Sunday, November 09, 2008

When swordfish conservation biologists eat swordfish

Do you look to scientists for advice on how to live your life? I didn't think so.

Conservation biologists often wonder why their work fails to change the world. Here's an editorial that displays some of the reasons for failure. It's a plea from Giovanni Bearzi, in Conservation Biology: When Swordfish Conservation Biologists Eat Swordfish.

Bearzi wants conservation biologists to "walk their talk" and do things like stop eating swordfish. Why? Not to change the world, but to lead by example. But what is the example? He offers no reason to believe that not eating swordfish will change the way people catch swordfish. It comes across as self-denial with no clear benefit, and that's a hard thing to get people to do.

Bearzi's views on how to persuade people seem to be vague hopes. He dreams of a time when
"our conservation elites have abandoned our unsustainable habits"
and expects that
"only then will there be convincing evidence that responsible individual behavior can spring from science-based understanding of cause-effect relationships and only then will there be any hope that, beyond theory and preaching, the inspired and knowledgeable choices of a few visionaries may affect a larger community in a growing spiral of understanding."
Is he serious? Does he really believe this?

Scientific understanding is NOT the basis for behavior, at least for most people. There is plenty of evidence that people are often irrational in their behavior and choices.

And who is going to look to conservation elites for models of how to live their lives? Most scientists do not look like role models, we tend to look dorky and unappealing to most people.

To be fair, Bearzi says his plea for conservation elites to "just say no" to swordfish and SUVs is not meant to be a recipe to change the world. But he does hope it helps inspire others to do the same.

A better inspirational example would be to do something more effective, and hope that action spreads. Here's a better idea...

Conservation biologists should dedicate their time to attending meetings of fishery managers where decisions are made about fishing regulations. I've been at many such meetings, and independent conservation biologists are extremely rare. For people who care so much about conservation, why not show up where conservation decisions are made?


Anthony Judd said...

I get that you don't think that this is the best way to stop the degradation of fisheries, but are you saying the conservation biologists shouldn't stop eating swordfish?
'Cause that just seems hypocritical...

Of course we can do more to fight for scientific conservation to become the norm, and I agree completely with your final paragraph, but for an informed person to keep eating unsustainably because "[avoiding swordfish] comes across as self-denial with no clear benefit" is a cop-out.

Surely the benefit is this: for every person who stops eating swordfish the demand for unsustainably caught fish decreases a little. As the demand decreases so does the market price and thus the incentive to continue harvesting in this way.

Sure not everyone sees scientists as role-models, but it would be good if we weren't seen as hypocrites too.

Me! said...

I'm a HUGE believer in leading by example. I think if tree huggers (and I say that with love in my heart because I consider myself to be one) want to help change the world, they have to SHOW people how, not just tell.

Anonymous said...

I think being realistic saves energy and it is impossible to lead a completely hypocritical-free life. However, it is a good goal to work towards. Anyway, what is an 'independent conservation biologist'? And how welcome would they be at a fishery management meeting?

Mark Powell said...

This needs another post, but here's a start: "just say no" to swordfish is no better than "just say no" to sex or drugs.

Just say no has some symbolic value, but only if it's part of an integrated and effective campaign. By itself, just say no to swordifsh doesn't change demand and doesn't make a noticeable statement.

Even worse, just say no to swordfish may let people off the hook for making real change because they feel they've done their part.

Finally, self-denial sets a poor example because it only works for the ascetic crowd that enjoys suffering (e.g. grad school). Most people try it and then give up when there's no visible change in the world.

thegreymadness said...

What I'm concerned about is the recent phenomena of Swordfish having been spotted eating Conservation Biologists.

I tried to get them to Just Say No in a Nancy Reagan like fashion but their gills were not able to form vowel sounds, just bubbles (not Michael Jackson's friend) and then they left to enjoy the scientist kebab's they had on their noses.

I worked behind the bar of the Swordfish club in Russell Bay of Islands NZ and can understand why Marlin etc are so rare, they taste bloody great smoked and as steaks - though Tag and Release is now more common and well practiced for the big game fish.

WhySharksMatter said...

This proposal is just absurd. No one looks to scientists for advice on how to live their lives- not even other scientists!

For decades, vegetarians have told nonvegetarians that our habits and views are "bad" and that we need to change and become more like vegetarians. How is THAT working out?

People are more likely to listen to someone who is LIKE THEM. If I were to say, "I love swordfish, too, but they're a threatened species", I'm more likely to get through to someone than if I said "I don't eat swordfish because eating swordfish is bad, and you shouldn't either". Outsiders criticizing behavior is an almost totally unsuccessful behavior.