Does ecological policy have to be so cruel? Embracing epistemic multiplicity offers a different way
Originally published by ABC Religion & Ethics, 24 Jan 2020. Co-authored with Robin Ladwig and Hannah Barrowman.
[The original motivation for this article was the over-application of a positivist epistemology in the management of so-called invasive species in Australia and New Zealand. Robin and I started meeting at the University of Canberra to discuss alternative epistemics [utilizing the white boards in Building 1 especially!] and Hannah brought in the comparative evidence with New Zealand. It seems to us that invasive species are managed mainly in violent ways, premised on their destruction—we think there are different, gentler, ways of going about reducing their numbers where they aren’t wanted.]
Cruel and unusual ways
Why is non-human life destroyed in such “cruel and unusual ways”? The rabbit: braces that once upheld a now forgotten industry in Australia are the target of biological attack — after 24-48 hours of exposure to a Calicivirus, the animal begins to haemorrhage internally and has been reported squealing and bleeding from the eyes. The cane toad: misunderstood icon of Queensland, producer of a class-1 narcotic, inspirer of songs, gardener’s mate and friend to children, is routinely run over by motorists — popping like balloons under the tire.
And then there is the carp: centrepiece of many Polish Christmas dinners as a symbolic bearer of good fortune and increasingly popular restaurant fare in the United States (you can try your very own slice of browned “Kentucky Tuna” for $35 a plate at Ward 426) is sold in Australia, instead, as fertilizer. Wild dogs, foxes and blackberries are poisoned; pigs, goats and deer are hunted — sometimes with the help of armoured dogs; alligator apples are burned in part because the sale of their edible fruit, said to taste of honeydew, is prohibited in Australia; cats are scalped (the Banana Shire offers a $10 bounty per pelt). And the list goes on.
The answer to the question of the lack of questionability over such practices is both obvious and yet not. It’s obvious that these animals and plants are feral invaders — and therefore they’re not supposed to be here. They are ruining the Australian way of life, threatening its national identity and fundamentally altering its unique island-specific ecology. Consequently, this repressive biodiversity should be eradicated — or so the story goes. Less obvious is the fact that these species are not invaders: most were introduced to the continent and others hitched rides with people travelling there. They’ve got as much right to life and living as other introduced species do — like cows, corn, sheep, wheat and avocadoes. We may not like fire ants, for instance, but they’re here because of human activity. They didn’t cross an ocean to get here; we did.
We need to come to terms with the fact that generations of migrants have fundamentally altered much of this continent not only through species introduction, but also farming, harvesting, mining, polluting, urban expansion, tourism and automotive transport — activities notorious for their routine destruction of animal and vegetal life. The point is that animals, plants and people alike (regardless of their being commonly recognised as feral invader or not) are all products of a complex and shared interspecies history — what Donna Haraway calls the “Chthulucene” — one that does not fit the stereotypical but misguided native versus feral storyline.
We’re entangled, and we humans are arguably the most destructive of the lot.
The “Myna problem”
Options flourish when applying this change in thinking to the makings of ecological policy. Let’s take the concern around the Common Myna bird for example. First introduced to Melbourne’s Market Gardens in 1860 and subsequently to the rest of the Pacific, including New Zealand, in the 1870s, the bird has since spread throughout most of the east coast of Australia and low-lying areas of New Zealand’s North Island. The problem is that the Myna birds aggressively outcompete other native birds for food and habitat according to various ecologists.
While it may never be possible or desirable for the Myna to be completely eradicated, their numbers can be brought down to reduce their impact on less ubiquitous avian species. The guidance over dealing with an invasive species such as the Myna bird is delivered as a simple and pragmatic government-approved package of initiatives which range from a $2 per head bounty, trapping and gassing, blocking nests and poisoning, to finally only planting native vegetation around one’s home because Mynas prefer non-native vegetation for their nests such as the coco palm.
Solutions of containment, eradication and annihilation to get on top of the Myna problem represents stringent effectiveness, calculation and measurability: a bird dead is a bird less; no nest means no chicks. These aforementioned solutions to the Myna problem incarnate a positivist, or functionalist, approach. Following Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan — famous for mapping out the major or most common knowledge paradigms among scientists, broadly defined — the functionalist or positivist paradigm is expressed in technocratic solutions and replicable generalisations.
Yet, still the birds remain. Enlisting other ways of knowing, or epistemic paradigms, such as interpretivism, radical humanism and radical structuralism alongside positivism brings further options for solving the problem.
An interpretivist working on “the Myna problem” might seek out the experiences of, say, Australians living among the Mynas to build a collage of realities plotted over time. This work could make the problem more relatable to the public, perhaps in its capacity to explain the loss in quality of life experienced by Australians who’ve witnessed the escape of native birds from their gardens and now feed, see and hear mainly the Myna. The radical humanist might shift the problem away from the Myna and land it squarely on us: to say that it is our lifestyle that supports the Myna, so we should build differently, take greater care with rubbish, be certain only to feed the animals we intend to feed, but to also recognise that we can be more than just destroyers. We can choose not to destroy and rather act against the problem in more constructive, anti-authoritarian and less patriarchal ways — such as by playing the recorded sound of a distressed Myna bird, a gentle ruse that may keep the birds at bay. The radical structuralist might seek to push for greater education on how to oppose Myna birds and encourage a more diverse bird habitat. This person might suggest a market for the live capture and sale of the birds because they make excellent pets and are impressive mimics, and push for new laws to incentivise Australians to support native bird life by building specific nest initiatives.
When it comes to dealing with complex ecological problems, the world offers so many other ways of knowing that we can be more than positive in our approach to addressing them. Focusing only on the problem and not taking the various contexts in which the problem is couched leads to tunnel vision and, logically, limited options for action.
The status quo in ecological policymaking at, for example, the state and territory levels can be summarised in this way. It starts with a problem — say a soaring wild camel population in the Australian interior — landing on a politician’s desk. The camel problem gets actioned if the politician, or their party, first agree that it is a problem or decide it should be actioned for other reasons. They then have to manage to get it onto the parliamentary/assembly calendar. Rounds of evidence-gathering from experts in the field, stakeholder consultation, and testing policy alternatives follow this which, under the right conditions, sees the policy, or solution to the problem, being passed into law or some other form of regulation.
In the case of the camels, a recurring policy has been to cull them in large numbers which mainly implies shooting them. The Australian government, for example, culled 160,000 wild camels between 2009 and 2013. While 12,000 shot camels were harvested for pet meat, the rest of around 92 percent, it appears, were left to waste. More recently, BHP is reportedly committing $2 million to the future cull of camels as part of the “10 Deserts Project.”
The camel cull has not been without controversy. First, there is debate over the exact number of wild camels. Multi-species abattoir operators who sell to both domestic and international markets say that it was, and remains, difficult to source camels from the wild because numbers are too low; while Western Australian pastoralists have claimed camels are roaming the Goldfields Region in “plague proportions.” Second, there are those who are diametrically opposed to the killing of camels: some believe it is a disrespectful act of destroying life whose only fault was living; others have shown that wild camels can be rounded-up, penned-in, and trained so that their milk and hair, meat and bodies, can be harvested and sold. Similarly, the “1080 regime” has been the centre of significant and systematic protest in New Zealand but has become particularly heightened in recent months. Obviously, there are conflicting values in this policy space which have not been factored in.
Why is that? To some, especially advocates of participatory and deliberative democracy, the answer is an insufficient amount of citizen engagement and control over the policy process, and therefore the solution to the camel problem lacks democratic legitimacy. Agreeing with this critique, we add that it must also be recognised that the fault here also falls on the politician’s reliance on the type of evidence provided by the experts they consult. The camel cull comes from a positivist, or functional, understanding of the world where solutions play out to problems in fixed terms. It relies on the rational and mathematical assumption that if there are A number of camels than B number of them have to be destroyed to have a reduced population at C which consequently will decrease the negative impact on habitat D by E-percent within confidence interval F. As a logical conclusion, the quality of habitat D increases after the cull, hence, the camel problem is objectively solved within those parameters.
While we cannot predict what an interpretivist, a radical humanist and a radical structuralist would have contributed alongside the functionalist — which is the type of expert most commonly consulted, according to Burrell and Morgan — it is likely that the type of evidence and resulting recommendations to act on the camel problem would have been different.
In the revised approach, the politician fixture remains the same, but the problem, evidence and solution fixtures have undergone some change. The evidence is now being drawn from four epistemic paradigms or ways of knowing: the interpretivist, the radical humanist, the radical structuralist and the functionalist. When it comes to the solution, then, we recognise it is often the case that experts will present a number of recommendations as to how to act on the evidence they’ve established about a problem. While solving assurances were previously only grounded in one mindset, solutions are now drawn from four different streams of thought. This leads to even more diverse, complex and complementary approaches to deal with a problem.
Such a contrasting diversity of multiple solutions and approaches of action leads to a range of possibilities. Depending on the politician’s capacity to work syncretically, a solution could, after rounds of evidence gathering and mental gymnastics, become multifaceted instead of monofaceted.
The wild camel problem in the revised approach could still include the culling solution, but it would likely generate other solutions too. The interpretivist might bring a finer grain of detail to the problem by interviewing stakeholders, both for and against it. This might lead to an identification of camel hotspots or a recommendation to drive camels into slaughter or live capture for a meat industry/camel export boost. It even could cast doubt on the problem itself by discovering that it is a false problem created by several influential businesses whose cattle (read: “profits”) would benefit from a drop in wild camel populations grazing on their land, but would rather the government pay for it.
The radical humanist, in recognising that we are all “one” humanity and that we are all, therefore, experts in our own subjects, might turn to the crowd locally to deliberate over their community interests and resources and to invite their participation in solving the camel problem. The radical humanist might even work globally by communicating with other citizens in other countries — especially those who have experienced integrating camels into their respective social and ecological systems. “Does Australia have a wild camel problem?”; “Should we leave them be or must we act?”; “If we must act, how might we proceed?” — these are some of questions this person may ask of humanity’s “hive mind” online.
The radical structuralist might recommend that governments within Australia should do more social advertising about the benefits of camels: either in the form of consumption such as food, fertilizer (from their droppings) or fabric products which could lead to a boost in the industry; or as supplement such as transport or farming help which could repurpose the wild camel into a source of different resources. Instead of destroying the resource, why not try to benefit from it and through a more intensive mode of economic control slowly bring wild camel population numbers down?
The key to the revised approach is the acknowledgment and acceptance that each of the four paradigms sees the world differently. Experts from each paradigm will, therefore, come up with different solutions to the problem and may even inspire each other to do better work. It is this turn, in particular, that brings benefit to ecological policy formation since it puts more options on the table — including the rejection or rearticulation of the problem. But it also poses as bane to the politician since steering such a process requires training and the acceptance that knowledge comes from many sources.
There is, furthermore, uncertainty over how syncretism within the solution space can play out because this approach has not been tried before in the formal ecological policy space, even though hackathons, think-tanks and transdisciplinary competitions designed to solve worldwide problems demonstrate the effectiveness and creative potential of epistemic multiplicity.
The future of ecological policy
There are a number of benefits that come from adopting epistemic multiplicity in ecological policy formation — such as:
- gaining more solutions to a problem;
- developing a balanced approach to the problem so that it doesn’t negatively affect the public who rely on, say, camels for their livelihood;
- allowing experts from different paradigms to collaborate in an interdisciplinary and problem-oriented setting that enriches public engagement (if not co-production) in policymaking.
Epistemic multiplicity, in other words, offers a more resilient, democratically legitimate and, ideally, compassionate approach to solving Australia’s ecological problems, like the many found inside the “invasive species” box.
Of course, every medicine comes with its risks and side effects — so too the adoption of the epistemic multiplicity approach. The main issue is that it relies on at least four different and potentially contradictory paradigms. This could overwhelm a politician not trained in steering along syncretic lines or open to thinking in unconventional ways. Receiving a complex bundle of information might lead to confusion, thus making the positivist, or functional, approach look more appealing because its logics tend to be the simplest out of the four. This could lead to a dominance of knowledge production based on capitalist, patriarchal or authoritarian tendencies.
The complexity problem could also make it difficult for residents in Australia to hold the government, party or politician responsible for the policy accountable. If the administration of the policy — for instance, the application of the solution after it’s passed into law — fails or misfires, it may be unclear what the cause or reason was and what therefore needs to be adjusted or scrapped.
While there is uncertainty over how this new approach could play out in the future of ecological policymaking, its adoption is, from the point of view of those non-humans presently categorised as “feral” and “invasive” in Australia, but also in New Zealand and elsewhere, incredibly urgent for the simple reason that we are not convinced their destruction is warranted. Why not give politicians the option to train in using a model that can reduce the suffering, mistreatment and disrespect that Australians routinely inflict on the non grata plants and animals in their lives?
We know that Australians are concerned about protecting the environment and native species, but these acts of positivism are so “cruel and unusual” that they, perhaps unnecessarily, tarnish our humane hearts and take various human endeavours — such as business prospects and political participation — as their collateral damage. We can do better. We can be more than positive.