The goal of our Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Europe Section Blog is to share stories and relevant information about activities going on within our section and more broadly in the conservation community. Stories and articles shared on our blog should not be taken as an official position or statement of SCB or SCB Europe Section. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Failing at the source: maybe science isn’t the answer?

Guest post by Thomas Mackay Smith, Student Blog Contest Series 2018
Gas emissions are not slowing1, and species are not being saved2. We know what the human race is doing to nature, and we know that changing human behaviour can stop the destruction. But our attempts as conservationists to create that change are mostly futile. I argue that this is because, when developing our methods, we are not taking into account the underlying reasons for our relationship with nature. Not once in my short career to date have I attended a lecture or conference talk on this important point. Surely, we need to know why something is the case, if we want to change it? Only then can we successfully plan our next steps.
The domestication of animals in the first agricultural revolution began the animal-human divide. When agriculture started, we became much less dependent on the natural world, and now people in cities may feel they are not dependent at all. But this does not explain the extremes to which we go: why do we lock animals in tiny cages, removing their social bonds, whether in a meat industry that disregards ethics, or just to stare at them in zoos? Elephants do not trample on other animals just because they can – so why do humans? 
Yuval Noah Harari argues in his second book Homo Deus that it wasn’t just domestication, it was the creation of new theist religions alongside agriculture which allowed us to justify such monstrous behaviour1. Before agriculture, religions told the story of humans being only a small part of the great web of life. When god came along, there was then a world order: gods over humans, humans over other life forms. Furthermore, this switch made humans the centre of the universe. If we are happy, then everything is good; now, looking at the state of the planet, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Despite theistic religions dropping away over time, Harari argues they still form bedrock of our institutions1. And the human-animal divide has also been reinforced by philosophical thinkers, not least Descartes, generally considered the father of modern philosophy. Sarah Bakewell argues this point emphatically3, she states that Descartes “was interested in animals mainly as a contrast to human beings. Humans have a conscious, immaterial mind: they can reflect on their own experience and say ‘I think’. Animals cannot. For Descartes, they therefore lack souls and are no more than machines.” This viewpoint, and his absolute need for certainty, formed one of the most famous quotes there is: ‘I think, therefore I am’. By taking a stance of thinking = being, we not only believe we are above animals, but we go so far as delegitimizing any other living things from “being”. It is essentially this ethical stance, based on superiority rather than balance, which we should be attempting to change. 
So the question arises: are conservationists on the right track in trying to challenge embedded religious and philosophical values through the quite different discipline of science?
Scientific findings are the basis of all the decisions we make and we rely on them. However, science can only give us facts and cannot tell us whether, in ethical terms, a decision is ‘good or ‘bad’. Therefore, it cannot be our only, or even our primary, tool for changing ethical stances towards nature. This is not a new idea; as Einstein said, “science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgements of all kinds remain necessary”4.
In most conservation talks I attend, presenters justify how animal declines are intrinsically ‘wrong’ by showing a graph of a population decline; but this is ‘bad science’. For instance, if I go into the woods and kill a deer, science can only tell me the pain I might cause to the deer, how I may disrupt the deer’s herd or the local ecological balance. It does not give me ethical advice as to whether killing the deer is essentially good or bad. We are telling people to stop killing animals using a method (science) which cannot give value judgements. Science can provide evidence to guide our values, but it cannot be our values. 
There are cases where our ethical stance may co-align with scientific interests, and this reinforces the idea that science can provide these values. Such as: if we chop down the forest, no CO2 from the atmosphere will be absorbed (our ethical desire for not harming the forest co-aligns with the scientific fact: cutting down forest contributes to global warming). But what happens if, in 100 years’ time, we invent a machine that can absorb carbon better than trees and safely store it away? Then our scientific argument for protecting forests won’t work; we need an ethical argument, which science cannot provide. 
I am not saying science is bad; it has produced unprecedented improvements to human life, but it cannot be used as our ethical persuasion method for protecting nature. I believe our scientific methods are not working because they do not challenge deep seated ethical mindsets and behaviours, because they do not provide a viable alternative. How can you make effective change unless you can offer valid alternatives?
Einstein also said “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”4. In this instance, think of religion as a belief in a set of ethical values. In order to enact the change we want, we must create a nature-centred movement with a new set of values, which does not base all its ethical arguments on scientific evidence. This movement must incorporate the idea of nature into people’s everyday lives, encouraging them to learn from nature, as we did before agriculture. When I find myself in bad times, I look at trees and remind myself how the relentless wind makes their roots stronger. After watching my blind, deaf and arthritic cat eating, I don’t look at an animal who ‘can’t think’, I look at a living being who can remain happy despite tremendous adversity. I believe it is these types of ideas that we must be focusing on, instead of endlessly producing journal articles in a language most people cannot understand. 
There are plenty of new thought movements emerging which adopt this approach. They offer people a more wholesome and sustainable life with meaning. Unfortunately, these movements are often caught up with ‘hippie’ prejudices or branded as greenwashing, and this is something we must work on. We must present them as a newer, logical, sustainable and more ethical approach to living. Conservation isn’t a scientific problem, but a philosophical one.

1Harari YN. Homo Deus. London: Harvill Secker; 2016. 83-116 p.
2Ceballos G, Ehrlich PR, Barnosky AD, García A, Pringle RM, Palmer TM. Accelerated modern human – induced species losses: entering the sixth mass extinction. Sci Adv. 2015;1(e1400253):1–5.
3 Bakewell S. How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. London: Vintage; 2011. 123-153 p.
 4Einstein A. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown Publishers; 1954. 41-49 p.

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