Theories about conservation evolving

by Joe Carlson

Spotted owls and other endangered species may not always be worth saving, according to contemporary environmental-resource theories being discussed this quarter at the University. Instead of saving individual species, these theories say, environmental policies should focus on saving forests as a whole and eliminating the social factors that cause humans to disrupt nature.
This has led environmental scientists into a thorny dilemma. In the past, society has turned to environmental science and economics for answers, but an article published in a recent issue of Conservation Biology claims these sciences are “fraught with dangers because values, opinions and social influences are an inextricable part of science.”
“We like to think that we’re objective,” University forest resources professor Allen Lundgren said. But “basically we always carry with us the intellectual baggage of society and values.”
This issue is the subject of the nine-part Department of Fisheries and Wildlife fall seminar series, entitled “Society and the Environment: Perspectives on Sustainability.” The series is sponsored by the Institute for Social, Economic and Ecological Sustainability.
The sixth discussion in the series, which took place Monday afternoon in Hodson Hall, was led by Steven Underwood of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.
The lecture discussed a new method of simulation environmental scientists can use to help determine how environmental decisions will affect the future. This technique incorporates more aspects of the sustainability problem than current models.
The article in Conservation Biology, “Sustainability and the Scientist’s Burden,” defined sustainability as “the ability to maintain something undiminished over some period of time.”
Traditional ideas of conservation are only one part of the bigger picture of sustainability, said Anne Kapuscinski, Institute for Social, Economic and Ecological Sustainability member. Conservation is only concerned with the biological aspect of sustainability — that of conserving biodiversity, a diverse array of biological organisms, such as different types of insects and mosses in South American rainforests.
The problem is that no one really knows how to incorporate sustainability into social policy.
According to the article in Conservation Biology, one of the major obstacles to implementing sustainability is the fragmented state of the sciences.
The article cited three main approaches to sustainability policy: biological, economic and social.
To biologists, sustainability means maintaining natural biodiversity. But to economists, it is a matter of using the environment in such a way that extraction of natural resources does not hinder its ability to produce more of these resources in the future. Social scientists look at the way social circumstances in industrialized and developing countries force people to use their environment.
Currently, scientists are trying to create a multidisciplinary framework for understanding all of these environmental issues.
This was the goal of the fifth seminar in the series, a discussion that took place Thursday. It was a panel discussion on sustainability.