April 26, 2012

When artists discuss conservation science

It should be documented as the grandest, most sweeping appeal to tradition in history: to undermine the impulse to conserve, to manage habitats and wild populations, they argue for the "natural" flow of life, that livings things die, populations disappear under pressure, laissez-faire rhetoric dismissing modern extinction spasms.

This particular argument is easily dismissed: It makes the error of assuming that all extinctions are equal. The difference is, the contemporary declines are not due to inexorable glaciation or an extraterrestrial bomb, it's due to the rapid expansion and carelessness of an expansive conglomerate of very clever animal consciousnesses: We. We think therefore we shape.

I don't live in a progressive's dreamworld. I think it's beyond the scope of any program or project to comprehensively manage anything as complicated as a protected valley forest ecosystem or demographic economics (in the pursuit of "fairness"). The laissez-faire argument recommends inaction, not as a solution, but as a sort of acceptance of the truth. I appreciate the notion; often I feel that when we act - ideologically - without 1.) an evidential grasp of the true nature of the problem and 2.) the willingness/attention required to continue maintenance of a remedying program that will most likely change as the system itself evolves (Medicare comes to mind). In my mind, inaction can be the best way to handle certain complex situations, especially when the data are volatile, inconclusive or controversial, but it's never a solution. Sometimes there is never a solution. I find the idea that there is always a fix to any problem both arrogant and puerile.

Conservation has seen success, however, if we define success as directional movement toward historic restoration. We have found ways to manage disturbed areas and bolster populations of animals that were long lost from particular ecosystems. Humans have shaped the world to their liking. We can certainly reshape it into how we think the world was or how it might have been without our destructive influence. It's still preferential, but I appreciate the impulse to have enough humility to accept that we are not the only exceptional animal intelligence on the planet. It's still our prerogative, but it's addressing the adverse affects our biological success has had on other life. It's a mission to protect the vast amount of information stored within each quivering protoplasmic article.

The agents of this argument are far more interesting than the content of it. With the recent advances in neurology and its influences on philosophy, it has become chic for artists, writers and self-ascribed philosophers to parrot the slim reviews of this science in pop-sci publications and Nova documentaries without an even cursory understanding of the nature of science itself, particularly data interpretation/validation (falsification, etc.). It becomes a rapid-fire delivery of trivia-worthy facts and figures or an "exploration" of the science, a favored word of artists and art historians in particular, usually signifying an entry into the realm of unbridled - and decidedly unscientific - speculation; the science acts as a marginally solid springboard for confirmation bias. When confronted with an actual discussion of data and the real implications of it, within the field, as related to other science, the interest wanes and their institutionalized bias against technical knowledge asserts itself.

Don't think this, as is the tendency, and definitely don't act on it: "Well, I'm an artist/art historian/writer/philosopher and I don't do that." You don't, that's good. I know you exist, but you're in the minority. Near extinction, perhaps. In need of a equalizing (democratizing!) government program? One could make that argument.

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