the right thing to do while at other times it leads to great calamities including loosing a war and unnecessary death. Power is the only thing that matters because those who have it will never willingly yield it to those with whom they disagree. Earthly survival is the paramount primal urge and to those who are uncertain about eternal life, power achieved by any means is the surest way to survive for the longest possible time. The faux environmentalists have inappropriate veto power (from controlling voting blocks and court action) over sound forest management. Many times I have mistakenly thought that things were turning around because their failures were so evident. My 40 plus years as a professional in both the forestry and wood products industries have repeatedly shown me that no matter how much we try to accommodate the views of those opposed to sound forest management, there will always be the powerful, inflexible ones who have no idea that whatever is driving them to insist on getting their way will eventually kill the golden goose.

    –> The above philosophical concerns and postulations are no different than the concept that some have that we could have world wide peace and harmony if we constructed a religion that only kept the parts of each religion, including atheism, that everyone could agree to. It is an utterly naive idea since a great many believers would rather die than give up the central tenet of their faith which no other religion believes. Likewise, there is not even a remote possibility of achieving a “world designed to be a place we would all want to live” (i.e. consider the American revolution and consider the failure of communism in the USSR). As the bible says ‘there will always be wars and rumors of war’. Why? Because we all have vastly different ideas as to the bare minimum that we would accept as a place to live in and even greater differences as to what would constitute a place that we would want to live in. We have plenty of people that would go to war rather than live with someone of a slightly different complexion or with someone of a different religion. Even if you tried to relocate people to minimize such conflicts, people would go to war to keep from being relocated or told that they could only eat so much a day because they had to share their wealth so that everyone got an equal share of the limited resources resulting from an expanding population and/or a contracting carrying capacity for essential resources due to global warming outside of our absolute control. Oh, yea, lots of luck getting volunteers to submit to early termination in order to reduce the drain on decreasing essential resources.

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