A Primer on Ethics in the Human Dimensions of Conservation

Think about the word ‘ethics’ for a moment. For some, the word creates images of smiling people sitting around a table, the picture of diversity, happily planning a future in which no one is ever taken advantage of. For others, the image may be of nun-like ascetics peering over your shoulder with an armful of paperwork tied together with a pretty bow of red tape. For still others, it’s something heartily discussed in a liberal arts course or late-night dorm philosophizing during doe-eyed college days. In reality, though, practicing ethics is never as clear-cut an image and making ethics part of daily research life is still a distant goal.

Some fields, like genetics and medicine, have had to confront ethical conundrums head-on and consequently, create a precedent for how we think about ethics in a research and institutional context. Sadly, this precedent is full of angry conflict, covering ethical missteps after-the-fact, and millions of dollars worth of lawsuits. This precedent rightfully leaves many people jumpy about addressing ethics head-on, like the proverbial third-rail of program management that no one dare touch for fear of inviting the flak created in these precedent cases. To use another cliched analogy, ethics then becomes the elephant in the room, except this elephant is staring at you over your cubicle wall and periodically sticking its trunk over the wall to search for peanuts. In reality, choosing to not address ethics amounts to consciously deciding to accept whatever emerges organically, whether you like it or not. So what does this mean for less life-or-death fields that work with stakeholders, like the marine sciences? Let’s start with the foundation that’s already laid.

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Institutional Ethics for Research in a New Academy

amysquareI’ll be around Morehead City this year for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, finally with some post-dissertation time on my hands – and decided to finish a project looking at shifting baselines. Part of this investigation is to find out what people think about trends in the tournament since its creation in 1957 – fish size, difficulty in catching one, etc. It’s a small project involving a one-page survey but I decided that since ethics are important, I would run the survey through an institutional review board anyway.

Problem is, since I am post-dissertation and this is an independent project, I no longer fit into any of the categories of people who should be reviewed by my institution’s IRB: student, faculty, research staff, or administrator. I’ve heard this complaint from other community groups hoping to deploy surveys or get volunteers to evaluate their experiences in citizen science, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it firsthand. So if one does desire ethical oversight outside of an academic institution, where does one turn? I have a few thoughts, not of them tested, but I’d like to see the world of ethics expand beyond its institutional boundaries to match the expanding scientific boundaries of public science.

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Rumors from the Abyss: visions of a future without deep sea conservation

Bathymetric map, click for GEBCO high resolution image

The deep benthos is simultaneously the largest and least explored ecosystem on the planet. Covering nearly 60% of the Earth’s surface, it supports an almost unimaginable reservoir of biodiversity, rivaling all terrestrial habitats combined. Its microbial and metabolic diversity have revolutionized our view of how life is sustained, not once, but twice (first with the discovery of chemoautotrophic organisms at hydrothermal vents, and again with the discovery of cognate communities at methane cold-seeps). In spite of these major discoveries, the deep benthos is essentially invisible. Only a select few will ever witness it first hand, while for the rest, it will remain a dark and unfathomable abyss.

This places the deep benthos in a precarious position. Human activities that influence the deep sea go unnoticed. Without a thorough understanding of its ecology, it is impossible to assess the damage caused by anthropogenic impacts. Although recent and ongoing studies have shed light on many species and communities, the deep benthos remains largely unexplored. Two studies, both released this week, reveal simultaneously how little we know about the deep benthos and how human impacts, even unintentional ones, could shape this ecosystem.

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State of the Field: A New Type of Policy Analysis

The focus on community and informal rules that were found to frequently structure successful commons management made apparent that the word ‘policy’ needed to be expanded. Policy scholars now look beyond the official written laws, reports, and regulations that are often written by a central government to multi-scalar rules that govern the structure and behavior in a system (Ostrom 2005). They include non-written cultural norms, religious prescriptions, and community ethics that are often more strongly followed that written, formal rules (Berkes 2008). Along with a more broadly defined concept of policy, commons scholars also introduced a more broad definition of institution within which these policies are made and enforced. Much like policies, institutions can be governmental as well as religious, moral, or cultural. Hanna and Jentoft (1996) give an appropriately broad definition for natural resource institutions: “institutions represent the arrangements which people devise to control their use of the natural environment”. Ostrom (2005) promotes an institutional analysis in order to encompass these new conceptions of policy and institution. Her work recently earned the Nobel prize and is rapidly becoming the most used framework for policy analysis.

Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Design (IAD) Framework is not specific for natural resources or even commons problems, but serves as a place to begin policy analysis for all sorts of policy problems, including education, gender relations, crime, and natural resources. A short description here does not fully describe the IAD framework – for that, refer to Ostrom’s 2005 book. To highlight a few pertinent features, the framework is centered around a decision-making arena called the action arena rather than on the formation of a particular policy. Inputs to the action arena include exogenous variables describing the biophysical characteristics, community factors, and existing rules relating the action arena in play. This action arena then interacts with action arenas at other levels of governance (operational, collective choice, constitutional, and super-constitutional) to form an outcome. The outcome is evaluated by some defined set of criteria and the process feeds back to become iterative. The main benefit of the framework is to allow for comparative studies between empirical studies by scholars around the world in many disciplines. Read More

State of the Field: First World or Third World?

Ever stop to think what divides the first from the third world? Why don’t we ever hear about the second and why don’t countries move between categories as they develop? Well, because the categories are historical – the second world is reserved for post-soviet countries attempting to rebuild governance. The first world is reserved for those who shone through as leaders at the end of World War 2. The third world – everybody else. But what does that mean for development research? And what about those places within our own country without running water and electricity?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgLooking inward to the researcher’s own countries means questioning the benefit of some institutions that are part of the dominant narrative of success in those countries. Before any differences are made explicit between investigation of the First and Third World, there is the question of outsider/insider position that must be attended to. Identifying and challenging assumptions as an insider may prove much more difficult than analysis of a foreign society as an outsider (Perin 1977). For example, community forestry in Canada was assumed to not exist because Canada is fully embedded in a capitalist economy, but was discovered to be successfully functioning in British Columbia, largely due to a regional difference in values diverging from capitalism (McCarthy 2006).

Perin (1977) suggests analyzing controversies to identify such assumptions that may also inherently be part of the inside researcher’s worldview. First World political ecologists have focused on controversies, largely looking at land use or resource management controversies. In the process, they have identified different processes at work in the First World than the Third World. These differences add a few key concepts to the political ecology toolbox: a need to explicitly recognize heterogeneity in a seemingly unified nation (St. Martin 2001), the role of a strong central state (Walker 2003), the role of larger capitalist economy and culture (Escobar 2004), and the process of rural gentrification (Schroeder 2005). Read More

Building Policies for Stewardship

A dream? tomschlueter.blogspot.com

We as humans and especially here at SFS like to picture an ideal government and hope that as we learn more about science and political theory, government can take steps in that direction. By any measure, governance within the United States is far from meeting the theoretical ideal. Implementation and enforcement are often pointed at as more important factors than policy design in terms of effectiveness in meeting policy goals. But if we ever had the chance to change the design, here’s four principles that will help make sure we move in the right direction.

Addressing Scale: Appropriate information gathering

If scale is unified at the ecosystem level – bounded by hydrological and geophysical boundaries – then information about the system must also represent the ecosystem scale. Fisheries management, for example, requires information on all the potential factors that could affect stock size – habitat, water quality, fishing pressure, competition with other native and nonnative species, productivity of the food web, etc. Furthermore, the total fishery stock in an area would have to be considered together – total biomass of market species, for example. These types of measurements will delineate threats to conservation to a particular species versus threats to the health of the whole system. Read More

State of the Field: Playing with Policy

Successful owl populations in CA are credited to adaptive management, from ceplacer.ucdavis.edu

Following our discussion of scale, management boundaries must match ecological processes which are now recognized to be dynamic and complex. This means that management must manage not for a known equilibrium, but a dialectic system full of uncertainty (Berkes 2008). Instead of attempting to predict from the instigation of a policy what the effects may be, governance should be structured to constantly evaluate the system and incorporate feedbacks. This process, known as adaptive management (also check out statements on the subject from the Resilience Alliance and US Department of Interior), provides for the co-evolution of the system and its governance to ensure that they remain an effective match.

Under adaptive management, episodes of disturbance are learning opportunities, not a signal of policy failure. Berkes (2008) describes this phenomenon: “’conservation’ is not a state of being. It is a response to a people’s perceptions about the state of their environment and its resources, and a willingness to modify their behaviors to adjust to new realities”. He goes on to say that disturbances are not only opportunities for learning, but that they are necessary for that learning to occur. Gunderson and Carpenter (2006) add that disturbance is necessary for transformational learning – the type of learning that allows for the emergence of novelty. Therefore, disturbances should be allowed to occur in order to foster community and governmental innovation. Read More

State of the Field: Shark Conservation Policies

Shark populations around the world are crashing. Researchers have reported that many populations have decreased by 90% or more since the 1970’s. The leading causes for these precipitous declines are bycatch, which kills tens of millions of sharks each year, and the shark fin fishery, which kills as many as 73 million sharks each year. In this edition of State of the Field, I will explain what different countries are doing about this problem.

In many parts of the world, it is still legal to cut the fins off of a still-living shark and dump the rest of the animal overboard where it will bleed to death or drown. Other nations have a variety of management policies.

Credit: Fiona Ayerst, Marine Photobank

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State of the Field: Pay for that Particulate!

What are the true costs of power? photo by author

Ever wonder why coal-fired power is so much cheaper than the alternatives? Coal-producing communities aren’t paid for their personal health impacts, the environment is not paid for streams turned acid, and mountains are not paid for their removal. More subtle costs are also passed on: rising rates of asthma from particulates in the air, introduction of malaria into previously unaffected areas from a warming world, and the relocation of whole countries due to sea level rise.

Pollution is a classic example of an economic externality – companies choosing not to sequester chemicals in their effluent pass the cost of pollution and remediation on to those downstream. Therefore the cost of production signaled by price does not represent the true cost of production. The contradiction is deeper, however, and forms one of the main critiques of capitalism – the “second contradiction of capitalism”. Capitalism relies on the continual growth of the market, costs determined by the raw material and labor inputs. However, these costs assume limitless availability of what Marx calls “conditions of production” – the infrastructure and environmental services that are required for production. These, however, are not limitless and therefore not cost-free. Rising costs will eventually outpace price and production will therefore cease (O’Connor 1998). Read More

State of the Field: Satellite tagging sharks

Modern shark researchers have access to a variety of high-tech tools. Acoustic tags with noises specific to each individual shark signal a receiver (or network of receivers) every time the shark passes nearby. Some tags have three-dimensional accelerometers, allowing researchers to study the small scale movement patterns and behaviors of sharks. Others, which are placed in the stomach, measure pH before, during, and after digestion. The most advanced technology on the market, however, is undoubtedly the satellite tag.

Image from SurfThereNow.com

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