Whither scenic beauty?*

I am currently doing my PhD field work, which involves interviewing people about the governance aspects of landscape-scale biodiversity conservation. Driving through a number of different landscapes over the past 5 weeks has reinvigorated my interest in the ways aesthetic preferences affect the way we interact with landscapes. At first aesthetic preferences seems a rather in banal aspect on which to place my focus. However, such preferences influence our perceptions ecosystem health and the conservation actions we think are required (or not required) in a landscape.

My interest in the topic was sparked when I first moved to Australia. I was given a similar disclaimer every time someone took me out into the bush**: “It takes some getting used to.” After walking around for a bit, they would tentatively ask, “So what do you think?” I always responded that I thought it was beautiful. I tend to prefer “messy” landscapes to “tidy” ones, and the Australian bush tends to fall into the former category.

John Forrest
John Forrest National Park in Western Australia
Fire
Burned area in Wireless Hill Park in Perth.
Atherton Tablelands
In the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. Those are termite mounds between the trees.
Valley of the Giants
Valley of the Giants in Denmark, Western Australia

Both personally and professionally, I have found that many Australians, even those born and raised here, have aesthetic preferences that align much more with their European heritage than the realities of the Australian environment in which they live. On settlement, the intention in many places in Australia was, in fact, to create a ‘Little England’, despite the fact that the environments are wildly different. This includes Tasmania, where one of my case study regions is located (see, e.g. 1). The Australian bush generally doesn’t fit the European aesthetic. The trees are often messy, woodlands are often too open or too dense and shrubby, the landscape is often burnt, and for much of the year it can look pretty dry. Though many of our ecosystems in Australia qualify as among the most biodiverse in the world, you have to know what you’re looking at to realise that. There are exceptions, of course, and I have included some of those exceptions in this post. What really gets me thinking, however, is the way our aesthetic preferences affect the way we perceive and manage landscapes, particularly when there is a mismatch between these preferences and the dynamics of the ecosystem.

Landscapes are inherently social. Not only because most have evidence of human intervention, but also because the

Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?
Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?

way we perceive them has implications for the way we interact with them. Aesthetic preferences are an important component of that perception. For non-experts, scenic beauty serves as a surrogate for ecosystem health. If we think a natural area is beautiful, we are more likely to view it has healthy. Sometimes beauty comes from our perception that the place is “pristine” or “untouched” (though we are very bad at assessing whether or not that is the case). Downed wood from logging is one of the most influential variables in lay people’s perceptions of forest health (e.g. 2). But we aren’t entirely consistent with the way we interpret signs of human influence. We also interpret some signs of management (e.g. weeding, thinning of understorey) as “cues to care” that indicate a forest has a caretaker and is therefore healthier (3). “Messy” ecosystems, like some of those that I have shown in this post, are not only under-appreciated aesthetically, but we often have trouble translating such chaos into ecosystem function.

Landscape-scale is the focus of my research because it is the scale at which many major threats operate. The term is nebulous and defined differently by landscape artists, planners, and ecologists. However, let’s settle for now on a notion of a landscape as something that does not extend beyond our “perceptible realm”, as humans have great difficulty engaging in other scales of interest (4). Why is this important?

At this scale, landscape perception thus becomes the key process for connecting humans with ecological phenomena. Particularly relevant to this paper, aesthetic experiences evoked through perception of the landscape powerfully and regularly engage people with ecosystems. This implies that landscapes that are perceived as aesthetically pleasing are more likely to be appreciated and protected than are landscapes perceived as undistinguished or ugly, regardless of their less directly perceivable ecological importance.Aesthetic experiences may thus lead people to change the landscape in ways that may or may not be consistent with its ecological function. (4: p. 960)

Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?
Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?

For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss all of the literature on this. I want to just focus for a moment on my thoughts and experiences, as this is the benefit to having a personal blog, after all! In my experience, there are many people who do not appreciate the biodiversity values of Australian landscapes unless they fit a particular aesthetic mode. This certainly seems to be the case where I live, in Perth, and I have heard time and time again from people who think our bush is “pretty average” *** This in spite of the Southwest corner of Western Australia being a biodiversity hotspot. Yet the key, I think, is actually in that classification itself. Biodiversity hotspots are identified as such not just by virtue of their  biodiversity values, but the fact that those values are under threat. But you won’t see WA residents coming out in droves to protect their local patch, even if they will come out to protect an iconic bit of wilderness that is much more aesthetically pleasing. Are the threats perceived as less threatening because we are underwhelmed by the bush? I don’t know, but I do wonder.

In the Tasmanian Midlands, we have a critically endangered ecological community (i.e. the Lowland Native Grasslands). Yet if you ask most Tasmanians about this region, many will tell you that it’s the agricultural wasteland between Hobart and Launceston. Though many of the landholders recognise what they have, many others perceive a landscape that is highly modified and a bit of a lost cause at this point. On a research field trip to the region, I heard one person refer to conservation in the Tasmanian Midlands as “conservation for connoisseurs”. Like a fine food or drink that may not taste great to an unrefined palate, the midlands landscape may not look like a landscape worthy of our protection and resource investment. It may just look like a region full of sheep and poppies with few “natural” values left, and there are certainly problems with ecosystem function in this landscape. But the fact is that this does not mean the biodiversity values are gone, and that many of these are actually an important part of the social and economic viability of that landscape. Does the fact that it doesn’t look like some of Tasmania’s other, more iconic landscapes make it less worthy of protection?

By Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Scott’s Peak from Lake Pedder in Southwest Tasmania: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The relationship between aesthetics and biodiversity conservation policy and management is complicated, but I do think it is important. Biodiversity conservation is, and probably always will be, normative. And non-expert judgments of ecosystems often hinge on aesthetic perceptions, as these drive our connection to iconic places. This has very obvious implications. Destruction of grasslands don’t bring people out in droves; but forests do…certainly in Tasmania. It may also be more difficult to convince people to invest in these less conventionally “beautiful” landscapes, especially in times of limited resources in which the iconic landscapes like the TarkineKimberley, and the Great Barrier Reef are under threat and worth of protection as well.

My point here is not that we shouldn’t protect iconic landscapes, nor is it that we should favour messy landscapes because they are the underdog of conservation. My point is that we cannot trust that our perceptions of an ecosystem can tell us about its value. Just like many of our other sensory experiences, I think we operate under an illusion of scenic beauty and need to challenge our natural inclinations. Though I do not operate under the misguided assumption that knowledge cures all environmental ills, I do think that we should pause before jumping to conclusions about the ecological value of a landscape in the absence of knowledge about its function.

I personally love the Tasmanian Midlands landscape, but I also saw it for the first time on a research trip with knowledgable guides. Perhaps I would have felt the same way even if the circumstances were different. I don’t know. There is one thing that I do know for certain, however, and that’s that the adage to not judge a book by its cover doesn’t just apply to people. My move to Australia has taught me that things of great value can often be found in the most unassuming packages.

DSC08809
Near Tunbridge Township Lagoon in the Tasmanian Midlands.

*The title of this post comes from an article that seeks to find a balance between expert-driven landscape planning that leans heavily on biophysical aspects of the landscape and perception-driven approaches that favour socio-cultural perceptions (5).

** In Western Australia, all forest seems to be referred to as “the bush” but in other places in Australia, I more often hear the words forest and woodland. Not sure if there are regional differences, but “the bush” is kind of a signature term in Australia.

*** In Australian terms “pretty average” generally means not good at all…just inoffensive I guess. For example, if you go out on a blind date and your friends say “was she hot?” and you say “she was pretty average” that basically means you weren’t attracted to her. Australians also often use it when they dislike something, but they don’t want to whinge. Example: “What do you think of the way X government programs is run?” They may say, “It was pretty average” but when probed further will offer a string of reasons why it was, in fact, below average.

Barron Falls in far north Queensland
Barron Falls in far north Queensland

1. Boyce, J. 2008. Van diemen’s land, Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc.

2. Nassauer J.I. 1995b. Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal, 14: 161-170.

3. Ribe R.G. 1991. The scenic impact of key forest attributes and long-term management alternatives for hardwood forests. In: McCormick, Larry H.; Gottschalk, Kurt W., eds. Proceedings, 8th CentralHardwood Forest Conference; 1991 March 4-6; University Park, PA. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-148. Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 34-54.

4. Gobster, P. H., Nassauer, J. I., Daniel, T. C. & Fry, G. 2007. The shared landscape: What does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22(7), 959-972. See a copy free here.

5. Daniel T.C. 2001. Whither scenic beauty? Visual landscape quality assessment in the 21st century. Landscape and Urban Planning, 54(1): 267-282.


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Individualism, Hierarchy, Solidarity, and Fatalism

I was sorting through some old emails today, and I came across a discussion from a few months ago between me and other researchers. One of them had suggested it would make an excellent blog post, but none of us ever wrote one. So here I am. I am sharing my personal thoughts on the matter, not theirs.

The discussion was prompted by a lecture given by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society for the Arts. You can listen to it on the ABC’s* Big Ideas podcast or online here. You can also read an article he wrote on these issues here.

The basic premise of the lecture is that three sources of social power – individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity – need to be present for society to function. He also mentions fatalism as a fourth force, but this is largely set aside in the lecture. All three are fairly self-explanatory: hierarchical power comes from those who have (or think they have) authority to tell us what to do, solidarity originates from the groups to which we belong and share values, and individualistic power has its origins in our desire to survive and succeed. As he succinctly puts it: I’ll do what I’m told (hierarchy), I’ll do what everyone else is doing (solidarity), and I’ll do what I want to do (individualism).

In thinking about how to tackle “wicked problems”, Taylor suggests that we approach them from a design perspective, rather than a policy perspective, using these forces as a lens through which we view potential solutions. In other words, we can leverage on these forces in designing solutions to the complex problems that trouble society.

A quick note for context: The term “wicked problems” refers to complex policy problems that cannot be defined completely and for which most solutions are less than optimal (Rittel and Webber 1973). Many environmental problems fall under this umbrella.

These forces often operate all at once and generate friction when they meet. Taylor uses the example of climate change, which I think is an excellent one. People often firmly commit to one of three paths: individual ingenuity and technology will solve the problem, world leaders sign off on treaties to bring the world community in line, or we need to all chip in and collectively change the way we live. Fatalism, of course, is the view that it’s all made up; or if it’s not, we’re all screwed. The topic of my PhD, biodiversity, could also be similarly parsed into these four categories: individual management and conservation of the remaining patches of habitat will save us, we must join together and connect these patches across landscapes, or the government should command from on high that no actions that threaten the remaining biodiversity will be tolerated. A more fatalistic view would say that extinction has always occurred and is inevitable, thus we should stop trying to prop up some of these species just because they are cute and cuddly.

Kookaburra
This post was seriously lacking in pictures, so here’s a kookaburra thrown in for good measure. Photo: Kookaburra and frog (2), 24 May 2009 via Flickr, Richard Taylor, CC BY-SA

Quite rightly, I think, Taylor argues that we need all three to solve wicked problems, but that in today’s society they have become unbalanced. I will leave you to listen to the whole lecture if you please, rather than rehashing it all here, but it did prompt a few thoughts about how this intersects with my own research and thinking about institutions. First I’ll clarify what I mean when I say “institution”. Institutions are the rules, norms, and strategies that shape the behaviour of individuals and organisations. They can be formal, like policies, but they are often informal, like the practice of heckling the opposition in parliament. They can be abstract, like marriage or economic markets, or more concrete, like policies on paper. Think of the way you run your household. Those sets of household rules and norms (unspoken and spoken) are institutional arrangements. Institutions organise our lives and make things predictable. But in doing so they are also embedded with those four forces that Taylor discusses in his lecture.

Starting with this view, Taylor’s approach offers an interesting way to think about designing institutions. I am a firm believer in the idea that we need to tailor solutions in the problem we are trying to address. That said, calling it “the problem” is incomplete, as problems are understood from multiple perspectives. Individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity are but one way to shed light on these different perspectives. They aren’t the categories that I will be using, but they are indeed very useful ways to think about the problem. Both those who cause environmental problems and those with the capacity and/or authority to solve them often view the issue quite differently. The former may adopt an individualistic view, and the latter a hierarchical view. I suppose Taylor’s view is not an earth shattering take on the matter. In fact, it’s quite intuitive. Still, it can be a useful or enlightening way to prompt policy makers to think about solutions that align with each of these categories, rather than handing down a solution from on high (which sometimes seems the easiest option). The idea is that we get to the heart of the problem, rather than pushing down with force.

Taylor advocates for a design approach to solving wicked problems, so the real quandary for me in all of this are the embedded assumptions in the word “design”. Though my research falls under the umbrella of institutional design, I have not yet fully come to terms with what it means to design institutions. In part its a tacit implication of a god-like designer, but more so it is because the term can be a bit misleading at first glance. Although we can design policies, and identify leverage points that can change behaviour, there are limits to our ability to “design” solutions. Societies are of course complex systems, and once a solution enters into this system it can evolve into something quite different than intended. There is a range of perspectives on the limits of design.  I personally fall into the camp that says any attempt will be incomplete, but that the best you can probably do is indirectly design solutions to complex problems by finding the important leverage points. Though design is to some extent possible, the idea is just that institutions do not emerge fully formed from a design process, but rather they take on a life of their own and evolve.

I think Taylor partly addresses the limits to design when he discusses at one point how his approach to solving complex problems gets to the heart of the problem but that it is incremental, rather than in search of a “once and for all solution” which is what politicians might want. He noted that all of the different solutions are going to interact and that we need to be flexible as we make changes and adjust as we go, like moulding a clay pot.

If you listen to the lecture, I highly recommend listening all the way through the questions from the audience. These were quite revealing. It seemed several people were rather unsatisfied because they couldn’t see how his ideas would work in practice. There was a very enlightening part of the question period that illustrates this (and the notion of that institutions evolve in ways we might not have intended) very well. At one point, someone lamented the decline of traditional institutions, and suggested that liberal values are eroding those institutions that are seen as inequitable or unpalatable to modern sensibilities (e.g. church, marriage). This has become a familiar refrain in modern media.

Though it frustrates me that people adopt such a static view of social institutions, I do understand the origins of the fear. We have a very difficult time seeing innovations in the institutions we know so well because these institutions help shape our thoughts.

Iron cage
The imagery of an “iron cage” is often used to describe how institutions tend to become homogenous. Photo: Framed rebar, 15 Sept 2007 via Flickr, BY-YOUR-⌘, CC BY-SA

When familiar institutions are under threat, we also panic for a number of other reasons, besides not knowing what comes next.Though institutions like marriage evolve over time, many of these changes are slow enough that they don’t feel threatening. When a faster change emerges,  there is often a sense that we are approaching unknown territory. It can feel as though these familiar institutions will dissolve completely, and we will be left in an institutional void. What will replace the old institutions? People often seem to fear the worst, i.e. that they will be replaced by nefarious institutions that threaten civil society. Perhaps this is because we haven’t known life without these traditional institutions, and we think they are the only ones that can bind society together. Or perhaps we just cannot imagine what could replace them because our innovation is stifled by the familiar. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, I suppose.

For the record, I think a lot of the panic about erosion of our institutions is overblown. I personally don’t think institutions like marriage or the church are under threat of extinction, but they are going to evolve and change, just like most things in life. Even if we do allow liberal values to change them, however, they likely won’t be unrecognisable or completely new.  Returning to environmental problems, the green economy will not be a completely unrecognisable economy to us. Many of the same patterns of behaviour will still be there, even if the inputs and outputs change.

Design Frame
The past provides a frame for designing the future. Photo: Framed tower 8 July 2009 via Flickr, greckor, CC BY-SA

In the world of institutions, nothing is every completely new or completely traditional**. We will always have a design frame shaped by our past and our present. Institutions can be designed, but it’s difficult for us to undertake the activity of design without viewing it through a frame that has been shaped by past and current institutions.

Hypothetically, it is possible that we could decide to completely dismantle all environmental institutions to solve complex problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and decline, but it is unlikely that we will do so. And if Taylor is correct, then design is not only shaped by current and past arrangements, but it also shaped by those four forces, implicitly even if not explicitly. I may still struggle with the attachment of the word “design” to solutions for wicked problems, but I do like that he has brought sources of power to the fore, and highlighted their role not only in complex problems but also in their resolution.

* For Americans, that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC in America. It’s like PBS.

** This comes from the concept of bricolage. For an excellent discussion of bricolage, I highly recommend this book by Frances Cleaver:

CLEAVER, F. 2012. Development through bricolage: Rethinking institutions for natural resource management, London: Routledge.


Climate Science Rapid Response Team

A common source of irritation for me is terrible science reporting, particularly in relation to climate change. If you were to follow mainstream news sources, you would think scientists are in an utter state of confusion over climate change, and that they just can’t seem to agree on even the most basic concepts. If you were to read right-wing publications, then you would think that climate change is nothing more threatening than a part of your ‘regularly scheduled’ climate cycle…a left-wing conspiracy to bring the economy to a screeching halt. And if you were to read left-wing publications, you would notice a tendency to consistently raise the intensity and volume of the threat. In other words, it’s hard to find accurate, unbiased reporting on the latest studies that includes all of the pertinent details you need to understand what the researchers are actually saying. As a consequence it is difficult to make heads or tails of what’s going on.

Photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/babasteve/5432661883/sizes/z/in/photostream/

One of the reasons that the reporting is so bad, in my opinion, is that science stories don’t always make good news. They certainly don’t all naturally make excellent headlines that will excite people, and this is exactly what news outlets need to make their headlines stand out amongst the potentially thousands that people come across each day. This means reporters have to find something gripping in any story they report on, and in climate change studies I find this is often not even the main take-home point of the original study.  In fact, it is not uncommon to seize upon a single interesting line in the discussion section (which can be speculation….it is of course, for the purposes of discussion) and run with it. For this reason, climate science can seem as confusing as rocket science, and with as many contradictions as nutrition and health  (wait…is tofu good for me this week, or not?). This is particularly the case f you don’t follow up on stories or only read the big key messages. For instance, I noticed many people were confused by reporting on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. One week you would read all about the bleaching is dying a slow painful death because of climate change, and you would hear what a dire situation we will have on our hands in a few years. Within a month there would be another story where people would read about reefs recovering 10 times faster than we thought they would, yet this is still bad news in the context of climate change as it is due to a unique combination of factors.

And let’s be honest, how many people have the time or inclination to sift through it all and understand exactly what the latest research is saying? I can see why people would be confused, whether they are trying to follow along or not.

It is on topics like this – topics that are big, relatively new, and the subject of much current research – where many of us begin to notice inconsistencies or contradictions on what seems like a daily basis. If you are like me, you will often have a hunch that the reporting is getting it wrong, or at the very least leaving out a big pieces of the story that are essential to the narrative. Yet most of us don’t have access to journal articles, or the time to read the reports that are often released on this topic. So what to do?

Ask a climate scientist who is familiar with the research, of course.

What, you don’t have a friendly local climate scientist you can turn to?

This is one of the reasons I got so excited when I was listening to a (not so) recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview with John Abraham and Scott Mandia about the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. I am decades late on finding out about this (in internet terms…a year is like a decade on the internet, right?), but I am excited nonetheless. Here is a team that will not only field your questions, but they have enlisted 135 climate scientists that will provide a prompt answer:

The role of this endeavor is to provide highly accurate science information to media and government representatives. We believe that scientists have an important role in communicating the science directly with the general public. We encourage questions from recognized media sources and from governments. We will work hard to ensure that all questions are answered as promptly as possible. [Source.]

As Chris Mooney points out in the interview, scientists aren’t exactly known for their media savvy or their quick responses, so this fills an important gap. For the most part, I think it’s fair to say that the narrative on climate change has been created primarily by news outlets, politicians and well…people other than climate scientists. As a highly politicised issue, scientists are not exactly well-placed to address the mis-reporting and are – rightfully so – loathe to engage in the ideologically-driven dialogue. Scientists are often criticised for their inability to communicate their work to the public, so it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve ended up with a mis-match between what science says, the media reports and what the public believes.

If you have the time, I would highly recommend listening to the Point of Inquiry Interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to here. One of the things that stood out for me the most was the distinction between being an advocate for science education and an advocate for taking specific actions. I think the scientists here have struck a good balance: they are seeking to clarify misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and sometimes muddled reporting whilst not advocating for a specific policy response. This is a tough balance to strike, but I am happy to see that they recognise that it is possible to be an advocate for science without compromising their integrity as scientists.

Now, if only people would post more questions….

You can read the enquiries and public responses here.

Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal

I am going to admit something: I tear up ever time I see a commercial about Tasmanian Devils.

Source: http://www.theage.com.au/news/in-depth/devil-of-a-problem/2007/10/20/1192301096591.html

I hate to admit when I get weepy over animals because I’m used to people discounting vegetarians as ‘sappy’ people who have unrealistic, romantic notions about animals. “Nature is cruel, and vegetarians don’t want to admit it,” they will say.

Well, yes, I suppose nature is cruel, if you want to ascribe human characteristics to it. I, however, prefer to just admit that I like the natural environment and the animals that live in it. Always have. Vegetarian or not, I don’t think there’s anything illogical or overly emotional about that.

But back to the Tassie devils. If you don’t live in Australia, then you might not know that there is a devastating disease affecting the Tasmanian devil population right now called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The disease is one of only three known cancers that is contagious, and it has affected at least 60% of the Tasmanian devil population. The disease was first discovered in 1996, and by 2009 the Australian government had declared the devil to be endangered. For more information on the disease, see the FAQ’s here.

I couldn’t find the commercial online, but here’s something similar [WARNING: Some of the images in this video of the disease are disturbing.]:

I am not sure what it is about this problem that makes me so emotional. There are a lot of animals in danger throughout the world for various reasons, and I think about those as well; but there is something about this issue that really nags at me. I know that it is only human to focus on iconic species (e.g. the bald eagle, the giant panda), particularly those that seem to represent an entire place. The Tasmanian devil fits that bill. Perhaps it is the fact that this disease is spreading so rapidly and that it doesn’t have a simple solution, unlike species extinctions that are driven almost entirely by land use change. Perhaps it is because I watched too much Looney Tunes as a kid. Whatever it is, it’s something that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I hope to organise a fundraiser for the Tassie Devil Appeal in the next year, but in the meantime my intention with this post is simply to encourage others to learn more about the DFTD and donate if they desire. To do both, visit the official page of the Tassie Devil Appeal. Have a look around at the information, research, videos (they even have ‘home movies‘) and the images. Visit the appeal on Facebook or the program on Facebook here.

I also recommend reading the news on the topic when you can. One of the things I think that touches me about this campaign is that they have done a good job in balancing the gravity of the situation with the sense of self-efficacy. Far too many environmental campaigns focus too evil on the fire and brimstone, and lose sight of the fact that you need to provide people with a sense that their actions will be effective. The situation is very serious, but there is good news to be found in the research, e.g.

Finally, just for fun: if you want a clue as to why they are called devils, watch them eat! It also provides a clue as to why this disease spreads so easily. They do not take kindly to another devil trying to get a bite of their meal.

What about the children?

Genetically modified foods, the contents of processed foods, organics, and sustainable food systems are among the hot topics in the media and health conscious. These topics were indeed contributed to my eventual decision to major in Environmental Science, and were major topics in many of my classes. My favourite class was even called “People, Pesticides and Politics”. It was brilliant. The fact that I was part of a relatively small group of environmentalists in amongst the same agriculture school (Michigan State University) as the agribusiness majors made the conversation all the more interesting, particularly considering the school received quite a bit of funding from the big companies like Monsanto and Dow. I honestly feel like the conversations I had about GMOs and sustainable agriculture during this time were some of the richest, most enlightening conversations of my life because everyone at the table was knowledgeable and genuinely interested in solutions, even though we were often at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

If you ever visit the outback, you will find heaps of these in the toilet. Flushing them was very disturbing for me, a lover of frogs.

Unfortunately, the conversations about GMOs and sustainable food systems I hear these days are one-sided and often involve ill-informed individuals. On both sides of the spectrum, people are incredibly passionate, and that makes me very happy. However, in spite of all of the mental energy I have put into this topic over the years, I can’t help but feel left out. I can’t find sources that aren’t biased (please, please recommend them if you know of any). I can’t find sources that don’t stretch or misuse data. I am no expert, so when I can identify flaws in the research I must admit that it turns me off from believing the rest. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but I can’t help but tire of the Chicken Little approach to the discussion around food. Either the sky is falling because we are doing it wrong, or the sky is falling because changing the way we will do it will never feed the world. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but I don’t think I can ever know where it is with the information that is available in the mainstream press right now. Of course I can read it in the journals, but I know my limitations. I am no toxicologist. I am no agricultural scientist. Nor a soil chemist.

Take, for instance, this recent report that was released about the link between RoundUp in birth defects. If it is accurate, then it is scary stuff considering the prevalence of RoundUp around the world. So I tried to look into it further, but I quickly became overwhelmed. The story itself has only been covered by anti-GM media sources. I can’t find much about Open Source Earth. As far as the academics who wrote the report, well, their credentials look fine, but considering the article isn’t in a peer reviewed journal I would have to dig deeper to feel more comfortable with the source. While I would like to believe that academics are above writing reports that are biased, I know this isn’t the case. In addition to a fair bit of experience with this recently, time and time again meta-analyses and experiments have shown that results are subject to researcher bias (whether consciously or unconsciously). In addition, the report starts by citing toxicology research. Again, I would have to go back and read that research to feel comfortable that it is being used in the right way, particularly as the research was done on frog and chicken embryos. Though alarming news for frogs and chicken, I would need to know more about how this translates to humans.

Do you see where I am going with this? There are so many layers that it’s hard to even know where to begin. Yet I am left feeling like there is something wrong with me because I have studied these subjects in University, but I am unable to form a steadfast opinion on these matters. On the other hand, it seems that everywhere I turn people have strong opinions on these topics, and they are confident in their accuracy. Meanwhile, I am stuck in an existential fit just trying to make sense of it all. The life of a skeptic, perhaps?

However, the event that really prompted me to write this post was not a moment of frustration with the black and white debate around agriculture. That’s an ongoing struggle. In this case, it was a realisation, courtesy of my boss, that arose from a discussion of this research.

Recently, I have repeatedly heard variations of the following assertion from people who do not believe the proverbial sky is falling (not to be confused with the anti-GM arguments above…see, I don’t discriminate.):

Don’t people realise that [X] (e.g. CEOs, farmers, Monsanto employees, geneticists, etc.) eat the food too? And they feed it to their children?

The statement is generally used to illustrate the point that there can’t be much truth to the claims that [substance x] is bad for us. After all, they rely on the food system too, so they would want to change it if it were causing harm. This argument has never sit right with me, and though I could rant about it quite a bit (as I am prone to do), I could never quite pinpoint why it was so illogical. Jo Ann to save the day.

The food on their children’s plates tells us little of the safety of that food. The risk perception literature gives a clue as to why that is. People will always do their best to avoid accepting something if it would be a serious blow to their worldview. We do this to protect ourselves. Think about it: if you worked for a company, and you learned that your chief product could be harming your children, and you really believe in this product, would you really give it up so easily? We’d like to think that there would be some sort of unequivocal proof that they couldn’t ignore, and if they did…well, then it’s a conspiracy. But science doesn’t usually work that way, and people don’t work that way either. Of course you know so-and-so who read Food Inc and it changed their entire worldview. Or that other person who watched “Meet your Meat” and never touched a hamburger again. But this only works when people are open to it. It doesn’t work for the majority of people (I assure you millions of people have read that book and saw that film and never changed a thing). This is precisely the reason that so many people find climate change research so confronting. If they accept it, then they have to accept a massive shift in the way they live. It’s terrifying. It’s so terrifying, in fact, that it’s easier for many people to deny it altogether. You can shove evidence their way, but in many cases it won’t even make a dent.

So what about the parent working at Monsanto? Even when faced with research that suggests health problems could be caused by RoundUp, we cannot assume that people at Monsanto would react for the sake of their own health and their children’s. Agree with it or not, the people at Monsanto believe in the products they sell. Whilst it would be easier to imagine them as fat cats in suits, puffing a cigar and laughing maniacally all the way to the bank, the fact is that they are human beings with human traits. Even if they are faced with evidence that their products are causing problems, it may take them a very long time to shift from their position. On the other side of the spectrum, we could have research suggesting that GM foods are good for us and the planet, but you aren’t going to convince someone who is vehemently opposed to GM foods. Unfortunately for those of us somewhere in between, there is not easy answer to who is right. I value the work of those that are challenging widely accepted practices like those who are writing about GM foods, but I recognise that they are human beings just like those at Monsanto. Unfortunately, we cannot look at the food on their plates to know who is right. If only it were that simple.

There are countless books and research articles on this topic. From smoking to landfills to sunbathing, this has huge implications for the way we communicate with one another. Once you start to recognise the patterns in risk perception generally, it is fascinating to look at yourself and others. And though it doesn’t make human beings less frustrating when you feel like your message just isn’t getting through, it will certainly help you make sense of it.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a classic risk communication book. Slovic has many good books on risk perception.