Can Addressing Cultural, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions Help With Protracted Conflicts (Yellowstone, Owl, Wilderness, etc.)?

Let’s start the discussion of Justin Farrell’s book The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict. It’s a long book, and is written with some academic-ese, and there are treasures throughout. I’ll start with a quote from the Introduction on page 9 in a section called “Toward a Theory of Morality and the Environment.” Thanks to the Princeton University Press and Justin Farrell for permission to reprint.

I’ll let Farrell speak for himself as to the purpose of his book.

Thus, environmental conflict in Yellowstone is not—as it would appear on the surface—ultimately all about scientific, economic, legal, or other technical evidence and arguments, but an underlying struggle over deeply held “faith” commitments, feelings, and desires that define what people find sacred, good, and meaningful in life at a most basic level. The current and allegedly most important resources relied upon by actors and observers of the conflict do not, and cannot, ultimately define for different people why one should care about Yellowstone
in the first place, why an intact ecosystem is better than a fragmented one, why aesthetic beauty should or should not be protected, why some animals should be venerated while others are considered pests, why some land is “too special” to drill while other land is drilled with indifference, or why people might view their old-west labor, recreation, and heritage as profoundly meaningful, perhaps even sacred. Answers to these questions are only possible and made meaningful in the context of larger moral orders and spiritual narratives that shared human cultures
are built upon.

To be clear, my sociological approach in this book focuses less on the individuals themselves, and more on the cultural, moral, and spiritual contexts in which stakeholders are embedded, shaping their beliefs and desires. Somewhat implicit in my argument is that, for a variety of reasons, these deeper moral and spiritual meanings are often ignored, muted, and misunderstood. But only as we engage these sorts of questions at a much deeper level can we begin to understand why the mountains of technical evidence marshaled in the Yellowstone conflict have done little to solve disputes that are, finally, not about the facts themselves, but about what make the facts meaningful. Further, this book shows that when we glimpse beneath the cultural context of the Yellowstone conflict, and bring these deeper moral and spiritual dimensions to the surface, we often learn what conflict is really about—and in some cases discover roadmaps leading beyond the thick pines of technorational policy stalemate.

To translate:(1) seeking more data and research cannot help if the disagreements are really about something deeper, cultural, moral or spiritual (I’ll abbreviate as CMS). This reflects the work of sts scholars (science and technology studies, or sociology of science) that at some point science doesn’t help, but becomes another weapon in a more fundamental disagreement. Off the top of my head, I can cite Roger Pielke, Jr.. (Here’s a summary of Roger’s distinction between “tornado” and “abortion” politics. There are many others in the sts field who have written on this.

(2) There is a possibility worth exploring, that going deeper into understanding the real differences would get us farther in conflict resolution than scientific or legal battles. I’d even add a possible corollary (3) we have thousands of years of experience with people disagreeing about ideas and moral values (religious history). Many of the early European settlers to this country had explicit ideas about how religion should or should not order society based on their recent religious warfare. Perhaps we could learn something from the ultimate resolution of these conflicts that could apply to our environmental disputes?

Of the many topics we discuss here, it seems like Wilderness might lend itself to this approach. Maybe if we started with moral values, and then built land use designations we might arrive in a place of agreement. It might be worth a try, and think how much money we could possibly save on studies of relative hiker, bike, horse, burro and llama environmental impacts in different parts of the country with different intensities, soil types and so on?

Apocalypse Never Book Club: I. Scientific Hubris and the Satellite Gaze

My intent with book club is to discuss a chapter each week. People are welcome to comment on any topic in the chapter that strikes your interest anytime during the week.
MS (Michael Schellenberger) visits a great many diverse topics in each chapter. I picked the one below as there are sociology of science questions that I’d like to draw out from his text.

For the purposes of these posts, I’m going to assume that MS conveyed these statements accurately. At this point in the book (p. 12), MS is trying to get at the scientific basis for the “billions will die” claim.

To get to the bottom of the “billions will die” claim, I interviewed Rockström by phone. He said The Guardian reporter had misunderstood him. What he had actually said, he told me, was this: “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate eight billion people or even half of that,” not “a billion people.” Rockström said he had not seen the misquote until I emailed him and that he had requested a correction, which The Guardian made in late November 2019. Even so, Rockström was predicting four billion deaths.

“I don’t see scientific evidence that a four degree Celsius planet can host eight billion people,” he said. “This is, in my assessment, a scientifically justified statement, as we don’t have evidence that we can provide freshwater or feed or shelter today’s world population of eight billion in a four degree world. My expert judgment, furthermore, is that it may even be doubtful if we can host half of that, meaning four billion.

But is there IPCC science showing that food production would actually decline? “As far as I know they don’t say anything about potential population that can be fed at different degrees of warming,” he said.

MS goes on to point out some studies. What I thought was interesting is the casual throwing around of large, scary figures with a claim of “science.” Or rather a “scientifically justified statement” or perhaps simply “expert judgment.” I guess we are talking “educated guesses” then, to be more correct, but how educated, really? How far can scientists make claims out beyond any possible headlights? Is there any accountability for making those kinds of statements? And can we understand why scientists choose to do this?

Let’s take a look at some of the unknowns. For one thing, we don’t know how many billion people there will be to start with in the future. We can’t even predict how many people will wear masks for Covid- even if it’s required by law. We don’t know (anything, really, about) what will happen in a four degree world, since that’s an average, and no plant or animal perceives a global average. We simply don’t know what the environment would be like on a particular place on the planet’s surface. As I’ve said many times, we don’t know how much adaptability is in the genome of different plants, how we will be messing with it (technology, who could have foreseen CRISPR thirty years ago?) by then, nor how hard it would be for farmers to switch out with other species, based on unknown future eating habits and markets around the world. No one can possibly know that, either way. It’s also interesting that Rockstrom said that “there’s no evidence that we can support those many people.” There’s no evidence that we can’t, either.

From my perspective, as a scientist whose career is in what we might call the “adaptation” fields, I have to wonder “who is judged to be an expert when it comes to adaptation, and on what basis?” Let’s look at Rockström’s expertise.

Before focusing on the planetary scale, Rockström’s research aimed to address building resilience in water scarce regions, and is an expert on water resources. After completing a PhD at Stockholm University’s Systems Ecology Department in 1997, he spent nearly two decades working on applied water research in tropical regions. He has also published research on with agriculture systems, land use, and ecosystem services.

He moved from working on applied water research to the “planetary scale”, in other words, what we might call the Satellite Gaze, the idea that you can understand the world without understanding parts of the world and how they work. I have concerns with The Satellite Gaze- especially the role of local people and institutions, natural resource practitioners, managers of dams, farmers, and so on. To say that they are disempowered is not strong enough; they are practically invisible; and certainly do not participate in the discussion. Can you imagine giving say Kansas State University $5 million to ask all the researchers and extension folks to check back after they’ve figured out what the regional down-scaled models would say about future Kansas climate, and how farmers and ranchers might adapt? Sure, it would cost more than running some models and publishing a paper, but at the end of the day it might be a great deal more realistic and useful. But if there is no $ for research, then there is no “science” to compete with the Satellite Gaze, and the ones who get the research $ get to claim that authority, and get media attention for their expertise-and the rest of us become even more invisible.

I’ll go back to another sentence that MS uses after his discussion about fires in California.

“The bottom line is that other human activities have a greater impact on the frequency and severity of forest fires than the emission of greenhouse gases. And that’s great news, because it gives Australia, California, and Brazil far greater control over their future than the apocalyptic news media suggested.”

Jon Keeley,a wildfire expert at USGS, talks about more people, more ignitions, but to me, the greatest impact on acres and damage has to be the efforts of fire suppression folks. We’d need to understand how they can adapt to longer fire seasons and drier conditions before we could determine what the ultimate changes in fire acres and intensity might be. As Keeley says about fuels on page 20 “It’s the problem in some of the reports done by climatologists who understand climate but don’t necessarily understand the subleties related to fires.”

My point is that when scientists attempt to predict the future (using assumptions with a pinch of data at most) and leave out the humans that are likely to grapple with it and how they currently do their work, how can they claim to be experts on impacts? It’s puzzling, although not something MS addresses directly in the book. If we flipped to Covid considerations, it would be a bit like modeling spread without including hospitals or doctors.

One more example is one page 1. “A NASA scientist predicted simultaneous collapses of food systems on multiple continents at once. “the potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing” she told the NY Times.” Rosenzweig seems like a knowledgeable person on agriculture and climate change, but if you don’t really understand how farmers adapt, how can you understand one part of one continent (or one state, or one crop), let alone multiple continents. Again, have we lost track of “human beings and how they adapt” when the verbiage of research is modelling “collapsing food systems”?

Again, just because I singled this out for attention.. there’s lots in the chapter and anything is fair game for discussion.

The Smokey Wire Virtual Book Club: “Apocalypse Never”- Begins 8/17/2020

We tried a virtual book club with Dan Botkin’s book Discordant Harmonies in 2013. We had many thoughtful discussions that are still relevant today. You can take a look at the Chapter 4 post that comes up on the link to get an idea. We went chapter by chapter, and I have to confess I ran out of energy working through the chapters. Maybe because Botkin made one main point with a variety of examples.

But I think this one will be different. The book is Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger.

Why this book? Don’t be put off by the title.. overstatement sells books. There’s much thoughtful stuff inside. He touches on many topics we talk about, some related to forests, some to climate change, from a different angle than we usually discuss here. He comes from a very different socioeconomic milieu than most TSW readers (at least I think so), e.g. he lives in Berkeley and travels around the world- so it will be interesting to see where we agree with him and where not. Perhaps most important, he shares his stories and his reasoning, which gives us a chance to tell our own stories and give our own reasoning. Some ideas I agree with, some not, and some I’m simply agnostic. He’s got lots of references, too, so we can look them up if we want.

I’m going to take a chapter at a time and we can discuss. If you’d like to participate in VBC (Virtual Book Club), we’ll start in a few weeks – on 8/17.. that should be enough time to request the book from the library and read the first few chapters. Also, feel free to invite others to join- the book is mostly about climate change (and forests, and psychology, and models) and the usual stuff we talk about. Of course, people would have to follow TSW rules of engagement.

Here’s a bit from Shellenberger’s bio (the rest is at the link above)

Michael has been an environmental and social justice advocate for over 25 years. In the 1990s he helped save California’s last unprotected ancient redwood forest, and inspired Nike to improve factory conditions in Asia. In the 2000s, Michael advocated for a “new Apollo project” in clean energy, which resulted in a $150 billion public investment in clean tech between 2009 and 2015.