By Jamie Steer 19/12/2018 8


Many people have this idea that we just need to trust the scientists on this one. Science will tell us what to value so we should just leave it to them.

Here are some comments again from my interview with Kim Hill:

‘This is not a cultural judgment about the value of different species but is a scientific one’

‘Conservation science is a value framework?! Ummm – how about the ‘value’ of biodiversity and all the benefits that KEEPS US ALIVE on the planet’

‘It’s not about values!!! It’s science’

But it’s important to remember that scientists also told us what to do during the acclimatisation era as well. We’ll recall that most of the acclimatisation societies around the country included scientists among their foremost members who were great advocates for introducing new species to New Zealand.

At the time, those scientists were guided by the displacement theory of Charles Lyell, someone who also had enormous influence on Charles Darwin. Lyell taught that superior European species would inevitably displace and supplant the inferior natives and that there was not much that could be done about it. The best that scientists hoped to do at the time was shoot and preserve stuffed specimens of native species for posterity. Something that Walter Buller, in particular, was famous for.

By the latter part of the 19th century, Lyell’s views began to lose their popularity among the scientific community and their views began to shift alongside more popular views toward an appreciation for the fact that many natives were doing just fine actually. And other more vulnerable native species could be preserved if suitable management regimes were put in place to protect them or their habitats. At the least, this history provides a pause for thought that scientists (a) don’t always get it right and (b) change their views over time, often in line with changing social and cultural values.

Restoration ecology

Now Restoration Ecology as a science emerged as a sub-discipline only in the 1980s. It is based both on the technical idea and on the moral assumption that ecosystems can and often should be returned to some prior state. Restoration Ecology and related disciplines of Conservation and Invasion Biology have had enormous influence over the environmental movement in general – to the extent that they have often formed almost the sole voice in many discussions on wildlife and how it should be.

The international Society for Ecological Restoration was founded in 1987. Recognising the enormous impacts humans have had on their environments, the society remains in their own words:

‘…dedicated to reversing this degradation and restoring the earth’s ecological balance for the benefit of humans and nature’.

In this way, restoration ecologists are wedded to three value-based assumptions about ecology. Firstly, that change is reversible – something that I’ve already noted is, on most levels, extremely hard to accept. Secondly, that the earth had an ecological balance to which it can be returned – something that I have also argued is an anachronism. And, lastly, that humans are distinct from nature, something that is also deeply questionable.

You know, not everyone agrees with Tom Cruise that we came down from outer space. Māori, most notably, have long accepted that people are part of nature, and I think most Pākehā, though often still very conflicted and confused in this space, are also increasingly accepting of the interrelationships between people and the environments in which we live. I think that we can increasingly see that the division between nature and culture has in many ways been the problem that has gotten us into so much environmental strife in the first place.

Now in ecologists’ defence, there’s no doubt that they are really good at collecting data and assembling graphs. What they’re not so good at, and what they’re not really trained for, is interrogating the ethical assumptions that underpin their science. And as you can see here, some of the most fundamental underpinnings of their science are highly debatable.

That’s one reason why I think it’s important to try and get more perspectives into this space now. Given that conservation is, in many respects, all about values we need more people that have skills in this area now, particularly in the arts, the humanities and the social sciences

By the way, I recently learnt that the Society for Restoration Ecology’s mission statement has changed. The above text is in fact as it read in 2015. But somewhere between then and now they made a change.

‘…dedicated to reversing this degradation and restoring the earth’s ecological balance for the benefit of humans and nature’.

They scratched out ‘ecological balance’, which was evidently too embarrassing to leave in there anymore. So I take it from that that despite what some restoration ecologists tell us, some human-induced changes can, in fact, be positive. The Society, as you can see, now at least accepts that the evolution of their mission statement is necessary, if nothing else.

Read the next instalment here. Or begin at the start of this series.

Featured image © Creative Commons.


8 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Belief 6 – Science: Tell us what to do”

  • This seems like a pretty flimsy argument given that your one concrete example of ‘scientists telling people what to value’ is from the late 19th century.

    • As I’ve previously indicated, this series is an invitation to discussion (as are all blogs) so of course I’m not writing a comprehensive argument. It’s a starting point only. I’d really encourage people to engage constructively with it on that basis.

      That aside, I think natural scientists have long had a virtual monopoly on the presentation of what is and is not valuable about our wildlife (outside of game species). I’ve written previously about this in my PhD thesis and in an article a couple of years ago.

      Consider your typical ‘nature’ news article. It will usually centre on the research or activities of a natural scientist, or a conservation professional trained as one. Or if it is on the work of an individual or community group the interpretation of their work will be filtered almost exclusively through the lens of conservation biology (or a related discipline).

      When the National Government announced its Predator Free 2050 initiative recently who was asked about its validity? A few different parties to be fair, but mainly natural science experts. Social scientists and others have been asked for input since but largely only in so far as their perspectives might help to support the goal.

      This dominance of (certain) scientists in ‘nature talk’ is not unique to NZ either. I’m certainly not the only one talking about the need to separate out and distinguish the values and facts of scientists, whether in conservation or other areas (see for example here, here and here). I do think this situation is changing quite rapidly now though, and that’s going to be a little unsettling for many scientists working in the conservation industry in the coming years. I do get that and understand the concerns.

  • Hi Jamie. I think it’d be fab if people genuinely spoke and argued more about their moral values and what they see as important, but what I’ve seen is that people seem to rapidly gravitate away from that.

    Sometimes it’s very difficult to separate moral views from factual arguments, especially when people’s moral views are guided or informed by understandings of facts and science… or misunderstandings of facts and science. Arguments about 1080 in recent years are a classic example of this.

    The discussions are flooded with people throwing claims and counterclaims and misunderstandings and sometimes outright lies at each other, instead of talking about what really motivates them. Lies (and there are definitely fully conscious liars out there, maybe driven by what they think is just a means to a morally acceptable end) are often several generations away from whomever made the stuff up, and all this fighting over what’s real then has a cascading effect on people’s moral views. eg. Maybe a person’s moral view on whether they think fur trapping or pig hunting in a certain area is reasonable, or not, is derived from a misunderstanding of the effect that sort of use has on the surrounds, or a misunderstanding of the effects that some alternative plan might have.

    Social media silos aren’t helping, and if anything they’re encouraging people to seek out reasons to avoid challenging what they think, and instead reinforce it.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to encourage people to talk more clearly about what they really want instead of trying to tactically undermine the credibility of what other people want? How do we get a fair exchange of moral views that ensures a participant who mightn’t have things going their way cannot simply vandalise the forum with rubbish information to mislead others?

    • This is easily the best question I’ve had for this series – thanks for suggesting it. I began writing an answer only for it to get unwieldy. For me the question is also much broader than the topic of this post so might get lost as well. So what I’m going to do instead is write a full blog post on it in the new year. I’ll message you when I do to let you know. Thanks again and I hope that works for you

  • Just noting that the “next installment” link at the bottom of this article is broken.

    Otherwise I am enjoying reading this series of thought pieces despite or perhaps because of their raising some uncomfortable questions against the common wisdom.