Ecosystems Cannot Be Managed Without Consensus on Human Impact, Scientists Warn

Distinguished environmental researchers, including National Geographic scientist Stuart Pimm, warn that ambiguity and lack of consensus among policy makers about the meaning of fundamental terms used to describe and measure human impacts on the planet could have disastrous consequences for management of the world’s ecosystems.

“An international consensus demands human impacts on the environment sustain, maintain, conserve, protect, safeguard, and secure it, keeping it within safe ecological limits,”  Trinity College Dublin said in a statement about the study that assembled an international team of environmental scientists. The researchers show that policy makers have little idea what these terms mean or how to connect them to a wealth of ecological data and ideas.

“Progress on protecting our planet requires us to dispel this confusion, and the researchers have produced a framework to do just that,” Trinity said.

Ian Donohue, assistant professor at Trinity, and leader of the study, added: “Human actions challenge nature in many ways. We lump these into a grab-bag of ideas we call ecological stability. We want nature to be stable in some sense of that word. But what do we know about stability from our theories and experiments? And how can that knowledge help policy makers? We offer some solutions to these important questions.”

The Trinity statement continued:

In the paper published [this week] in the journal Ecology Letters, Donohue and an international team of colleagues outline exactly what policy makers, ecological experimenters, and theoreticians all think about this term “stability.”

The answer is very different things — and there’s a real problem with this lack of agreement. Professor Donohue said: “We need to be talking about the same things, using the same language, so that what ecologists know can sensibly inform the choices of policy makers.”

“Consider this example” says Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University, in the U.S., and one of the paper’s co-authors. “There’s a lot of discussion about “tipping points” — the idea that there are boundaries beyond which, if we push nature it will collapse. There may be places where this happens, but while nature may work this way sometimes, there is no compelling argument that it must always.”

Why should this matter? Pimm responds: “if politicians think there are tipping points and the world hasn’t collapsed thus far, then it encourages policies that continue to degrade our world. If there isn’t a catastrophe so far, why worry? The more likely alternative is not a sudden change, but a progressive loss of fisheries, croplands, damage to all our natural worlds. A wrong view of nature can have disastrous consequences.”

So what can we do? Professor Donohue and his colleagues believe that the solution is to recognise that nature responds to human pressures in complex ways, even as policy makers often demand simple solutions. Acknowledging the need for better communication on the science-policy interface is essential.

Policy makers sometimes have designed crisp, clearly defined targets, such as several of those for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — a body broadly based on the more familiar IPCC that deals with climate change. “That’s good. The issue is when they have not. Our work identifies those discrepancies,” argues Donohue. “And we suggest solutions.”

Unfortunately, most of the policies examined by Professor Donohue and his colleagues contain terms that are ambiguous, or have multiple definitions that mean different things to different people. The recently announced United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are no exception.

Professor Donohue added: “This ambiguity is a huge problem as it means that we cannot measure progress, or indeed a lack of progress, towards achieving policy goals. This paralyses policy. Ecologists, policymakers and practitioners urgently need to develop a shared language in order to be more effective in managing the world’s ecosystems — our life-support system.”

More About the Research

Navigating the Complexity of Ecological Stability (Ecology Letters Journal)

Abstract: Human actions challenge nature in many ways. Ecological responses are ineluctably complex, demanding measures that describe them succinctly. Collectively, these measures encapsulate the overall ‘stability’ of the system. Many international bodies, including the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, broadly aspire to maintain or enhance ecological stability. Such bodies frequently use terms pertaining to stability that lack clear definition. Consequently, we cannot measure them and so they disconnect from a large body of theoretical and empirical understanding. We assess the scientific and policy literature and show that this disconnect is one consequence of an inconsistent and one-dimensional approach that ecologists have taken to both disturbances and stability. This has led to confused communication of the nature of stability and the level of our insight into it. Disturbances and stability are multidimensional. Our understanding of them is not. We have a remarkably poor understanding of the impacts on stability of the characteristics that define many, perhaps all, of the most important elements of global change. We provide recommendations for theoreticians, empiricists and policymakers on how to better integrate the multidimensional nature of ecological stability into their research, policies and actions.

This post was compiled from materials released by Trinity College Dublin and Ecology Letters Journal.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn