Isaac Newton, after experiencing the bottom end of a falling apple, used that experience to formulate the theory of gravity. The inductive process Newton used is common to the goals of most scientific endeavors and a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche. As humans, we love to generalize. It helps us understand the world around us by categorizing parts of it and explaining natural dynamics by the “laws of nature”. We also stereotype each other by race, hometown, or favorite basketball team. Some would say these tendencies help us prepare – to predict and expect the logical outcome of the set of clues presented in our everyday lives. But just like the reasons your mother told you not to stereotype, sometimes nature has its own surprises that defy prediction, categorization, or law-following. Especially if you don’t quite know what the law is yet.
Imagine a mostly desert landscape with a few patches of small trees scattered in and amongst human villages in West Africa. Modern satellite imagery paints these dots of green in a mostly brown, dry environment. Scientists and policymakers view these satellite images and interpret the dots of green as the last few refuges of forest in an increasingly human-altered landscape, where humans serve as a force of spreading the brown – desertification. Huge quantities of international aid and conservation efforts follow suit to “fix” this region, Kissidougou, by encouraging villagers to plant trees, use gas stoves, and implement water-saving irrigation techniques.
In comes Fairhead and Leach, anthropologists now counted among the founders of political ecology. They uncover old aerial photography from the colonial era of Kissidougou that show even less trees than the modern satellite images. When they asked the villagers what was going on with the trees, it turns out that they were planted by villagers. Many of the trees in these patches, it turns out, were fruit trees – a form of silviculture meant to diversify the village diet. International aid programs and agricultural technology had actually discouraged caring for these patches of trees and many were slowly drying up or being used for firewood. Just because Kissidougou sits on the savannah-forest border in a region of the world where desertification (in the Sahara) was rapidly becoming a threat to both environment and people, the international community assumed desertification was happening in Kissidougou as well. Fairhead and Leach sum up “that these problematic interactions have not had a more degrading effect on vegetation is owed at least partly to the effective resistance strategies which villagers developed”.
Dig deeper into any commonly told environmental story – usually one of doom, gloom, and demise – and we probably haven’t checked every corner of the world to see if the narrative is universally true. Here at Southern Fried Science, we’ve already busted a few of these environmental myths through Ocean of Pseudoscience. We like the theme, as it brings both the skepticism of science and optimism of a healthy conservation movement to the table. In the future, we plan to tackle more of these challenges to find the true stories, full of real-life complexity and complication.