Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Mythology of Conservation


'When I read conservation commentaries it often strikes me how much such commentaries resemble those made by the cavemen of yore — no offense to the cavemen.'

The amount of lies, untruths and half-truths in conservation is truly spectacular. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t read or hear some very questionable statement about a species, their habitats, or the reasons why these are disappearing.

And the people who are making these questionable statements are as likely to be in government, the business sector, or in non-governmental conservation organizations. What is it about conservation that makes it so vulnerable to factual manipulation?

To take a little side-track, I was out for a walk recently on one of those rare clear Jakarta nights, after a day of dry heat and winds. A bright full moon was out, and I was struck by the thought that not so long ago people would have had a totally different view of what that moon was. To most of us, it is a rocky mass circling Earth every day, lit by the Sun, as part of a tiny solar system in a vast galaxy called the Milky Way.

But for tens of thousands of years people would have looked at the moon and seen something quite different. Many considered it a deity, for example, Artemis to the Greeks and Chandra to the Hindus. I am sure a few bright cavewomen or cavemen would have scratched their heads and wondered why the moon moved so regularly and changed its appearance every day. But if they did dare to speculate on their visions and ideas, most of their cave fellows would have told them to get real and focus on their mammoth steak instead.

For millennia, the prevailing school of thought held that the heavens were more perfect than the Earth and therefore all celestial bodies, including the moon, were perfectly smooth spheres. It took a scientist, Galileo Galilei, who paid more attention to detail, and in 1610, he noted that the moon’s surface was in fact rough and rocky with dark, flat, low-lying regions and brighter highlands.

So, over time our views of the moon have changed, with science informing most of our thinking.

Now back to conservation. When I read conservation commentaries it often strikes me how much conservation commentaries resemble those made by the cavemen of yore — no offense to the cavemen.

Really, depending on whether commentators hate or like conservation, they will happily pick any information that will help them to support their views. A few examples:

When former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced that Indonesia was going to maintain 45 percent of Kalimantan as forest, some NGOs cried out and said it was impossible because there was only 15 percent forest left. The science on this is undisputable, and some 50 percent of Kalimantan remains forested, so why argue otherwise?

Recently, a regional governmental official commenting on the establishment of oil palm made the ludicrous statement that all oil palm was grown on areas which previously had no forest. There are at least 50 solid scientific studies which clearly determine that view as total nonsense.

Also, quite often when I write in this newspaper to discuss newly published science, commentators argue back that the science must be wrong because it doesn’t fit their beliefs or personal observations.

Now, I would be the last one to claim that all science is true and accurate. But at least, good scientists always aim to be objective, transparent and repeatable in their work. To me a good scientific study is more likely to approach reality than personal gut feelings or generalizations based on a handful of observations.

Now, why should conservation suffer so much from this rather creative use of facts?

Partly this is because conservation is super complex. It deals with not just environmental and biological issues, but also with legal, economic, social, cultural, political and other concerns. No one quite understands how conservation works, how it is supposed to work, or even what the ultimate goal is.

It seems that the inherent uncertainty in conservation results in ideological positioning. One is either opposed to or very much in favor of “conservation.” And without quite understanding what that “conservation” means, people strengthen their arguments by choosing the facts that support their ideology.

Fortunately, with new scientific technologies, it is becoming increasing difficult to ignore the facts. Twenty years ago it would have been relatively easy to make up numbers about how much forest remained, or whether or not oil palm was established in deforested areas. But now publicly available tools make it harder to fantasize about this.

Still, the tendency to ignore science remains. And scientists themselves are partly to blame for this by burrowing their information in obscure papers that few people will ever read or bother to understand.

It’s a bit of a dilemma. With the world’s human population growing to over 10 billion, we will need to seriously rethink our relationship with our environment, and how we will survive in a world that is still pleasant to live in. Believe and hope may help to some extent to change the human mindset. But making the practical lifestyles changes that redefine how we live on this planet should be informed by an objective understanding of how our actions impact the natural world. Science has to play a key role.

In the end, whether the moon is a rock or a deity may not matter much to us. But whether or not we mess up our environment beyond recovery certainly does.

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based conservation scientist, coordinating the Borneo Futures program.


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