I write several of my posts whilst travelling, though am always conscious of the hypocrisy of writing an environmentally-themed blog whilst, at the same time, chalking up an embarrassing carbon footprint. Last month, however, I participated in my first “eConference”, in which the participants were linked by the internet. With over 200 people from all over Europe, and beyond, attending for all or part of the three days, there was a substantial environmental benefit and whilst there was little potential for the often-useful “off-piste” conversations that are often as useful as the formal programme of a conference, there were some unexpected benefits. I, for example, managed to get the ironing done whilst listening to Daniel Hering and Annette Battrup-Pedersen’s talks.
You can find the presentations by following this link: https://www.ceh.ac.uk/get-involved/events/future-water-management-europe-econference. My talk is the first and, in it, I tried to lay out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the ways that we collect and use ecological data for managing lakes and rivers. I was aiming to give a high level overview of the situation and, as I prepared, I found myself drawing, as I often seem to do, on medical and health-related metaphors.
At its simplest, ecological assessment involves looking at a habitat, collecting information about the types of communities that are present and match the information we collect to knowledge that we have obtained from outside sources (such as books and teachers) and from prior experience in order to guide decisions about future management of that habitat. At its simplest, this may involve categoric distinctions (“this section of a river is okay, but that one is not”) but we often find that finer distinctions are necessary, much as when a doctor asks a patient to articulate pain on a scale of one to ten. The doctor-patient analogy is important, because the outcomes from ecological assessment almost always need to be communicated to people with far less technical understanding than the person who collected the information in the first place.
I’ve had more opportunity than I would have liked to ruminate on these analogies in recent years as my youngest son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in 2014 (see “Why are ecologists so obsessed with monitoring?”). One of the most impressive lessons for me was how the medical team at our local hospital managed to both stabilise his condition and teach him the rudiments of managing his blood sugar levels in less than a week. He was a teenager with limited interest in science so the complexities of measuring and interpreting blood sugar levels had to be communicated in a very practical manner. That he now lives a pretty normal life stands testament to their communication, as much to their medical, skills.
The situation with diabetes offers a useful parallel to environmental assessment: blood sugar concentrations are monitored and evaluated against thresholds. If the concentration crosses these thresholds (too high or too low), then action is taken to either reduce or increase blood sugar (inject insulin or eat some sugar or carbohydrates, respectively). Blood sugar concentrations change gradually over time and are measured on a continuous scale. However, for practical purposes they can be reduced to a simple “Goldilocks” formula (“too much”, “just right”, “not enough”). Behind each category lie, for a diabetic, powerful associations that reinforce the consequences of not taking action (if you have even seen a diabetic suffering a “hypo”, you’ll know what I mean).
Categorical distinctions versus continuous scales embody the tensions at the heart of contemporary ecological assessment: a decision to act or not act is categorical yet change in nature tends to be more gradual. The science behind ecological assessment tends to favour continuous scales, whilst regulation needs thresholds. This is, indeed, captured in the Water Framework Directive (WFD): there are 38 references to “ecological status”, eight in the main text and the remainder in the annexes. By contrast, there are just two references to “ecological quality ratios” – the continuous scale on which ecological assessment is based – both of which are in an annex. Yet, somehow, these EQRs dominate conversation at most scientific meetings where the WFD is on the agenda.
You might think that this is an issue of semantics. For both diabetes and ecological assessment, we can simply divide a continuous measurement scale into categories so what is the problem? For diabetes, I think that the associations between low blood sugar and unpleasant, even dangerous consequences are such that it is not a problem. For ecological assessment, I’m not so sure. Like diabetes, our methods are able to convey the message that changes are taking place. Unlike diabetes, they are often failing to finish the sentence with “… and bad things will happen unless you do something”. EQRs can facilitate geek-to-geek interactions but often fail to transmit the associations to non-technical audiences – managers and stakeholders – that make them sit up and take notice.
I’d like to think that we can build categorical “triggers” into methods that make more direct links with these “bad things”. In part, this would address the intrinsic uncertainty in our continuous scales (see “Certainly uncertain …”) but it would also greatly increase the ability of these methods to communicate risks and consequences to non-technical audiences (“look – this river is full of sewage fungus / filamentous algae – we must do something!”). That’s important because, whilst I think that the WFD is successful at setting out principles for sustainable management of water, it fails if considered only as a means for top-down regulation. In fact, I suspect that Article 14, which deals with public participation, is partly responsible for regulators not taking action (because “costs” are perceived as disproportionate to “benefits”) than for driving through improvements. We need to start thinking more about ensuring that ecologists are given the tools to communicate their concerns beyond a narrow circle of fellow specialists (see also “The democratisation of stream ecology?”). Despite all the research that the WFD has spawned, there has been a conspicuous failure to change “hearts and minds”. In the final analysis, that is going to trump ecological nuance in determining the scale of environmental improvement we should expect.