Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be posting a new article each day.
Each article will be supported by a short video clip providing much the same content, so you can either read this blog or just watch the clip. This first one’s a little longer but most of the clips will be about 5 minutes long (the perfect tea break I heard you say).
These articles are going to lead readers through a presentation I was invited to give to the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries in October 2016, and a similar, expanded lecture I gave to a restoration ecology class at Victoria University in April last year (where the video comes from).
This presentation offers some reflections on my PhD research in Environmental Science. But don’t let that put you off! That research essentially looked at how we understand introduced wildlife in New Zealand, explored the history of perceptions toward introduced species in this country, and considered and thought a little bit about how our attitudes towards these species might come to change in future.
A big part of the research was fundamentally asking whether we might take a more accepting or a more conciliatory view toward many introduced species, and even those we currently consider to be pests.
Can we talk about conservation?
Something that international visitors often remark upon when they come to this country is New Zealanders’ intense love for native species, especially birds. But what they also remark on is our intense hatred and loathing for many introduced wild species, especially anything that eats birds. Something that comes through very clearly in the conservation literature in New Zealand, in comparison to elsewhere, is that we tend to be right out at the extreme end of restoration. We tend to take it very, very seriously.
That attitude is supported by a very polarised construction of nature that tends to very firmly delineate ‘native’ and ‘introduced’ – so much so that these are often interpreted basically as categories of right and wrong. This can make it difficult, and dare I say it even controversial, to express views that are positive, that are compassionate, or more often than not, that are even respectful of many of our introduced species.
Having studied and worked in biodiversity management for most of my working life, what I can say is that it’s very difficult to have conversations about conservation in New Zealand – at least those that sit outside of the norm. It’s actually something I think we have a real issue with in this country.
How it currently works
I’ve worked in a few different roles in the environmental services sector, one of which was working as an ecologist for an environmental design consultancy. I did a lot of environmental impact assessment work in that role, figuring out what the effects of developments like wind farms, roads and housing developments might have on local ecosystems. And one thing that really struck me while doing that work, and that still strikes me to this day, is the basis for valuing wildlife the way we do in New Zealand.
With impact assessment work sometimes you work in pristine environments, but more often than not you work in environments that are a little rough around the edges. Often you’re working in urban or peri-urban settings, and the ecosystems are a real mix, generally of native and introduced, a lot of common native species, and your fair share of weeds and pests too. And the scheme of valuation we work under in NZ is basically this:
- At the top of the pyramid are your threatened or at risk native species or ecosystems. These are things you theoretically cannot put the bulldozer through, things you’re going to either need to avoid or offer up mitigation for.
- Next, and quite some way down the pyramid, are your common native species. These are the things you probably will be able to put the bulldozer through so long as you can show that they are definitely common, that there are plenty of them around. Basically, the more successful they are, the less we think they’re worth protecting.
- Next, and some very considerable way further down there are your introduced species. These ones are generally considered to have no real biodiversity value in New Zealand so long as they’re not game species – so no problem putting the bulldozer through there.
- And finally you have your weed and pest species, which you’re essentially incentivised to destroy.
It’s a scheme of valuation that ensures that under most circumstances it’s going to be pretty easy to put the bulldozer through.
Occasionally you’ll find some threatened or at risk species but by their very nature, being rare and uncommon, you don’t tend to run into them too often. In many respects it’s a very perverse system, leading to exactly the kinds of outcomes you’d expect
And what also increasingly bugged me, and still bugs me, is that many of the ecosystems that we’ll happily bulldoze – our novel, mixed, hybrid ecosystems – are those that make up most of our ecosystems in New Zealand. What’s worse, these are some of the most diverse, vibrant and dynamic systems we have in the country.
Despite the contributions of disciplines like urban- and landscape ecology, we’re still really conditioned as ecologists to always be looking for the native and the pristine when, for me, it’s the mongrel, bastard, mixed-up ecosystems that are often some of the most interesting. And I thought, and still think, that we don’t have a strong basis for being so dismissive of these ‘novel ecosystems’, and many of the species within them, and the values that they support.
But what to do?
Anyway, some of these thoughts later became the seeds of my PhD thesis. And I went into that research thinking that I had some pretty groundbreaking, pretty earth-shattering ideas to build on. I thought that I was maybe going to be the next Darwin or something…
So clearly it was with more than a little bit of horror when I came to realize in the first 2-3 months (after doing a bunch of reading) that I wasn’t nearly as original as I thought. And that many others were having similar, semi-heretical thoughts in this space – many of them many years before me.
Not just in ecology either, but also elsewhere in the natural sciences, social sciences and in the humanities. I was actually a bit daunted to find that there’d been an explosion in nature-related discussion and research over the last couple of decades. And many of these people were just as sceptical as I was about the validity of many of the ways we currently think about and value nature.
What really struck me, learning this stuff, was the enormous difference between what is understood in the literature and what people think in the public and in the industry. So the question I asked myself was ‘Why didn’t I already know all this stuff?’ And I thought a bit about why there was that disjunct in information and understanding, and I came to the conclusion that it was largely down to the means of disseminating the information.
I was reading all this stuff, of course, in journal articles, and the problem with that is that in the main no one reads journal articles. Just to give you some numbers here, the total number of peer-reviewed journal articles being produced every year now is about 1.8 million across about 26,000 journals. The fact of the matter is that your average journal article is likely to be read in its entirety by no more than about 10 people.
Let’s go through those 10 people and try and identify them. Let’s see: there’s yourself, there’s your supervisor, there’s your two editors, there’s your mum and your dad, there’s your girlfriend, maybe your boyfriend as well…that leaves perhaps a couple of extra novel readers.
The hard truth is that fully half of journal articles are read only by their authors and editors; a third are never cited by anyone. And the really crucial thing is that most practitioners working in the field don’t read journal articles either. They don’t have time.
So it probably won’t surprise you that since finishing my PhD I’ve been doing a bit of popular writing instead of academic writing. That’s because I think the biggest and most important task now is actually one of trying to get people up to speed with what has happened in the literature over the last few decades.
From what I can see, most practitioners working in the conservation industry are theoretically about 20-30 years behind the literature and this has some serious consequences for how we manage our ecosystems.
Read the next instalment here.
Featured image: Rural New Zealand scene with exotic willow forest in foreground © Adam Forbes. Used with permission.