Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Ecosystem Management Must Include the Most Human of Factors

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1995. Ecosystem Management Must Include the Most Human of Factors. BioScience, Vol. 45, No. 6, page 378.

By Andy Kerr

As a group, biological scientists tend to be politically naive—not because of any inherent limitation, but due to predilection. Perhaps scientists are drawn to their field not only by a love of nature, but also out of a disdain for certain human characteristics commonly lumped into the term "politics." Politics is not necessarily bad—the term simply refers to the way decisions are made in a democracy. Problems arise when scientists, who prefer to dwell in a realm governed by reason and objectivity, are drawn into the political realm, where reason and objectivity are not so highly valued. As the various political factions (managers, public interest activists, industrialists, etc.) attempt to define (and claim) the newly emerging field of ecosystem management, scientists are in danger of being caught in a political cross fire. The term ecosystem management was born of crisis—an ecological crisis that expanded into a political crisis. It was created to appeal to (and to appease) all factions. Environmentalists hear "ecosystem" while industrialists hear "management". This disparity has led to confusion. While "ecosystem management" can be defined as an ecosystematic approach that values and insures the continuance of the full range of species and natural processes, it also carries the implication that we should manage every centimeter on every hectare.

Too many scientists assume that those who manage ecosystems share their understanding of nature and dispassionate viewpoint. This assumption, if not addressed, is likely to doom ecosystem management to being nothing more than the same old management practices.

Far too often, scientists assume that poor decisions have been made by managers who simply didn't understand the function and/or importance of ecosystems and once a manager is educated about such matters, better decisions will result. Such an attitude is naive for a multitude of reasons, including the assumptions that:

• Managers act altruistically. In fact, managers generally act in what they perceive as their own self-interest, even if they say (or even think) otherwise.

• Managers have the independence to act in the best long-term interest of society. In fact, managers are accountable to others who often pursue their own short-term self-interest (e.g. advancing careers, making money, getting re-elected).

• Expensive monitoring, mitigation and restoration will occur. In fact, government budgets are shrinking, making such measures unlikely to be implemented.

Managers are overwhelmingly motivated by systems that reward the impoverishment of ecosystems. Private capitalism is firmly in force, with decisions made from the perspective of the quarterly reporting period, rather than for long-term sustainability. Educating managers to appreciate the importance of ecosystems is only likely to produce anxiety for the now-enlightened managers who continue to take actions.

As scientists develop the art of ecosystem-based management, they can't afford to forget the limitations of the human species, especially those economic and social systems that inherently favor the "us" and "now", over the "them" and "then". To assume that managers won't attempt to politicize the reasoned and objective recommendations of science ignores history and guarantees that science will be abused, rather than used in public policy-making. Scientists must enter the public policy arena, to ensure that managers use their recommendations correctly. Scientific recommendations are useful only if they are clear, unambiguous, and account for human frailty.