Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Two Ways to Study the World...but Only One Way to Understand Ecology

When I was a psychology grad student at Victoria University, I took a course called Drugs, Brain and Behaviour. One day we were talking about some particular drug, and I asked “what about side effects?” And our professor said, “This is a psychology class. We’re not interesting in anything that happens below the neck.”

And I thought, “Whoa! So if I take some chemical substance and it makes me feel nauseous or affects my heart or my circulation or my kidney function, that doesn’t affect my brain or my behaviour?”  I thought it was a bizarre way to try and understand how a particular drug might affect an organism.

Yet, this approach in science and medicine, called reductionism, is all too common. It means to hone in on some particular aspect of the subject and become a specialist on that particular item. It means your oncologist might know an awful lot about cancer treatment, but s/he probably has little interest in your back pain or anxiety, how the side effects of your medication impact your daily life, or what dietary and lifestyle changes you could be making to enhance a recovery process. For those things, should you mention them, your oncologist is likely to refer you on to other specialists.

And there’s nothing wrong with people deciding to specialist in particular areas or particular subjects. It is important, however, to realize that without some feel for the overall system within which that subject operates, any understanding gained is likely to be flawed.

Last night I was watching the final episode of the excellent and beautiful 2009 BBC tv documentary Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, on TV One here in New Zealand.   

It was a timely reminder of the interconnectedness of all things in an ecological system. One of the ecological stories explored by the series was the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone and the cascade of unexpected effects this has had on the whole ecosystem. For example, it seems counter-intuitive that the reintroduction of wolves would be of benefit to the park’s beaver population, but it’s true. Here’s why.

Wolves were killed off in the 1930’s in Yellowstone, and as a consequence elk populations thrived with elk free to rove around the park, browsing heavily on the tasty shoots of young willow, cottonwood and alder that grow in the lowlands and alongside streams. These trees are also favoured by beavers for building dams and as food stored (underwater—amazing) for winter. When wolves were re-introduced into the park ten years ago, there was one beaver colony in the park. Today there are ten packs of wolves (around 100 wolves) in the park[i],  nine thriving beaver colonies, and elk numbers have—to the astonishment of naturalists—grown[ii]. Why? Because wolves prey on elk, the elk now spend more time browsing in the protective, deeper forest and less time in the more open wetlands where the willow, cottonwood, and alder grow. Thus, the stream-side trees have thrived, and with the trees, the beavers have thrived, and their dammed ponds are creating new wetlands for the myriad of birds, insects and fish that have taken advantage of the enhanced wetland environment. Elk, meanwhile, have split into smaller herds, and some of these smaller herds migrate out of the park in winter to lower, more pastoral (and wolf-free, if not hunter-free) feeding grounds, easing pressure on park resources. Meanwhile, elk killed by the wolves provide not only food for the wolves, but also for carrion-eaters such as eagles, ravens, magpies, coyotes, and bears who are also thriving. The documentation of how one change in the ecosystem (reintroduction of wolves) can have such far-flung effects is causing “a feeding frenzy of scientific research,” according to Doug Smith, the wildlife biologist in charge of the Yellowstone Wolf Project[iii].

Alas, there is no similar feeding frenzy in New Zealand. I feel like I harp on New Zealand’s aerial 1080 poison story a lot[iv], but this is an ecological issue with a myriad of impacts that cannot be understood or appreciated with a reductionist “let’s drop some poison and kill off the possums and therefore save our forest” approach. Ecology is never that simple. The New Zealand forest has adapted over time to the fauna within it.  According to zoologist Jo Pollard, “1080 is toxic to a broad spectrum of organisms, including native birds...[with] very high mortality rates observed in some species... Its aerial use may have whole ecosystem-level effects, such as on the rate of litter decomposition, the size of nutrient pools, and primary productivity, [as well as on] fungi, microbes, and plants.”[v] Even the targeted “possums may now fulfil an important ecological role in the dispersal of large seeds, due to the decline in large-gaped native birds” (Dungan, et al 2002, as cited in Pollard)   Pollard’s analysis of available research shows impact in many areas of NZ forest ecology following 1080 drops and leads her to conclude that “aerial 1080 has devastating ecological effects.”[vi]  

If we are to understand and appreciate and work with (rather than against) the world we live in, we have to look at the systems within it holistically. When one thing changes in that system, it can affect the whole system. There is a place for the reductionist-specialist of course, but we must be careful not to get so focussed on any one particular aspect of a system that we neglect the surrounding infrastructure that help to keep that system stable.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Of Two Minds

“I’m of two minds.” You’ve heard the expression before, usually used when someone can’t decide which option or route to take (Should I buy a new computer now? Or wait until the new model comes out? Should I take a break and have lunch now? Or wait until I finish writing this document?). According to Daniel Kahneman, author of the new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s really true. Or at least, you have two very different ways of processing information and making decisions.

Most of us know this intuitively. When a dog runs in front of the car, we slam on the brakes almost before it seems our brain has registered the event—that’s our “fast” brain working, making a split-second emotional decision and causing a resultant reaction based on limited information. That’s a very useful ability in certain situations. Kahneman calls this form of decision-making “system 1”.

On the other hand, when playing chess or filling out your tax form, a slower and more careful part of the brain attempts to analyse all of the available data to help you make ‘best choice’ decisions. This, too, is a useful skill. Kahneman calls this form of decision-making “system 2”.

Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Laureate in economics, is a huge fan of rationality—the slower and more time-consuming thought processes of system 2—especially when evaluating economic situations. In his book, he identifies many ways in which we think irrationally, relying too much on the ease of system 1. For example, when given a choice whether to join a company pension plan, for example, most people choose the default option. So if you are automatically enrolled in the plan and have to “choose” to opt out, most people will take the default and allow themselves to be enrolled. If, on the other hand, you have to “choose” to join, most people will take the default option and not join—even if all that is needed to opt for the non-default option is to tick a box.

Another example of irrational thinking that Kahneman shares: When two sets of dinnerware are offered for sale, and Set A contains 40 pieces of which 9 (cups and saucers) are broken, and Set B contains 24 pieces, all in good condition (but no cups and saucers included), people were found to pay more for the intact set of dishes (Set B), even though they would get 7 extra dishes (some cups and saucers) with Set A.

In this Time interview with Kahneman, he answers 10 questions about his book and his theories.

I found the book to be interesting and thought-provoking, and a good reminder that we often make irrational decisions as consumers and investors without even realizing it. No doubt this book will be studied and savoured by economists and marketers, as they seek to eek our dollars from us with many simple tricks and manipulations (like the opt-in, opt-out example given above). As consumers, we’d be wise to do the same. Some knowledge of statistics, and an interest in the many ways numbers can be statistically manipulated, is useful to fully appreciate Kahneman’s book. However, simply dipping in here and there for his interesting stories makes it fun even for a simple browse if an in-depth read of this sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Conservation: What's in a Word?

What does “conservation” mean? The word, of course, is just a collection of letters arranged in a particular way, and it has no meaning at all of itself, only whatever meaning each of us brings to it. Each of us probably has a slightly different “take” on that meaning, although we use the word as if we all understand and share its meaning.

My Oxford dictionary defines conservation as “preservation of the natural environment” as well as “preservation of works of art, documents, etc.” The word is related to conserve: “keep from harm or damage” and conservative: “adverse to change”.

I grew up in America where the worldwide conservation movement is generally traced back to Thoreau’s seminal book Walden, published in 1854, which documents the two years the author spent living in a small cabin on the shore of a woodland lake, Walden Pond. It is his journal of what it’s like to maintain a self-sufficient life in a semi-wilderness setting (Te Radar style), his observations of nature, and his thoughts on the relationship of man to the natural world.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." (Thoreau, 1854)

Muir and Roosevelt at Yosemite, California
The other pioneer of the conservation movement in America was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt regarding the setting aside of forest reserves as wilderness places of peace and renewal to be preserved for all people:

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." (Muir, 1912)

Both of these men saw conservation as a way to preserve wilderness spaces for future generations to observe and enjoy, tracts of land allowed to evolve naturally without the interference, pruning and shaping of human foresters and harvesters. Muir wrote:

"God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild." (1869)

"There is not a "fragment" in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself." (1916)

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) support and moderate “the protection of New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage”[i] through a different philosophy: active management—they advocate the interference, pruning and shaping of New Zealand’s wild places for what they perceive is in the forests' best interest. As a part of this government mandate, they argue that “control programmes to manage and remove animal pests are essential for the survival of New Zealand’s special native plants and animals.”[ii] Included on DOC’s list of animal pests in need of control in New Zealand are possums, rats, stoats, ferrets, hedgehogs, deer, ferel goats, Kaimanawa horses, lorikeets, tahr, weasles, rainbow skinks, wasps, dogs and cats[iii].

It is a fragmented rather than harmonious approach to conservation. Obviously, it would be political suicide to target dogs and cats in a pet-loving nation such as New Zealand, but the other animals on this list appear to be “fair game”. The primary methods of animal pest control advocated by DOC are ground traps in more accessible areas, and the aerial broadcast of 1080[iv] poison in more remote areas, to kill off as many of these animals as possible.

Plants, too, are categorized—fragmented—into “wanted” and “weeds” camps. DOC is actively engaged in weed management on around 17% of conservation land.[v] Some of the weeds that DOC actively target are banana passionfruit, heather, ivy, lupin, sweet pea shrubs, yellow and kahili ginger, pampas grass, and marram grass[vi]. Herbicides such as Round Up, Gallant, Zero, Escort, and Touchdown are sprayed to control the growth and spread of these plants in conservation areas, resulting in eradication where possible.

Maori hunting moa (now extinct)
New Zealand was, at one time, a quite unique place on this planet. There were no mammals on these islands save two or three species of small bats. The aim of DOC seems to be to return New Zealand’s “wild” and “wild-ish” lands to approximate a pre-European colonization state. It's important to note they do not advocate a pre-Maori colonization state, which would be impossible since much of this land was then browsed by moa, flightless birds that, although apparently resident in abundance in pre-human times, were rendered extinct by hunting Maori before the white man sailed to these shores. 

In short, DOC do not aim to “conserve” New Zealand’s “natural” lands as they are now, nor allow the current forest eco-system to self-manage (let’s not trust Mother Nature here—she’s too unreliable!) but to change and manage our wild spaces to create something that isn’t now and never really was. Which is not really “conservation” as the dictionary would define it at all. 

Of course it doesn't matter whether DOC follow your definition of conservation, my definition, the dictionary definition, or their own definition, because its only a word, and word meanings change all the time. What does matter is that we understand the meaning of the word "conservation" within the context of any given discussion in a particular place and time, and that all parties at the table are talking about the same thing.