It is now roughly 30 years since I started a project in the forests of the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Reserve (TNC) as a PhD student at Florida State University. I still haven’t published a paper on this particular portion of my dissertation. The irony is that remains my intention to write such a paper. Bottom line: I wrote a crappy dissertation. I appreciate all the help I got in graduate school. I worked with some truly great people who helped me enormously. Nevertheless, I look back and think that rather than being fueled by my graduate education, I survived my youthful naivete. Now that I have been a professor for more than a quarter century, I feel I have a perspective on what is a good approach to graduate studies and what is not. I also know that, like myself, most students do not indulge in enough critical thinking about their own graduate studies. Hence, below is some unsolicted advice.
Approaching 8 billion people, it has never been more apparent that environmental management requires difficult discussions about this tension between individual freedom (e.g., to exploit) and societal interests (e.g., to protect). Population growth has meant that nearly all decisions in the environment are contested in this crowded world where people are everywhere, exploiting everything. I suppose that it is inevitable that conservation groups look around and see population growth as the root of the problem, and the key to long-term solutions.
There are a bunch of books on science and the ivory tower and how scientists need to actively paticipate in reversing the pattern of scientists isolating themselves from public discourse. There are also a bunch of books on scientific illiteracy that speak to the need to increase the generaly understanding of science among people. Conservation Science (CS) and Natural Resource Manaement (NRM) are ideal participants in this important venture to build a populace that acknowledges science as an important way of knowing; that there are rules to to good science; that we individually can and should look to science and judge whether what we read meets the criteria of good science and not let some website dictate to us whether some scientific finding is valid, important, trivial or malicously false. I believe that CS and NRM are ideally situated to foster healing the divide between science and society through deliberate integration of science and society in understanding and managing natural resources.
Why do I argue that the world, particularly the US, needs environmental conflict. The US has some of the strongest environmental legislation in the world. The US has some of the largest, most well-funded resource conservation NGO’s in the world. The US has the most robust network of local land trusts doing local conservation in the world. The US has, arguably, among the best public natural resource agencies in the world. OK, all of that smells just a little too patriotic. It probably isn’t all true. But, my point is that if we are worried about protecting the environment, the US, on a global scale is doing pretty well. It is ahead of many nations and the legislation passed in the US is often used as a template for other regions of the world.
A primary problem with environmental conflict is that it does not elevate into the American psyche enough for most people in most places, most of the time. Surveys of environmental concerns generally place these in the top five, but never #1. Studies also show that voting for representatives usually focuses on the top 1-3 issues, and generally not their environmental positions.
Thus, the large, diffuse populace of American citizens as stakeholders usually have under-represented voices; local citizens whose lives are affected by the promise of jobs or the fear of loss of quality of life are heard; and he typically small suite of financial stakeholders often get a large voice relative to what we might think appropriate. A vanishingly small number of large corporations have a large interests in outcomes and can influence outcomes when the public is not paying due diligence. A small number of local people have a large interest in the outcome. The battle, then is often waged over the benefits (ie, jobs) of resource exploitation versus the cost (ie, environmental degradation).
The country is currently fixated on ‘fixing’ healthcare. This has quite clearly been framed, and managed, as bad conflict. Eivdence is in the completely partisan voting, among other things. However, this actually could be a “We’re in this together” sort of problem. Everyone recognizes that health care is expensive; we all want everyone to have good health care; we know that using preventative care saves money in the long run; we all want to be able to afford health care; we all want people to behave responsibly with their health care; we all recognize that this is incredibly complex. However, we also should recognize that the government can’t afford to provide "A" level healthcare for everyone and do other things with tax revenue that we want (e.g., pay for the world’s most expensive military). What we disagree on is how much personal versus governmental responsibility there is in fixing the problem of health care, whether hospitals requiring to take on cases and help people effectively makes this a public and not a private problem, and where our federal budget priorities lie.
Those that know me understand that I have an aversion to conflict. Nevertheless, I was thinking about conflict with respect to environmental decision-making in the context of world conflict. I was pondering whther there is good conflict that is distinct from bad conflict. Maybe one of the reasons that we seem to have such extreme governmental dysfunction is because we are treating chances for good conflicts and bad conflicts. OK, so let me define what I mean.
Dear Secretary Zinke
re: Bears Ears National Monument
I am a stakeholder, and I want that National Monument.
Or am I really a stakeholder? As a US citizen, I claim I am because this is Federal land. Many folks in western states suggest that I am not, because state governments should have domain over resources within their states. I live in California. Tribal people, with respect to Bears Ears, believe that they have a primary say in the matter. Thus, despite the fact that I agree with their position, they would consider me a stakeholder of infintesimally small proportion. That leaves Presidential promises and Republican values based on state's rights versus Tribal rights coupled with environmental concerns. Good luck, Secretary Zinke. This smells like bear poo no matter what you do. How did we get here, anyway?
In the weeks leading up to, and since, the most recent US election highlight the degree on acrimony in America; we are an uncivilized country. I guess that nearly every American would agree that this country has never been more divided in their lifetimes than it is right now. I grew up in the eras of Civil rights and Vietnam and that was, indeed, divisive. Campus protests, Capital marches, and even riots in the streets. However, now the issues are broader: war and civil rights along with energy, economy, environment, immigration and others. Further, the actors are not simply the dispossessed and college students, but people from all sectors along with our political leaders and leading news outlets. It seems dauntingly divisive at a scale that transcends the 1960’s. Can discourse focused on natural resource decisions provide an outlet to regain civility and treat heterogeneous opinions as just that, and not colors of flags on a battlefield?
Oh, I hope so. But then I am but a humble plant ecologist. Natural resource management is challenged by the human destruction of resources placing species at risk of extinction. One potential ‘solution’, upon which I have written, is Assisted Migration (AM). AM is deeply dividing the conservation community. Proponents argue that we need to deploy AM to reduce the magnitude of future extinctions. Opponents argue that it is too risky, not likely to succeed, will cause another suite of problems, or is ethically misguided. It is the ‘ethically misguided’ that is at the core of this essay.
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