Being positive about conservation

Over Christmas I was out walking in the Pennines with family and friends.

I got to talking to one of our old family friends (in that I have known her for a long time, not that she is old – I’d never be that rude) about what I was doing for my PhD.

I can’t quite remember the conversation but it went something like this:

Her: “The natural world is screwed. What kind of world do you think we’ll leave for our children and grand children if thinks keep on like this?”

Me: “I agree. But not everything is terrible. People think that deforestation in the Amazon is unsolvable, but recently deforestation has been going down.” (Note: this was true at the time, it’s just shown a ~30% increase)

Her: “Really? I didn’t know anything about that.”

Me: “Yeah, and the Brazilian government can now monitor deforestation monthly using its own satellites and potentially work out who is deforesting what.”

Her: “Wow. I didn’t know that either. Why don’t conservation people talk about these things more often?”

She had me there.

Why don’t we?

I think it’s fairly easy to understand why: tropical forests are being cleared rapidly, pollinator populations are in decline, as are carnivore populations and apparently populations of long-lived trees, not to mention the crisis in fisheries, the lack of a solid deal on carbon emissions… the list could go on.

However, buried amongst all that conservation has made some practical contributions to help save species and unique ecosystems from obliteration. We need to talk about these more often. If people think that everything is beyond hope – what is the point in doing anything?

Species like the golden tamarin have been brought back from the brink of extinction - so why don't we talk about them? Photo credit: 1000 wishes on Flickr
Species like the golden tamarin have been brought back from the brink of extinction – so why don’t we talk about them? Photo credit: 1000 wishes on Flickr

This is not a new idea. The late, great Navjot Sodhi and colleagues wrote a paper a few years ago identifying conservation successes at small, medium and large scales and others have been banging on about it for even longer. Shamelessly I am going to steal this idea.

So starting from now I will have an occasional series of posts called ‘Positive Conservation’, Or #positiveconservation for those of you on Twitter.

I ran through a series of names for this series #ponservation probably being the least appropriate, though #poncervation would  be a great name for hipster types doing conservation whilst rocking their oversized glasses (subnote – I don’t hate hipsters, I think I might be one).

I’ll keep this series as positive as possible and will write about individual case studies of conservation success, what the problems were and how people found solutions to them. Like upworthy for conservation but less cheesy, hopefully. If there are any examples that you particularly like and I don’t write about – send them my way. Let’s see how this goes.

Testing environmental policies with randomised control trials

How do we know that what we do to manage biodiversity is doing what we want?

The sad truth is that a lot of the time we don’t. A lot conservation management is done in particular ways because of a mate once told the ranger a certain method was good or because they wish to maintain the status quo, but very little is actually based on evidence.

The best way we have of understanding the effects of management on biodiversity is through properly controlled studies. Despite the increasing complexity in ecology, which is increasingly resembling a branch of applied mathematics, many conservation questions are about whether treatments a or b are better than doing nothing at all.

This is one of the few ways we can attribute causation in ecology and is held as the gold standard for other disciplines. It bears repeating that correlation does not equal causation and most ecology is observational in nature, rather than manipulative.

Although there is a push by some  to answer these questions and compile evidence for particular management techniques (notably the excellent, much remains unevaluated. There is a feeling by some publishers that such experiments are boring and this stops researchers pursuing this type of research as well as reducing replication even when they are published.

Though we sometimes have little idea about how to manage biodiversity at the site scale, environment policy can be equally difficulat to implement  Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) have the potential to be powerful tools to aid this decision making. Many policy questions relate to how people interact with their environment. For example, is it best to pay up-front for agri-environment schemes or to pay based on the results they deliver?

Would it be better to pay farmers up front for planting wildflower margins or should we pay them based on delivery?

Questions like this could feasibly be addressed by a large RCT. However, these would need government backing and funding. Some people might see the use of RCTs, when government is cutting such large parts of it’s budget, as an unnecessary indulgence. However, without these trials we are fumbling around in the dark trying to find a sticking plaster when we might be in need of a visit to the hospital. It’s a clumsy analogy but without RCTs of such policy options we do not know whether what we are doing is the best thing to do, or even if it is working at all.

This type of thing is being championed by Ben Goldacre and Tim Harford, who argue we should have RCTs for almost everything. Goldacre has also written a report for Cabinet Office in the UK, so it looks like this idea is gaining a bit of traction. RCTs have been identified as having potential for social policies such as the use of different teaching techniques in aiding reading. However, there is no reason why similar trials couldn’t be designed to test environmental policy.

This big idea would put an end to uninformed policy making on the environment. It would mean that we wouldn’t have to guess at which policy delivers the best results. Politicians would still get it wrong some of the time but at least they’d be presented with good evidence to help them make these decisions.

Politics would still however come first. Making decisions is a messy process and science doesn’t have the last say on such issues. As seen with the recent badger cull debate even the best evidence can have little value when faced with the might of industry lobbyists. But without this evidence, policy making will continue to fumble around in the dark.