Contributed by Andrew Myers
What are we prepared to give up the name of nature and what will we do protect it?
This is the underlying theme of the RADIOLAB podcasts entitled ‘Galapagos’ and ‘For the Birds.’ In ‘For the Birds,’ a group of bird conservationists relocate a flock of whooping cranes, an endangered species, to a marsh in Florida. Once the birds arrive, attracted by birdfeeders, they start to inhabit a woman’s backyard. The conservationists ask the woman to remove her birdfeeders, she refuses. For her, the birds had become an integral part of her relationship with her husband who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. For the conservationists, her attitude and actions posed a threat to the future of the birds and what it meant to be wild. By asking her to remove the birdfeeders, they also ask her to give up a part of her relationship with her husband; while simultaneously, her refusal to remove the birdfeeders jeopardizes the very birds she treasures. This dilemma raises problematic questions that involve uncertain facts, opposing values, and may not have any right or wrong answer. They are much political as they are ecological, necessitating comprehensive approaches that integrate the expertise of many different disciplines.
What is a healthy forest?
For some, this involves little to no human activity, for others human activity (e.g., timber management) is critical to maintaining a healthy forest. In this case, the term “health” carries vastly different meanings, formed by different cultural values; “health” is fundamentally political, yet has serious ecological consequences. A healthy forest, in practice, is not defined by objective facts, rather, it is defined by power. For example, the forested landscapes in the U.S. have undergone many shifts, from the American Indians, to European settlers, commercial timber management, to environmental protection. In each of these eras, the health of the forest was defined by those with the most power, resources, and influence to do so, allowing them to implement their vision upon the landscape.
Are we willing to ask a woman to give up part of her relationship for an endangered bird, would we kill thousands of goats to protect turtle habitat, will we prevent timber production to protect bear habitat or will political and economic circumstances open up roadless forests for new roads and logging? While the answers to these questions are no doubt important, the more relevant detail is what the answers to these questions mean for how we live our daily lives. Addressing this point will lead us to a more productive debate about what is best for whom considering the needs and concerns of all living things rather than the perpetual debate about what the ‘correct’ answer is. Doing so requires collaboration across disciplines. Science of course, provides us with some of the necessary information for how our decisions will shape the world, and ultimately, our lives. The challenge, is remembering that we ourselves are political beings.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Berkes, Fikret. 2011. “Implementing Ecosystem-Based Management: Evolution or Revoltuion?”
Fish and Fisheries 13 (4):465-476.
Devlin, Vince. 2014. “Columbia Falls Sawmill Announces Layoffs, Cites Timber Blocked by
Litigation.” Missoulian, August 29, 2014. Accessed,
For the Birds. RADIOLAB audio podcast. Accessed, http://www.radiolab.org/story/birds/.
Galapagos. RADIOLAB audio podcast. Accessed, http://www.radiolab.org/story/galapagos/.
Ludwig, Donald. 2001. “The Era of Management Is Over.” Ecosystems 4 (8):758-764.
Neumann, Roderick, P. 2005. Making Political Ecology. London, England: Hodder Arnold.
Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Warren, William, A. 2007. “What Is a Healthy Forest?: Definitions, Rationales, and the
Lifeworld.” Society and Natural Resources 20 (2):99-117.