Objectivity in the Anthropocene

Bill Cronon and Don Waller
Bill Cronon and Don Waller

Last week an event was held on campus called Conservation in the Anthropocene where Bill Cronon and Don Waller revisited the wilderness debate their mid-90’s manuscripts The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, and Getting Back to the Right Nature, respectively, helped kindle.

Bill argued vociferously for the importance of recognizing the extent to which we are a all a part of nature (look in your refrigerator!); that our pretentions of separation lie at the root of the environmental crisis. He provided historical context, describing the depth of this perceived separation in Western thought. Don argued the importance of large-scale conservation for the protection of species diversity in a changing world. He stressed that we need more objective science in order to predict and manage habitats and ecosystems to protect and maintain biodiversity.

Then a paradox jumped out at me. Objectivity requires that the observer be removed from the system of observation, achieving a god-like, detached and unbiased perspective.  Isn’t this myth of objectivity then, itself a direct extension of the perceived separation from nature so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche?

The purpose of objectivity is to achieve prediction. In simple systems, when we are far enough removed, we get away with the myth. We can predict outcomes when there are a few moving parts inside a closed and stable system. This works well in physics and chemistry, but not ecology.

And we’re talking about ecology in the Anthropocene. There are no “natural” ecosystems left. Humans are a driving force of nature and, as ecologists, we have to account and take responsibility for that. We are integrally embedded in the Earth’s complex ecosystems we need functioning to survive. What role does prediction play when confronted with uncertainty in the understanding necessary for its maintenance?

The world is changing fast and, from our perspective, uncertainty is growing just as fast. Our climate is changing and species are moving around all over the place. We’re in the midst of what ecologists call “no-analog” or “novel” ecosystems. The current configurations of plants and animals all around us have no historical precedent. In this context, how does science make predictions? How does it inform land management and public policy? How can we conserve species diversity when our food requires the destruction of all their habitats? Aren’t these value-laden questions? Can we really “objectively” study conservation when conservation itself is a concept ripe with (often conflicting) values?

We need historians like Bill reminding us of historical patterns and contexts surrounding the difficult decisions we face today. We also desperately need scientists and conservationists like Don, studying ecosystem processes and the effects of humans on the landscape.  Science is obviously of great utility. But what kind of science? A science that acknowledges our deep connectedness and relatedness, requiring direct participation in and accountability to our systems of observation? Or one that requires our pretended unbiased separation from our systems of observation?

Since the enlightenment, we’ve been able to get away with pretending otherwise, but not anymore. Now we are not only embedded, but in our current form, we are destroying the ecosystems we will need to persist. From Gaia’s perspective, we’ve gone malignant. Full exploitation of tar sands (for oil for cheap food) is stage 5. From our perspective, there’s no reason to worry as long as we have cheap food. But how long can that last?

The Anthropocene concept seems to be challenging modern science’s most prized possessions – objectivity. We need an ecology that can restore the functioning of our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in ways that support humanity’s sustainable (and joyous) existence (requiring services provided by the persistence of all Earth’s species!). Leopold said that “The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.” I would argue almost the inverse: “the science of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the art of land health is yet to be born.” Objective science on the land has given us a very predictable and productive industrial agricultural system. Land health will require science too, of course.  But if we put the myth of objectivity to rest, how does that science function? What are its methods? Might it look more like art?

Ecologists have gotta figure this out soon (from my subjective perpective). As if our grandchildren’s futures depended on it.