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Monday, 29 July 2019

Contested lands and contested research: when evidence doesn’t align with conservation agendas

Guest post by Blake Alexander Simmons, Student Blogging Contest Series 2019

The morning of April 16, I awoke to several messages from European and American friends lamenting the fire engulfing the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Within the next 48 hours, I witnessed one of the most rapid evolutions in public outcry that I had ever seen. What began as world-wide sorrow and empathy for the destruction of an international landmark, turned into hope and comfort as billionaires pledged hundreds of millions of euros to restore the cathedral. This eventually led to global outrage at this outpouring of financial support. Suddenly, social media was ablaze with criticism over the amount of money being donated to restore this UNESCO World Heritage site. My head hung as I watched as friends, colleagues, and influential scientists in the conservation community expressed their frustration that these billionaires were not similarly donating to other environmental causes, like the restoration of the Great Barrier Reef. They couldn’t believe that a church composed of wood, stone, and glass would be so much more important than a healthy, functioning environment. That is, they couldn’t understand why these billionaires didn’t hold the same values as them, and were subsequently villainised for their actions.

When we observe a particular behavior that doesn’t align with our own values, beliefs, or agendas, it can be easy to vilify that behavior—even when it is altruistic in nature. The criticisms surrounding the financial support for the Notre-Dame highlight the importance that agendas play in supporting or denigrating observations and evidence in the scientific community. In my experience, this is especially true in the conservation disciplines. Agendas are important; they guide the goals and objectives of institutions, organisations, governments, and the individuals they are composed of. But they can also be problematic when they are grounded in unwavering beliefs or perceptions that hinder the important reflective and adaptive capacities of these agendas.

Like Notre-Dame, when confronted with behaviors or evidence that contrast with our own agendas, we must not dismiss them as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but reflect on how they align or can be aligned with our own agendas. In this post, I will discuss my own personal experiences during my doctoral candidacy related to this important issue, outlining the struggles I’ve experienced trying to promote sustainable environmental behavior interventions when the evidence does not align with fixed environmental agendas. I’ll highlight the importance of objective conservation research, and I’ll challenge those translating evidence into practice and policy to be adaptable and receptive to emerging evidence—even if it conflicts with pre-determined beliefs.

A modern deforestation context

The state of Queensland, Australia is facing globally-significant rates of deforestation, despite a recent history of regulatory intervention to control what landholders can clear on their properties. Extensive land clearing throughout the state began during the height of development in Queensland (ca. 1940–1980), as the government incentivised landholders to clear as much native vegetation as possible in order to grow the emerging economy. This financial incentive was prevalent throughout most of the 20th century, until public recognition of the importance of dwindling habitats began to grow. This eventually led to the enactment of the Vegetation Management Act (Qld) 1999, which remains the primary mechanism for regulating the clearing of remnant (i.e. old-growth) vegetation on private lands in the state. Fraught with controversy, this command-and-control policy instrument has undergone considerable evolution over the last 20 years as restrictions tighten, loosen, and tighten again. Today, conservation groups and agricultural groups all agree vegetation management policy needs a change; the direction of that change, however, is hotly debated. As farmers and agricultural lobbyists fight to reduce regulatory control, conservationists and environmental NGOs continue to push for stronger policies to reduce deforestation.

Trends in tree clearing across Queensland, Australia against a dynamic timeline of vegetation management policy. Source:

Given this ongoing debate, the research for my PhD investigated how deforestation behaviors have changed amidst these frequent policy changes, how effective regulatory intervention has been at reducing deforestation, and what biophysical, political, and social factors may be driving landholders’ clearing decision-making. As you might imagine, the subject of my research has (at first) been met with great intrigue and anticipation by conservation interest groups; unfortunately, the subsequent results are often met with great disappointment. Why? The evidence does not support the current conservation agenda, which pushes for stronger command-and-control tactics to create pro-environmental behavior change: landholders in historical clearing hotspots have not been responsive to policy restrictions, the Act has only been marginally effective at reducing remnant deforestation, and frequent periods of policy uncertainty have resulted in spikes in pre-emptive clearing, which have reduced the positive impacts of regulatory intervention.

Not so simple: the importance of social science in conservation

As any social scientist will tell you, creating desired behavior change is difficult. The mind is a complex place, where unobservable factors, biases, perceptions, and experiences shape every day decision-making. Policy instruments, like direct regulation, do not necessarily result in simple cause-effect behaviour outcomes. The importance of many social science fields, like behavioral economics and social psychology, cannot be emphasized enough when we talk about conservation. In the context of deforestation in Queensland, a consideration of the social factors driving decision-making is imperative for creating positive behavior change in the future.

Why are some landholders not responding as expected to regulatory restrictions? Why has policy intervention had marginal success? How can we prevent perverse outcomes from intervention? While I don’t expect to have all of the answers to these questions, current evidence utilizing social science has revealed some important insights. For example, my most recent projects investigate the different typologies of farmers, drivers of clearing intentions, and differential preferences for financial vs. non-financial incentives for bush preservation (all currently in review). The results emphasize a number of important psychosocial characteristics, like social norms, the perceived threat of regulation, and self-identity. Without addressing these underlying factors, future top-down approaches to curbing deforestation may continue to have limited effectiveness. Instead, more bottom-up approaches should be implemented, which can focus on building trust and support networks, improving the relationships between landholders and extension officers, and promoting pro-environmental norms and stewardship identities within communities.

Perhaps naively, I never would have expected such recommendations would be so unfavourable to so many in the conservation community. Throughout my candidature, I have consistently had to defend these interdisciplinary approaches and their alternative solutions. For many conservation social scientists, this is nothing new. Quantitative natural scientists have a long history of dismissing social science approaches. From ‘human behaviour is not nearly as complicated as ecological interactions’ to ‘the only thing that will make people change is money or the threat of imprisonment’—I have heard it all. And as someone trained as a quantitative natural scientist, I get it. Traditionally, our knowledge of the human dimensions of conservation has been limited, and true interdisciplinarity is still not entirely supported in many institutions. While I have been fortunate enough to work in a team where interdisciplinarity is not only encouraged, it is understood as a necessity for creating positive environmental change, I am constantly confronted with situations where robust evidence is dismissed or refuted based upon pre-established beliefs, unconscious biases, and competing agendas.

Bias, dissonance, and conflicts of interest

There are a number of cognitive biases that may influence our decision-making on a daily basis, and renowned scientists and influential organisations are not immune to their effects. Some common examples include confirmation bias (only listening to information that confirms one’s pre-established beliefs), conservatism bias (favouring prior evidence to new evidence), and blind-spot bias (recognition of others’ biases, but a lack of consideration of one’s own biases). While most conservationists will be able to identify these biases in the environmental opposition (e.g. confirmation bias in climate change deniers), there is a lack of reflection on how frequently conservationists are subject to these same biases.

Understandably, the mind will always be prone to bias, as we frequently seek to minimise cognitive dissonance—the mental conflict we experience when confronted with information or behaviours that contradict our values or beliefs. People will deal with this dissonance in different ways, and individuals vary substantially in how they respond to criciticism, their ability to adapt, and their willingness to engage with others. The conservation community, in particular, represents a broad spectrum of actors that will differentially respond to dissonance. But as conservation scientists, we have a duty to remain objective and independent in our investigations. This can be exceptionally difficult if we are unaware of how our values, agendas, and experiences influence our research questions, interpretations, and recommendations.

Is objectivity even possible in conservation? Within the Queensland deforestation space, I often find myself as the lone foreigner in a room full of Australians. Most stakeholders involved in the land clearing debate have developed a set of attitudes based on a lifetime of past experiences in this Australian context. Do they have the capacity to be objective and independent from any preconceptions? During my initial investigations into the social dimensions of tree clearing in Queensland, I held a focus group with landholders, government officials, and industry stakeholders. One government official identified this lack of objectivity as the root of the problem:

“So you say, ‘We need a fact-based approach. We need rigorous research.’ That research has been done for a long time. It never got out because it was shut out by the political forces that don’t want to see it. What’s got to change? You’ve got to argue these things on a rational approach, and you cannot do that when both sides are in an emotional state of disrepair. It’s not going to go anywhere… [the debate] has been on now for 25 years, and it’s been irrational on all sides at times.”

My contribution to this realm, in contrast, is very different; I have no positive or negative experiences with landholders or politicians, no political affiliation in Australia, no significant stake in the outcome. My job is to assess previous interventions and their effects on behaviour and provide recommendations that will promote the most sustainable environmental future—all as an outsider looking in. So yes, some level of objectivity is possible in conservation, and conservationists must be receptive to objective criticism and reflection.

Protestors rally outside Queensland Parliament in support of stronger deforestation regulations. Source: Blake Alexander Simmons
When I present the evidence from my research to conservation scientists, environmental NGOs, or politicians, there is (almost) always someone who disagrees with or dismisses my results. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we must be critical of all evidence presented to us, and it is the job of the presenter to satisfy any criticisms. I have noticed, however, that when the same methods are used to produce results that more closely align with a particular conservation agenda (e.g. protected areas are working), the results are heralded in an instant. Such cognitive biases have been prevalent throughout my candidature. Following one of my presentations, an influential stakeholder responded with, ‘That doesn’t make any sense. We know the policy worked.’ After I clarified that there is no causal evidence for such successes of the policy, the person simply shook their head and returned to their mobile phone. In another instance during a meeting, one renowned scientist exclaimed, ‘Farmers just don’t bloody care about trees!’ When I reminded them of the talk I had presented to them earlier in the day, where I discussed that many farmers have expressed that they do care about the aesthetic value of trees, they flippantly responded, ‘Oh.’

Promoting interdisciplinarity, objectivity, and adaptability

How can we, as conservationists, do better to ensure our biases and agendas do not impede our ability to make the smartest and most-informed decisions possible for the environment? It starts with our relationships with other stakeholders who may be seeking to promote a particular agenda. While it is important that researchers collaborate with NGOs, practitioners, and government, we must be aware that researchers are a valuable commodity for propelling agendas. And although it is becoming increasingly important for conservation scientists to also act as environmental advocates, we must remind ourselves that the scientific agenda is the only agenda we must have—that is, the pursuit of knowledge through objective and falsifiable research. After all, if we can’t be objective and independent, who will be?

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, agendas do serve an important purpose. But too often agendas are static. This is because of the erroneous perception that altering an agenda is an admission that the agenda was a failure. An adaptable agenda, in contrast, is not only a smart agenda, but the most successful agenda. Akin to environmental management practices, agendas must be guided by the most relevant and recent information. We must reflect on how new observations and evidence align with our existing agendas, and how we can utilize this new knowledge to shape our goals and objectives for conservation—like in the case of the Notre-Dame.

While I have shared my own personal experiences in this post, I imagine many of you will have encountered similar situations during your career as a student, professional researcher, practitioner, or policy-maker. To my fellow early-career researchers in conservation—do not let these instances discourage you. The field of conservation is notorious for its pessimistic reputation, and the majority of postgraduate students already struggle with depression and anxiety. I promise you, for every one person who will try to dismiss your research due to their inherent need to avoid dissonance, there are two people who will listen, reflect, and value your important contribution. Surround yourself with those people.

To those conservationists in a position of power—professors, campaigners, policy-makers—I challenge you to be adaptable and receptive to emerging evidence, even if it conflicts with your pre-determined beliefs and agendas. I challenge you to foster greater interdisciplinarity in your teams in order to leave no stone unturned, no path unexplored in the pursuit of understanding (and changing) environmental behaviors. Finally, I challenge everyone reading this post—myself included—to reflect daily on our own potential biases that diminish our abilities to think and act objectively. In the end, we all have the same agenda: to ensure a healthy, functioning, and sustainable planet for centuries to come. Some of us just have different suggestions for how we get there.

About the author

Blake Alexander Simmons is a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland and visiting fellow at Queensland University of Technology. His research interests are transdisciplinary, with a particular focus on social-ecological systems and the biophysical, political, and cultural dimensions influencing environmental behaviors.

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