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.
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 balancefor 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.
Featured image © Creative Commons.