When Ideology Masquerades as Science

Posted on October 14, 2012

This weekend I am in Berlin. The image above is one of many in The Eastside Gallery – a section of the former wall that has been preserved as a gallery for largely political art. This image struck me because it brought to mind a number of conversations I have been having recently – the latest one only yesterday over lunch. My lunch partner commented that everyone’s efforts seem to be focused on returning to the status quo antes. The financial system (and indebted consumers) want to return to the pre-2007 utopian myth. The same is true for NGOs – including environmental ones – who dream of returning to the days when money poured into their coffers without restraint. And, of course, the conservation community which seems obsessed with its ‘historical model’ of restoration of ecosystems to how they were at some arbitrary point in the past.

Why this hopeless and unproductive obsession with back to the future? As the artist of the Berlin piece rightly says, change is not only inevitable but essential. Just like it is impossible – and indeed undesirable – to try to reconstruct the pre-2007 financial system – or the pre-Perestroika European order – so it is both futile and undesirable to attempt to ‘restore’ ecosystems to some sort of pre-industrial age. We can only move forward from where we are today. Our choice is in which broad direction we wish to move forward in our hybrid industrial/post-industrial age.

The obsession with the historical model is not only futile, it is potentially outright harmful.

Some time ago I wrote about a visit to Scotland and The European Nature Trust’s attempt at creating a forested wildlife park.  When I was there I asked to see some examples where reforestation had started. I was shown patches of trees that had been planted 15 years previously. They were still saplings – barely taller than me. In 15 years! There are many potential reasons for this but one is the legal requirement to reforest only with native species which are relatively slow growing. Why? Surely the primary objective should be to construct a new ecosystem for the desired, new objective not to try to re-create the forests that existed before they were cut down to build the ships necessary to defeat the Spanish Armada.

But what do I know. So I asked an expert. A botanist friend of mine specializes in species reintroduction. It became obvious during our conversation that the only reason to stick with native species is ideological. There is no practical or “scientific” reason for such a policy. New ecosystems can be just as effectively established using faster growing, resilient species appropriate to the landscape and location. All that is required is the abandonment of the daft ideology of “the historical model” of conservation. The outcome would be faster results at lower costs.

There is no conservation. There is only development. By this I mean that from where we are today we can only move forward. Embracing change using new knowledge is where the opportunities lie. Those who fund or otherwise control conservation projects should have no truck with expensive, backward looking constructions where ideology masquerades as science. Similarly the conservation community needs to shake off attitudes that have become embedded but have no basis either in science or practicality. And it needs to do so before society starts to believe that the emperor has no clothes.

As the remnants of the Berlin Wall show – graphically, powerfully and with emotion – change is inevitable. Ideologies change and adapt – or they crumble under the relentless march of history.