by Gray Merriam
Conservationists have struggled for decades to put their recommendations and management practices onto a sound and transparent scientific basis. The thought was that both government bodies and the public were more likely to apply the results of conservation research if results had the blessing of science.
That struggle may have been too successful; or perhaps, just too narrow. A purely scientific basis for conservation, or applied ecology, has omitted a critical variable – aesthetics. Critical because the publics that must support conservation practices, if they are to succeed, are very sensitive to aesthetic values. Application of the strength of that public sensitivity of aesthetics to science-based management could advance the goals of conservation. An example arose from work in the American Midwest. Landscape planners tried to get farmers to allow revegetation of fencerow corners and other bits of unused land to make them attractive to wild plants and wildlife. Farmers resisted until the planners added little fences around the revegetated bits. Purely aesthetic.
Why was aesthetics left out? Conservation scientists are not insensitive to aesthetics. But scientists have believed that their scientific methods don’t apply to variables such as aesthetics. That is the realm of philosophers and science can’t approach the questions. Rigid partitioning of academic disciplines, journals and rewards also have worked against synthesis. Is it true that science can’t address aesthetics? What is the evidence? Why can’t we apply the scientific method of: accurate observation, creation of and testing of an hypothesis, in attempts to disprove it?
I witnessed one interesting attempt to bridge this gap. In Sweden, a management plan for a large rural landscape was being developed. Integral to the process, a public meeting was held to obtain input from the people on that land. The development of the plan had been largely done by computer modeling. Three alternative futures for the landscape had been developed. For the public meeting, a watercolour artist had been engaged to produce paintings of the appearance of the landscape under each of the three alternative futures. These were displayed for the public. But the alternative futures had been developed as computer models and in those models were all the assumptions and information about those three alternative landscapes. So scientists also were present, making those computer models available for examination. Those attending the meeting could do their thinking at the level of the watercolours, or they could raise questions from that view and ask those questions of the landscape modelers who would fire up their computers and investigate any questions at any level of detail, until the questioner was satisfied. Of course, the questioner could return to the aesthetics of the watercolours and raise more questions, return to the scientist and repeat the process. That public meeting was a good approach to melding the science and the aesthetics of landscape management.
Other ‘thinking outside the box’ has used evidence such as photographs of various ‘natural’ landscapes to present to urban dwellers for evaluation. Values stated by the viewers can be subjected to psychological and philosophical analyses and to statistical tests to state the confidence in results.
Surely scientists have the abilities to apply their ‘way of knowing’ to produce new knowledge that incorporates both classical scientific variables and solid evidence on aesthetic variables into a realistic synthesis to guide and facilitate ‘best management practices’ to address today’s conservation issues