The limits of intellectual reason, the awesome Andrew J. Hoffman, and why environmental policy is tricky


Image from Andrew J. Hoffman’s “The limits of intellectual reason in our understanding of the natural world”.


Making policy for our environment is tricky. Making it for biodiversity is trickier. There are some parts of the world with progressive, integrated, strategic biodiversity policy. New Zealand is not one of them.

Too often we are bogged down on getting the science right. The Devil is in the Detail. We worry because there is so much science, and we argue over whether we’ve got every last little bit of scientific worry covered off. Only then, we think, can we make science-based environmental policy. Except we can’t, so we fail to make policy.

Maybe there is another way. Embrace intellectual humility, and make the best policy we can, because environmental policy isn’t really about science. It’s about how human culture and human societies see their environment.

“Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility”
… said Aldo Leopold, American Naturist and world-class conservationist.

Andrew J. Hoffman writes a beautiful piece about how science and environmentalism interact: words of wisdom to launch forward in our new Anthropocene where human understanding is surpassed only by the level of human intervention in earth’s natural systems.

He quotes the Gods: Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold and Stephen Jay Gould. He takes us from the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries, the flourishing of science, and the modern birth of ecology.

And he talk about there is always something we don’t – perhaps can’t – know.

Did you know that after reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park, biologist learnt that the wolves play a role in river paths – scaring elk and deer from the shoreline decreases erosion and helping stabilise the banks?

If they hadn’t taken a chance on their wolf policy, they would have never known this. Couldn’t have.

Hoffman talks about the problems that science, especially the environmental sciences, has in communicating through all the numbers and the models. I can’t help but see a cross-over with how we also write policy for the environment.

And I can’t help worry about how environmental protection and conservation conversations in New Zealand and overwhelmed by arguments over who’s data is better. The Nitty Gritty. We need to look before we leap, but we need to leap before we loose too much.

When I talk to people about offsetting in New Zealand, they say we don’t understand our ecosystems enough, it’s not scientifically possible to compare one patch of native forest with another.

Projects involving Offsets are kept in the courts while experts compete over data.

Meanwhile, we loose our biodiversity.

Andrew reminds us we must be humble:

… academics and scientists must approach study of the natural world with the strength of data and models, a humility of their limitations, an awareness of the unintended consequences they so often create and a recognition of the emotional, cultural, ethical and spiritual perspectives on the world.

In short, it requires scientists to not only be smart, but also be wise.

We shall never know everything we want to. Science data will not save us. We must embrace this reality, remember how much we don’t know, and respect this uncertainty as we apply science to problem solving, especially in policy.

When I read this, I am reminded that my heart is truly for science. But my head knows that we cannot leave scientific data to solve todays environmental problems. It’s going to take another kind of humanity to do that. That’s why I study policy to bring together all the elements that Andrew J. Hoffman talks about here.


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