David Montgomery — The Human Dimension

LC: I watched one of your talks about King of Fish and at the end you said that the limiting resource in engendering change is not research, it’s the “human dimension.” I guess it’s obvious there’s a big disconnect between the research we have and the policies that are implemented. Can you talk about how that’s played out in your career and where you see a solution?  

DM: Oh boy, well you know one of the things I’m trying to do along those lines is with the book writing, the talks, the YouTube videos, all that kind of stuff, just a way to get people thinking about it. We already don’t use a lot of the science that we have on issues like that. A lot of the stuff I wrote about in Growing a Revolution… there are farmers that have been tinkering and doing that stuff and there’s science that backs up what they’re doing, but we’re not supporting it at the policy level, in part I think because it would result in less fertilizer use and less pesticide use. Who exactly is lobbying for change that allows you to be more productive while lowering costs? There’s real interesting politics all up and down that one.

The salmon issue is the same thing in the Northwest. Most of my work on salmon rivers stopped after I wrote King of Fish, my first popular science book, in part because I wrote that I didn’t think the state salmon recovery plan was going to work. It got very hard for me to actually get research money to work on salmon after I published that book. I’ve been very tempted lately to write an op-ed that says “See I told you so,” but that would be childish.

It is frustrating to see something where fifteen years ago I laid out policy prescriptions for how to actually turn salmon abundance in Puget Sound around and there didn’t seem to be a real big decision space for doing that, for letting more people come and still get the fish numbers back up. The way to do it would be to rethink land use on the big river flood plains, the places where people are still building condos and we have critical infrastructure.

Very little has been done to actually address the underlying causal mechanisms I talked about in King of Fish, and yet we spent an awful lot of money in the state on salmon conservation the last fifteen years—we don’t frankly have a whole lot to show for it.

So yeah, I think the most difficult part of all this is managing the human dimension, and I’ll be the first person to tell you we probably don’t want a bunch of scientists running the world. Science won’t tell you how to solve social problems, but if you start framing policies in ways that ignore what we do know about the way the world works, why would you believe those policies are actually going to solve the issues you’re trying to craft them for?

The simplest example of that lately would be problems with the orcas in Puget Sound. There’s pretty good reason to believe that the number and volume of whale watching boats are harassing these animals while they feed via echolocation.  So the first thing you would do if you really wanted to help them is you would ban making loud noises anywhere near them when they’re trying to feed. That means completely reshaping that bit of the tourist industry. As far as I know, there’s no real discussion of that yet, but it’s the most obvious thing you would do based on even a little bit of science. The reasons for that are clear—there are people’s livelihoods at stake.

It seems to me like good science is rarely profitable now, good science is profitable later, and delayed gratification is not one of our species’ strengths.  

Science actually costs money to do, so if you actually want to get high-quality answers it requires high-quality scientists, high-quality studies, and high-­quality data. If you’re working on issues where the answer might cost an industry a lot of money, who’s going to fund or support that work?

Maybe it’s too simplistic or wishful to say more governmental support for public-good scientific exploratory research is the answer.

Yeah well it would be nice if there was more. That would mean more work on things that were framed in terms of societal interest or intergenerational interest. In principle, the government should be a body that looks out for the interests of the future. They don’t tend to do that, they tend to favor short term issues because what makes the wheel of politics turn?

Good earth sciences education, or a lack of it, is probably playing a role here in the lack of broad, public support for any initiative which requires a basic understanding of environmentalism, ecology, oceanography, or geology. Do you think there’s a real place for these sciences in core education?

Short answer is yes, I actually think that to conform to the model of a well-educated citizen, you should kind of know something about how the world works, and that means knowing something about landscapes, watersheds, etc… Geology would be a piece of it, but the bigger piece I think that’s missing is about how ecological systems function on the surface on the earth and how human activities interface and overlap with them. Where’s our food come from? How’s it grown? Where’s our water come from? What makes it clean? What does it take to make it clean? How do we keep it clean? How do we keep the air clean? You’ve noticed the air quality around here the last couple days, it’s like being in Los Angeles in the 70s or Beijing in the 90s.

We’ve managed to clean up aspects of our environment before. The ozone hole is the best example—scientists recognized a problem and humanity united to go “Oh maybe we shouldn’t be using chlorinated fluorocarbons” and they got banned. We’re on track to heal the ozone hole. That style of thinking could be applied to a whole lot of other systems—water systems, soil systems, the climate system—but if people don’t know how that stuff works there won’t be political support to do things that might be a little painful in the short run but in everybody’s interest in the long run.

I think there’s a critical need for that kind of education, and again that’s one of the reasons I try to write popular-science books. I can write a paper for a journal where twenty people will read it, or I can spend time trying to write a book that might reach a thousand times that many.

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