Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Planting a Tree; a Wicked Inconvenience

Invasive species continue to be a wicked inconvenience. The spectrum of stakeholders and their differing solutions are spread broadly across many disciplines and ideas. On Wednesday, April 25, 2007 on Bioblog, I ran across a posting entitled “Plant (non-invasive) trees this Arbor Day“. In keeping with a key tenant of a wicked problem: “The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution. Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem,” the author’s solution involves a prescription on planting and therefore transferring any organism not indigenous to the local. I will assume that the arbitrary date of approximately 1500 is the time reference which is understood in a solution which requires a local native only approach.

There is much to be said for the idea of reconstructing the pre-European Colombian Exchange in attempt to return to Rousseau's natural state. The reconstruction and appropriate maintenance of a self sustaining system has much going for it. However, the article quietly faults the National Arbor Day Foundation for not adopting this world view. One may infer that the foundation’s solution is to do no immediate harm by limiting plantings to known “safe” species, and to encourage the planting of trees, even in areas which were treeless before 1500. This solution opens up its own set of complex possibilities, because we cannot know for sure if planting trees is the “right’ thing to do. “Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly” Once we plant the trees, we alter the matrix of the problem.

Another principle of a wicked problem is also at play here: “Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences, and may cause additional problems.” The statement refers to Bioblog's ideal solution which may take to be the removal of trees in meadow and prairie settings, and concept which alone would qualify for causing unintended consequences to human society assuming there is the political will and resources to accomplish the landscape restoration. Because the foundation’s solution seems less aggressive, at first hearing, it finds itself in the position of being wrong. But this is a violation of the principles of a wicked problem, for there are no right or wrong answers, just varying degrees of good and bad.

One problem I find with Bioblog's comments is the assumption that the reconstruction of “natural” ecosystems can be returned to a idealized time and place. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem,” and invasive species are symptomatic at least in part with global climate change. To fault the foundation for using climate maps to help suggest tree species is to slightly confuse several issues. The climate map will be needed even if one were to go completely native, whatever that may mean.

These small points aside, I truly liked the Bioblog’s last point: “I argue only that these are minor points in the greater struggle to convince humanity, especially that small portion of humanity that has the time and money to support any sort of environmental ethic that it chooses, that ecology and biodiversity are not actually words that can describe numbers of species over an entire planet. They much more aptly describe the mosaic of species assemblages that found a way to evolve in every possible environment that is found on earth. If we lose that idea, then biodiversity itself is a meaningless concept.” These words get to the point. This is a solution clearly described; it is not the solution to which the foundation currently subscribes, I think. The conversation must continue. The stakeholders must not find fault with each other, but work to find small points of agreement. Remember that “Constraints and resources to solve the problem of invasive species change over time.”

1 comment:

biotunes said...

"One problem I find with Bioblog's comments is the assumption that the reconstruction of “natural” ecosystems can be returned to a idealized time and place."

You assume an assumption that is absolutely not there. I know there is no turning back, and thus, that is not what I advocate. My entire point is encapsulated in the conclusion (which you liked). An organization that appears to be advocating an ecological approach is devaluing true biodiversity.
(As for how to begin to define "natural," this is of course a tough problem as you say, really one for the philosophers, and I address my views a bit in this previous post:

Thanks for your response. As you say, it is a difficult problem mainly because there are so many different stakeholders, and I welcome the dialog.