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Managing babies – lessons for managing the environment?

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I’ve just returned to my research on environmental governance after half a year of maternity leave. Whilst I was away I started to see parallels between my trying to care for a baby, and the challenges of managing our environment and ecosystems. Therefore, in this blog post I’m going to explore if baby care can highlight some key issues for environmental governance!

Every day when I decide how to look after my baby – for example, when to put him down for a nap – I try to be an attentive parent, and I use all the information that I have, to decide how to act. However, it can be difficult to accept that my information doesn’t always help me know what to do. I can track some issues – such as the length of time since the last feed – but not others, as babies go through all sorts of physiological changes that I can’t predict or detect. This means that unpredictability or uncertainty is inherent to baby care - we can never be completely sure what is going to happen next. This can be difficult to cope with if you are used to an organised schedule!

Picture of an adorable sleeping baby. Copyright Kerry Waylen

At one stage, my baby refused to sleep at night for more than 1 hour at a time. I spent a lot of time poring over his 24-hour sleep and eating patterns, to try and understand how we could improve his night sleep. I became obsessive about recording the precise details of his waking and sleeping, as if more detailed data would bring some insight that I didn’t have before. Of course, my data made no difference, and eventually and suddenly my baby decided to start sleeping again. Whilst I can laugh at myself now, at the time it was easy to get wrapped up in collecting and studying the data, since this made me feel like I was doing something useful. In all probability, neither my obsessive data analysis, nor my interventions made any difference to my baby’s sleeping habits. He may just have had to go through that phase in order reach the next stage in his development.

So, it is pretty obvious that babies are not simple or predictable robots. However, it is perhaps a bit less obvious that the same type of issues apply to most aspects of environmental management. This arises because no part of our environment is simple. Ecosystems comprise a complex web of links and processes, which are in turn part of and influenced by human systems and societies, which are at least as complex. This is the idea of ‘socio-ecological systems’. These systems in their entirety also change over time, as exemplified by how alpine species assemblages might greatly change in response to climate change and grazing pressures (click this link for a comprehensive academic review of such changes).

    Despite constantly accruing scientific insights, we don’t perfectly understand socio-ecological systems. As a result, we rarely have certainty about if and how we should intervene, or what effects an intervention is liable to achieve. It is often difficult or costly to constantly track and monitor changes within systems, though some aspects of them may be easier to observe than others. For example, it might be easier to estimate the changes in the populations of large carnivores living on a mountain, rather than their diet, or the populations of various insects upon which their prey depend. It’s also hard to know how many issues we need to understand, because all systems are intermeshed. For example, we might see indirect connections with processes such as soil respiration, or changes in animal populations in an adjacent system. However, without information about all parts of the system we may struggle to achieve a good understanding of why carnivore populations change, let alone understand other changes in the ecosystem.

Our imperfect understanding makes it hard to know how to act. It is the same with babies. When my baby starts crying, I tend to start by reviewing the information I already have (e.g., when did he last eat? When was his last nappy change?) but his distress might well be due to other factors that are not so easy for me to detect or fix. As a result, I might waste time trying to take actions that I am confident in and that relate to the information we already have (e.g. by changing his nappy) when actually he is becoming ill.

I suspect this temptation to focus on what is easily measured, and what can be easily fixed, can similarly affect attempts to understand or manage ecosystems. For example, there may be a temptation to overly focus on the things that we can relatively easily monitor and measure (e.g. populations of large animals), rather than the things that we cannot. Those who can access and understand this data can even obtain undue influence on decision-making (a point recently raised in ‘Conservation Algorithm’ by Bill Adams). However, despite the effort and investment made in collecting and analysing information, we may still not have a comprehensive overview of what is happening, nor the changes that occur.  Sometimes a well-balanced programme of monitoring could help show how different aspects of a system are changing, but even so we are likely to be left with un-answered questions. I think coping with this uncertainty is fundamentally challenging.

Many commentators have argued that those of us brought up in the global West inherit a mindset of 'modernity' which causes us to expect things to be measurable and controllable. For many of us, it’s difficult to recognise how this shapes us, let alone break free of it. I myself have written about how it is essential to overcome this mindset (as in this paper on monitoring for environmental management) but struggle to do so in practice.  However, I think overcoming our discomfort with uncertainty is an important underlying issue for environmental governance. We cannot improve how we manage the environment if we cling to what feels comfortable and familiar. For myself I am going to start with my personal experiences of baby care: if I can cope with that, then I can cope with uncertainty anywhere!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.