Sunday, 21 February 2016

How Belief About the Nature of Nature Impacts Conservation Decisions

What to do about invasive species is a hot topic in the conservation world. Yet, how an individual views that world—nature—by and large determines how s/he wants to treat it. In her book “Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration” author Tao Orion summarizes some key fundamental beliefs about nature as described by Canadian ecologist Crawford Holling.

I found the observation that an individual’s beliefs about nature determine his/her approach to conservation an enlightening idea, especially given the apparent impasse that divides the “slash/kill/burn/poison the invaders” conservationists vs. the “let nature be and stop trying to manipulate it” ecologists. Coming from an NLP background, I know that beliefs drive thoughts, attitudes, convictions, and behaviours, so this makes perfect sense.

So, what are these fundamental beliefs about nature?

Well, firstly there’s taking a scientific management approach to conservation, which is also the mindset behind conventional farming and forestry. People with a rational, scientific belief system assume nature is basically stable, and that any changes that may occur are understandable, predictable, and manageable. Within this paradigm, intruders (weeds, pests) should be kept at bay to ensure the ecosystem remains stable and unchanged. People who hold this paradigm as fundamental assume the ecosystem has historically been in equilibrium, at least until recent disturbances (often caused by man’s intrusion) upset the balance, and that it can be returned to that "natural" equilibrium state.

Another common assumption about nature is that it is resilient. This runs somewhat in contrast, but is also complimentary, to the “we have to manage it to keep it in balance” belief, and relies on the assumption that nature can bounce back and will then be able to take care of itself, given time. Combining these two beliefs, it is assumed that if invasive species are removed from a natural environment, the ecosystem will recover and resume its previous form.

A contrasting and emerging view of ecosystems, on the other hand, suggests that natural environments are not static, but rather are evolutionary and constantly in a state of transition. This view assumes resilience is not inherent, and resumption of a former form following an ecological disturbance is unlikely, regardless of human intervention. It also assumes that a changed or altered system can still be stable. As environments and climates change, whether man-driven or otherwise, ecological systems will adapt, utilizing whatever products and species are made available to fill particular ecological niches needed to create and maintain system stability.

Salt Cedar, Colorado River
Flowing out of the evolutionary/transitory assumption is the idea that an unmanaged natural environment is more stable than a managed one, even if it includes what man has identified as “unwanted, invasive” species. In her book, Orion gives a wonderful example of the salt cedar growing along the Colorado River. While salt cedar is perceived as invasive and displacing the traditional willow, it is also true that willow thrives best where there is occasional flooding, something that no longer occurs along a river so controlled and managed with dams and water removal. Salt cedar, on the other hand, may not be “native” to the area, but it thrives there now because it can tolerate higher salt levels from runoff leaching and it does not need frequent flooding to keep it healthy. Birds are as willing to nest in salt cedar as they are in willow, and no matter how much salt cedar is cut and poisoned, and no matter how many willows are planted, in an altered ecosystem where one environmental niche is damaged and another one emerges, it is a natural evolution for species to change.

Understanding that underlying beliefs shape attitudes and behaviours, it is easy to see why there are environmentalists on both sides of this issue. From one point of view, conservation is about saving and/or restoring and/or maintaining what is or used to be there, and from the other point of view, non-intervention eco-management is about allowing wild places to remain undisturbed with a focus on natural processes to enable stable, functioning, self-sustaining ecosystems.