In my day job as an ecologist I spend a lot of time thinking about how energy and nutrients flow through ecosystems. Understand this and it should be possible, in theory, to provide guidelines for how we move to a more sustainable future. However, communication of ecological principles is often a frustrating business, especially when your audience is government officials balancing scientific evidence with other policy concerns. The organisations I work for pay lip-service to “evidence-based policy” yet, somehow, fail to react in the way I expect when confronted with strong evidence.
Some of my frustration, I realise, comes from not fully understanding how evidence moves through the complex human ecosystems of government agencies, the businesses whose actions they regulate and the stakeholders whose lives are affected by decisions. I’ve written about this before (see “The human ecosystem of environmental management” and subsequent posts) and find that ecological cycles can form powerful metaphors for understanding information flow and, as a result, how we can communicate important results. It also, as I will show, helps us understand when to recognise that the argument does not hinge on scientific evidence but on powerful institutional barriers.
The graph at the centre of the diagram below comes from a paper that I co-authored as part of my work with the European Commission and describes the relationship between aquatic plant communities (“Macrophyte EQR”) and total phosphorus in shallow lakes in north-west Europe. It formed part of a bigger project to help Member States set environmental standards. The point of my diagram is to show how ecological evidence (represented by our graph) is nested within a series of other considerations which often lead to the decision the evidence points towards being over-ruled.
Regulation in the face of noisy ecological data: ring 1 represents environmental targets; ring 2 is the regulatory framework; ring 3 is national policy (water pricing and the cost recovery framework in particular) and ring 4 is society’s environmental aspirations.
The process works something like this: ecology is not an exact science, but we could use this graph to justify a maximum permitted total phosphorus concentration of about 60-70 micrograms per litre in these lakes (1: the innermost ring). This, then, converts into a series of consents and licenses for businesses that discharge into the catchment and, potentially, into encouragement for farmers to sign up to countryside stewardship schemes (ring 2). The carrots and sticks that make up this regulatory framework then fit into a broader framework of environmental management that embodies the “polluter pays” principle (ring 3). Finally, this broader framework reflects, to a greater or lesser degree, society’s aspirations for the environment (ring 4).
Protecting and restoring lakes and rivers, then, depends on society as a whole regarding the environment as a high priority (4) and being prepared to pay for this (3). We could refer to this as an effective environmental aspiration*, as distinct from everyone talking the talk on social media but carrying on with unsustainable practices in their everyday lives. Once people recognise their own agency, then the “polluter pays” principle should be easier to enact and utility companies will be less inclined to challenge the regulator because they know they can recover their costs (2).
If, on the other hand, the link between rings 4 and 3 is weak, and that there is pressure to reduce utility charges (as is the case in the UK at the moment for reasons that go beyond the subject of this post), then decisions within individual catchments will be less straightforward and the targets themselves will become the subject of greater scrutiny.
The graph at the centre of the diagram is typical of the evidence that we have to use in situations such as these. There is not a perfect relationship between biology and nutrients (only 43% of the variation in EQR is explained by total phosphorus) so it is hard for catchment managers to tell stakeholders that a reduction in phosphorus loading will definitely lead to an improvement in ecology. Ecologists never work with the certainty of engineers; we deal in probabilities. We can say that if this reduction was enacted across the whole country then many lakes would show improvements but may be hard to be specific on a local scale. Given the costs involved in producing these reductions, the temptation is to play safe.
Playing safe starts with the graph itself. If you can only explain a proportion of the variation in Y from X then there are, invariably, loose threads that can, with a little tugging, unravel the argument. In this particular case, there is a substantial body of experimental evidence behind the relationship but, even so, the targets derived from these relationships often translate into significant challenges for both regulators and regulated. It is often far easier to kick the can down the road: easily achieved these days by prioritising other tasks for the limited pool of technical specialists employed by our environmental agencies.
I started this post by drawing metaphors from ecology in order to understand the process of environmental management. The analogy I see here is that of equilibrium: imagine the barriers between the rings as a series of membranes: society’s aspirations flow towards the centre and, if these are high and all the intermediate stages are in equilibrium, then our graphs are powerful evidence for moving towards a healthy, sustainable environment. As soon as there is disequilibrium (e.g. high environmental standards versus a low willingness to pay for improvements in utility infrastructure), however, all the intermediate steps become adversarial rather than consensual and the noise inherent in ecological relationships becomes a pawn in political and bureaucratic games.
* analogous to the economist’s concept of “effective demand”
Poikane, S., Phillips, G., Birk, S., Free, G., Kelly, M. G., & Willby, N. J. (2019). Deriving nutrient criteria to support ʽgoodʼ ecological status in European lakes: An empirically based approach to linking ecology and management. Science of the Total Environment, 650. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.09.350
This week’s other highlights:
Wrote this whilst listening to: Jeff Beck Group’s Beck-Ola from 1969. (Just bought tickets to see Jeff Beck at the Sage in May, so celebrations were in order).
Cultural highlight: The Strange Case of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Northern Stage in Newcastle, during which I was hauled up on stage to play piano (photo below). I can’t play piano but they showed me what two notes to play and when. Figured that if I can’t face this, then I shouldn’t have signed up to a live microscopy “performance” at Green Man this summer.
Currently reading: Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín
Culinary highlight: a self-baked lime and coconut drizzle cake.