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The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…


Posted in biodiversity science, communication and framing, environmental ethics, nature and culture, policy, population, race and class, science advocacy, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

More on gender differences and environmental behaviors

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

In the same issue of Population and Environment as the previous post, another article, by Chenyang Xiao and Dayong Hong— Gender differences in environmental behaviors in China—shows some interesting cultural differences compared to the study of the American public:

China represents the third largest economy and the highest level of
national carbon dioxide emissions when compared to other nations across the globe.
Yet, little social science research has focused on the environmentally oriented
behaviors of Chinese nationals, key to understanding levels of environmental
impact. This study examines, in China, gender differences in environmentally
oriented behaviors, environmental knowledge, and general environmental concern.
Making use of path analyses, we identify a pattern of gender differences similar to
common findings in the West: women demonstrated greater participation in environmental behaviors inside of the home (e.g., recycling), while outside of the home (e.g., environmental organization donations) no gendered patterns were exhibited.  However, Chinese women expressed lower levels of concern than men—a finding opposite of most Western studies. Also distinct from other settings, in China, higher levels of knowledge regarding environmental issues did, indeed, translate into proenvironmental behaviors—thereby not exhibiting the knowledge-behavior gap
demonstrated elsewhere.


Photo credit: tfpang

Posted in behavior, environmental literacy, gender, social science | No Comments »

Haiti’s story

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010


Little good news is coming out of Haiti these days.   There’s a deep social-environmental history that needs to be explored to understand why crises like poverty, AIDS, mudslides, and this week’s earthquake have been so devastating to the Haitian people.

I have written a bit about this history for one of the book projects I’m working on.  Below are a few excerpts, but before reading further, please consider helping with the humanitarian relief for earthquake victims:


Posted in conflict, energy, food and agriculture, health, nature and culture, population, race and class, risk analysis, social science | 2 Comments »

Extreme climate and the vulnerability of least-developed countries

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010


Happy New Year, everyone.  Sorry for the lag in posts, but there wasn’t a lot happening in the news or journals over the past week.

A few years ago, I saw a talk by Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in economics) who argued that we need to accelerate the economic development of poor countries so that they are able to cope with climate change.  This analysis is interesting, if not fraught with additional challenges, such as development in a carbon-based energy world hastening the very problem to which these nations are attempting to adapt.

In an article1 in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Anthony Patt and colleagues argued that the need for assistance by Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is dependent on vulnerability, which, in turn, depends on both exposure to climate change and how socioeconomic factors affect the sensitivity of LDCs to climate change.

To assess this hypothesis, they first examined how deaths caused by disasters (floods, droughts, and storms) varied across the level of development in several LDCs.  They used the UN Human Development Index—HDI, a composite metric of income, education, and life expectancy—as a proxy for development.

Here’s what they found…


Posted in climate adaptation, climate economics, policy, race and class, risk analysis, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Hansen (C tax) vs. Krugman (cap and trade): A lesson in transdisciplinary understanding?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

An interesting exchange happened yesterday at the NY Times.  Climate scientist James Hansen wrote a column, Cap and Fade, which, as the name suggests, is critical of cap and trade policies for mitigating climate warming.

In his blog, Paul Krugman responded with an article, Unhelpful Hansen, in which he takes readers through a basic primer of C taxes and cap and trade, arguing that they are basically the same and that Hansen is wrong for trashing what may end up being the best available approach.

Most of this is the kind of policy play-by-play that dominates daily blog traffic.  However, one of Krugman’s paragraphs caught my eye:

Things like this often happen when economists deal with physical scientists; the hard-science guys tend to assume that we’re witch doctors with nothing to tell them, so they can’t be bothered to listen at all to what the economists have to say, and the result is that they end up reinventing old errors in the belief that they’re deep insights. Most of the time not much harm is done. But this time is different.

Although this may not be an entirely fair criticism of Hansen (I have no idea what his formal training in economics is), it is interesting to see the implied call for better transdisciplinary understanding.   Social scientists have a responsibility to call out natural scientists for being naive when they wade around in social issues (and vice versa).  Although most of us are trained as disciplinarians, this is why it’s good to stretch ourselves and really understand perspectives and theory from fields with which we are not traditionally affiliated—as any good Environmental Studies program should do.  Most of the time it makes us better teachers and scholars.  And more humble about what we know and don’t know.

Specialization and expertise have their limitations, and, as Krugman points out, in some cases, they can be downright counterproductive.

Posted in climate economics, higher education, policy, science advocacy, social science, solutions | No Comments »

In this week’s issue of Nature: Rethinking global conservation

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


Robert Smith and colleagues argue1 that it’s time to reorganize the approach to conservation in developing nations.

They are critical of academics and NGOs for missing what they think really matters—effective, on-the-ground research and policy development with strong local participation and buy in.

Part of this stems from the focus of academics.  They cite as an example the work of Norman Myers and Conservation International, who published a now-famous map of biodiversity hotspots.

The map was marketed as a tool for identifying where conservation investment would have the biggest impact, but this involved playing down both how little was actually known about species distributions and that accurate global data sets on the costs of implementation were not available.

These limitations did not stop the map doing its main job, which was to raise funds and show broadly where Conservation International should target its efforts. In fact, the initiative has been extremely successful and helped to raise an estimated  US$750 million for conservation within hot spots. But the hype led many academics to treat priority area setting as simply a question of working out what lives where. This led to many studies that took no account of how plans are implemented.

And part of it stems from traditional structures of NGOs, which, in Smith’s words,

[facilitates] the need to create a sense of urgency among donors lead[ing] to short-term funding and ‘quick and dirty’ projects, which rarely gain local long-term support. Second, NGOs tend to advocate their institutional methodology, rather than allowing local agencies to develop approaches that best match their needs. Third, NGO researchers find it easier to produce articles on broad-scale issues for high-impact journals, which helps to build scientific support for new campaigns, than to write papers about research on local issues.

What’s the new approach they advocate?


Posted in biodiversity science, community conserved areas, nature and culture, social science | No Comments »

Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 4: Political-economic context

Saturday, November 7th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

People often disengage from environmental issues because of a sense of disenfranchisement:  “What kind of difference can I make?  Not much, so why bother?  We need big changes and soon.  The power to do this is controlled by politicians, who are influenced (financially and otherwise) by Big Business often intent on blocking change.”

In a series of provocative articles in Energy Policy1, Gregory Unruh posed two questions to help us unravel forces at the root of this problem:

  • If [renewable energy] technologies exist, are cost effective, and help minimize climate-forcing emissions, why aren’t they diffusing more rapidly?
  • Furthermore, why aren’t government policies to promote them, about which there is substantial scientific and social consensus, more aggressive or effective?

The answer he suggests is carbon lock in.  What is it? How has it become major inertia to change by reinforcing power structures in society, business, and politics?


Posted in behavior, climate economics, policy, social science, technology, transportation | 6 Comments »

Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 3: Personal perception, values, and behavior

Friday, November 6th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

In earlier posts, we examined climate change engagement as problems of environmental literacy and communication.  There is no doubt we can do better with both of these.  But as we will see, proponents of environmental literacy and communication make a mistake if they believe engagement is simply a matter of getting more information to people.  Science, it is believed, will speak for itself.

Unfortunately, it often doesn’t.

A political scientist recently told me that before the age of 25, people use information to shape their value system and perceptions of the world.  After 25, they start cherry picking information that simply reinforces these beliefs (hence the world of cable news).

Although this is is a rough generalization, it suggests that a person’s values development may have a shelf life.  It also reveals why issues like climate change may not resonate with people cut from certain ideological cloths—no matter how much information they encounter.

The psychology, sociology, and ethics literature has a lot to say about this problem.  For simplicity, I want to pull out four challenges I think are among the most common and important with respect to climate change…


Posted in behavior, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, environmentalism, gender, nature and culture, race and class, religion, social science, sustainability | 10 Comments »

Chicago 1995: How social disparities lead to environmental disasters

Thursday, October 29th, 2009


As I mentioned in the last post, heat waves have the potential to harm or kill a lot of people.  Who are the people most likely to suffer first? The experiences from the Chicago 1995 heat wave offer some insights for urban America.  Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago is as relevant as ever to the current conversation about climate change.

Some excerpts from a U. Chicago Press interview with Klinenberg.

The heat made the city’s roads buckle. Train rails warped, causing long commuter and freight delays. City workers watered bridges to prevent them from locking when the plates expanded. Children riding in school buses became so dehydrated and nauseous that they had to be hosed down by the Fire Department. Hundreds of young people were hospitalized with heat-related illnesses. But the elderly, and especially the elderly who lived alone, were most vulnerable to the heat wave.

“It’s hot,” the mayor told the media. “But let’s not blow it out of proportion. . . . Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.” Many local journalists shared Daley’s skepticism, and before long the city was mired in a callous debate over whether the so-called heat deaths were—to use the term that recurred at the time—”really real.”

[T]he black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1.

Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths…Chicago’s Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods with high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces. Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades. The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.

The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city:  It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Yes, the weather was extreme. But the deep sources of the tragedy were the everyday disasters that the city tolerates, takes for granted, or has officially forgotten.

Related Post: Say so long to your furnace and hello to a new air conditioner

photo credit: / CC BY-ND 2.0

Posted in climate adaptation, environmental justice, race and class, social science, urban | 3 Comments »

Can’t we all just get along?

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

If you’re an environmentalist, the answer is apparently “no” and for an interesting reason suggested in a recent paper1,2 by Clare Saunders in the British Journal of Sociology (subscription required).

She suggests that the social movements like environmentalism are comprised of many different organizations, each fostering a collective identity that is often incompatible with other organizations in the same movement.  Ordinarily, we think of the overall movement goals as having a binding effect among these subgroups.  Apparently not.  People are forming identities with other individuals cut from the same ideological cloth rather than the identity of the social movement itself.

This may not be surprising given the radically different approaches of groups like Earth First, Sierra Club, the Apollo Alliance,, and Shellenberger and Nordhaus.  It’s also apparent with all of the lines drawn in the sand regarding

  • cap and trade vs. carbon tax and dividend (make carbon expensive)
  • either of the above approaches vs. subsidizing and making renewable energy cheap (Shellenberger and Nordhaus)
  • strict and immediate reduction ( vs. slower emissions reduction trajectories

The bad news is that this kind of animosity can be paralyzing to the social movement, leading to little being accomplished, especially when polarizing debate turns off the public.


Posted in behavior, environmentalism, social movements, social science | 2 Comments »

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