What Ecology Can do for Environmental Management

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case studies, ecology, nature reserves, wildlife management

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Community ecology currently has no general theories having predictive power. As Woodwell (Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America59, 136-140, 1978) claimed, it is in a state of "paradigms lost". Given the dearth of general, classical hypothetico-deductive theories, a number of prominent scholars including biologist Robert Henry Peters and environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff—have warned that ecology is of limited importance in helping to solve practical problems of environmental management.

Although we agree that some of the insights of the critics of ecology are correct, we disagree with the claim that ecology is an unhealthy science unable to provide firm foundations for environmental problem solving. Our analysis falls into four categories. First, we examine Peters' six arguments for the weakness of ecology in solving problems of environmental management, and we show the degree to which each is correct or incorrect. Second, we evaluate the proposals of Sagoff who argues that we ought to ignore the ecological foundations for judgements about environmental welfare and instead to focus on uncontroversial cases of what is environmentally unhealthy. Third, we argue that, despite the difficulties associated with defining foundation ecological concepts (such as "species") and with formulating regularities about allegedly unique phenomena, statistical laws may provide some ecological explanations capable of grounding decisions about environmental management. Fourth, using insights from the recent National Academy of Sciences report, we argue that if ecological method is grounded on a "logic of case studies" rather than a traditional "logic of confirmation", then it may be able to guide conservation policy.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Journal of Environmental Management, v. 41, issue 4, p. 293-307