Conservation Musings

Who decides?

Reaching coherent conclusions about the state of the earth’s natural systems, its future, and the future well-being of those of us who are a part of and depend on those systems, can be a challenge. That is especially so, perhaps surprisingly, for those who trust science to accurately inform us about the various metrics and trends that describe current, and foreshadow future conditions.

I was prodded to think about this when I noticed two recent TV movies that were based on the premise that earth is headed for destruction, and the human species is to blame and should be removed.  That seemed a harsh sentence, yet there are those who would accept it as truth. The varied responses to prophesies of doom range from derision, to nagging worry and apprehension, to committed action to ‘save the planet’ – apart from many (most?) who lead their lives simply oblivious to or uninterested in the debate. I suppose we’ll see more of such programming as we approach the end of this cycle in the Mayan calendar. A matter of great concern to those who think the calendar marks the end of the earth.

So, why this wide-ranging response in the face of accumulated data on many fundamental aspects of our earth’s functions, and substantial knowledge about the history and trends of the indicators?  Certainly there are those who choose to ignore or disparage the science or those who have spiritual beliefs that some ‘protector’ will save us from ourselves (or perhaps exterminate us for ‘misbehaving’?).  Of more significance are those who, having critically looked at that science, remain uncertain about projected consequences of measured trends. I count myself among them.

As a scientist, I ‘m predisposed to except my fellow scientists’ explanations and predictions – allowing for some differences in interpreting data.  However, challenges arise, in part from the staggering volume and diversity of relevant data, the complexity of the processes to be understood and the relatively short time-frame for which we have comparable and reliable information.  For example, simple questions about global climate change generate ‘heated’ debates about the reliability of data, its comparability over time and the interpretation of those data against a geologic time scale given periods of weather extremes in the distant past.

The fundamental question is what conclusions/predictions can be fairly relied upon to support substantial changes in human behavior and potentially enormous investments in infrastructure that anticipate predicted future conditions.  More personally and practically, what do we do individually? And, will what we do make a difference to any significant degree – even when extrapolated to all other individuals capable and willing to make similar changes? More generally, how do we decide in the face of conflicting views and uncertainties inherent in data about complex systems?

This is not just about the changing climate, rather the same questions are relevant to many other concerns where science should be our guide, including the sustainability of our use of natural resources, and of the diversity of life that provides stability on which we depend.  The answer for some has been to impose the ‘precautionary principle’ ..

(from WikipediA — The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. …. No introduction to the precautionary principle would be complete without brief reference to the difference between the precautionary principle and the precautionary approach. Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration 1992 states that: “in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”   

Pervasive application of the principle, in my view, has contributed to a society so risk-averse that it increasingly creates unnecessary and unreasonable limitations, not to mention invasive, occasionally arbitrary, regulations that supplant individual judgment with government mandates. Here we return to the questions of science’s reliability, certainty, and interpretation – and society’s understanding of and tolerance for risk. It is unlikely that any judgments about what is acceptable risk will ever be unanimous.

Some personal questions to consider……..  Do you dispassionately and critically assess the science/information that comes to you on conservation/environmental issues?  Do you seek to understand the risks that may exist for you and society associated with actions or proposals?  How do you decide what is an acceptable level of risk weighed against potential benefits?  Ultimately, who should decide, and do present decision-making processes serve your interests and our long term well-being?  It’s timely to ask these questions. Whatever your beliefs, the answers by our elected leaders, and those who seek to be, are not trivial.

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