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Understanding our values of nature

Above: a view from the Lägern forest outside of Baden, Switzerland, one of the research sites for Katie Horgan’s PhD work. I ran the Lägern ridge while I was training for a marathon this fall.

I’ve always been interested in conservation. Okay, maybe in the beginning it wasn’t a choice. My mother worked for (and now runs) a land conservation nonprofit, and I grew up kicking around the office and volunteering at events.

Some of my first research and jobs in ecology were about topics related to global change: invasive species, contamination, climate change. I was motivated to take these jobs because I cared about the issues and thought that doing research related to them would help.

But these projects were all very much ecology. The grants weren’t written and the studies weren’t designed with an outcome in mind that could be translated to stakeholders or implemented as policy. They were pure basic science: what is happening? Hey, that’s cool (or alarming, or boring, or …. ), and it’s good that we know it now!

Even though so many of our ecology results are framed in the context of global change, including sentences and maybe even paragraphs talking about implications for land management, I’ve never studied conservation biology. Neither have most of my collaborators.

Recently, I have begun to understand how my good intentions and environmentalism don’t help the environment that much. I’ve been doing ecology in a vacuum: I care about “issues”, but those issues are separate from my science (even if they are merged on my Twitter feed). I really like community ecology and understanding species interactions, and that’s what drives my research questions.

I’m not sure that in and of itself is problematic. But what is certainly problematic is the extent to which I didn’t realize what I was doing. It’s hard to expect your science to connect to and inform conservation and planning if you don’t really understand conservation and planning.

One of the things that made me more cognizant of this was the defense of a fellow University of Zurich PhD student, Katie Horgan, last week. Katie’s dissertation was highly interdisciplinary, and it exploded my conceptions of how we think about nature and ecosystems.

Embarrassingly, the big thing that I realized should be obvious: how we value nature depends more on us, than on nature.

(That might seem like a bit of a jump from my first few paragraphs, but I promise I will link it together at the end.)

When I write out my “big realization”, it looks stupid. I find myself thinking that I already knew that. I interact with people every day who think about the outdoors in a different way than I do.

My boyfriend illustrates this perfectly. When I go for a long run, I want to go somewhere new and see a new view. Steve? He would be happy running exactly the same loop around Uetliberg, the local ridge, that he ran the previous week.

“Why do you need to take the train for two hours?” he asks me. “It’s still just a forest.”

The value we place on seeing and experiencing ecosystems is completely different. Running around in the same forest, or similar forests, we pick up different things and take away different experiences.

How does that relate to ecology? In the past few decades, there has been a push to quantify the value of the natural world. We call them ecosystem services – things like clean water, clean air, the provision of fish to eat and wood to build with, nice places to go recreate in. All of these things can be assigned a dollar value and deemed “natural capital.”

This approach can then be used to make policies protecting natural areas. Asking people to identify what is valuable in their landscape helps set conservation priorities. This approach can also demonstrate that neglecting such protection would be economically costly. In some places the ecosystem services approach has worked great, and in others not so much.

Until last week, I have to admit that I kind of saw ecosystem services as black and white: this ecosystem either provides this service, or it doesn’t. This forest provides X and Y. That lake provides X and Z. I saw ecosystem services as something you could measure objectively.

Then I walked into Katie’s defense.

Katie’s research is fascinating. She worked at eight different research sites scattered around the world, from two right here in northeast Switzerland to those in Siberia and Borneo. At each site, she asked people who worked at the conservation areas a series of questions: did they think that ecosystem service X was being provided by this area? What about ecosystem service Y?

This is a seemingly simple dataset and study, but the work and the results are far from simple. Just getting the interview responses, despite cultural and language barriers and all the rest, was a huge feat.

The thing that struck me most from Katie’s talk was that even in ecosystems that seemed in some ways similar – and actually, even at the same ecosystem– the people Katie interviewed had different answers about whether an ecosystem service was provided or not.

In other words: assessing what ecosystem services are provided does depend on the ecosystem. It depends on how people see the ecosystem.

Katie also mined through the responses and deduced how people thought about the value of these conservation areas. Rather than thinking only about an ecosystem service, she classified the responses by what this service corresponded to.

Did people see the service provided as something more utilitarian (“instrumental”)?

Or did they value this service differently, in a more “intrinsic” way – is the service provided something more fundamental, like biodiversity, that just is?

The third type of value is the one that makes me go run in a new place whenever I can – “relational” value, defined by the way that we interact with nature.

Different ecosystem services, which are the metric by which we turn nature into “natural capital”, were valued in a wide range of ways. And importantly, nearly every ecosystem service that Katie asked about was valued in each of the three ways by at least one study participant. In fact, most participants places more than one value on a given service!

Katie’s big question was, what are the things that motivate people to take positive action about biodiversity?

I had been thinking, like a cold scientist, that the natural capital of an area or ecosystem was defined by the ecosystem itself: the biodiversity contained within, the black and white ecosystem services it provided. I thought we had to convince people of that value, and then they would be motivated to protect it.

What Katie illustrated so powerfully was that actually, the value of nature is defined by the people valuing that nature. If we don’t recognize that, then we won’t really succeed with protected areas and conservation policymaking.

And because of that, it’s a little bit stupid for someone like me who leaves human interaction completely out of my research to put in pompous statements about how that same research will inform conservation.

A few days later, I saw the following tweet from Andy Gonzalez, from a presentation by University of Vermont professor Taylor Ricketts at a science conference in Quebec. It distills this point in a different, perfect way.

I bet I’m not the only ecologist who needs to mull over that message.

We live and we learn, and I’m trying to become a better scientist and a better person all the time. Part of that is being humble and realizing when you’re being clumsy or just kind of an idiot.

Hearing from inspirational colleagues definitely helps in that process.

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