What rocket science, environmental results, and 38 Special have in common
Earlier this month, I gave a pre-conference talk on using drones in program evaluation at the 2021 national conference of the American Evaluation Association. I wanted to start everyone out on the same page during my talk, so I led with this quote from Edward Game, Erik Meijaard, Douglas Sheil, and Eve McDonald-Madden in Conservation Letters: “Conservation is not rocket science; it is far more complex.” (1)
I love the quote because it restates something I believe to be generally true: ecosystems are probably unknowably complex.
Everyone thinks their own discipline is remarkably complex. And they’re all correct! The more we learn about a field — the more expertise we gain — the more we can see and understand how the basics we learned early on don’t tell the whole story.
This is what leads some people to academia: the desire to truly understand a field or a problem at an intricate level. This is what leads my husband to listen to EVERY SINGLE GRATEFUL DEAD SONG EVER. He can hear the first three bars of a seemingly random Grateful Dead concert recording and immediately pipe up with, “1981, February, Uptown Theater, Chicago, 2nd night.” It’s scary. Think of all that brain filing cabinet space that could be used in another way… The point is that to him the Grateful Dead are VERY complex. To the rest of us, the Grateful Dead range from super-groovy music to, well, noise.
We tree-hugger science types know that environmental programs can be remarkably complicated to design, implement, and track. There are so many moving and changing parts. So many external influences from weather to funding. (2) And as a result, the damage ecosystems have experienced from human activities is not easy to undo. At times, our efforts can do more harm than good. But it is a remarkably important endeavor.
Just like exploring the universe, restoring the planet deserves rigorous study and careful implementation.
Luckily for us, unlike the vacuum of space, the Earth is forgiving. We just need to keep working on getting it right.
Rocket science is a cliché example of complexity for a reason
My grandfather was a rocket scientist. Around the time rocket science was developing in the U.S., he worked for a precursor of NASA helping to develop telemetry strategies, likely for military uses, but publicly for America’s moon shot program. As an engineer and pilot, he worked alongside the remarkable physicists and mathematicians of our nascent space program. When my mom was growing up in Merrit Island, Florida, her father would come home from work and tell her and her brothers and sisters, “I can’t say why, but let’s go outside and look up!” They would see an experimental portion of the Gemini, Mercury, or Apollo program lift off from nearby Cape Canaveral, now the location of the Kennedy Space Center.
The physics and math needed to accurately send a satellite into space and get it to stop at the right spot astound me. And, particularly at the beginning of things, there was guessing involved because they’d never done it before! But after trials and errors and remarkable gutsy animal (so very sorry) and human trips, rocket experimentation became rocket science. (3)
Even this benchmark of complexity, rocket science, can be “simplified” down to Newton’s three laws of motion:
- Every object proceeds in a straight line unless acted upon by a force.
- The acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force exerted and inversely proportional to the object’s mass.
- For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Simple, right?! Just keep these three things in mind, then do a zillion kinds of remarkably complicated math, and POOF! Rocket success! I joke! I’m kidding. There is NO way I could have taken this career path, personally. As a devoted nerd-type, I do love some math magic, but it doesn’t love me even half as much.
My understanding of rocket science was advanced quite a bit by Randall Monroe’s version of the Saturn V rocket. (See the figure “US SPACE TEAM’S UP GOER FIVE,” which shows a portion of this drawing.) Monroe speaks plainly in his drawing, and as a result, I’ve learned where the, “part that flies around the other world and comes back home with the people in it and falls in the water,” sits within the gigantic rocket (or “up goer”) structure. (4)
Rocket science is remarkably complex and an extraordinary degree of precision is required to ensure that things go well. As Randall Monroe’s drawing understates, if the bottom part, “starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space that day.”
Point taken: precision in rocket science is essential to its success and the survival of those who may be either riding in front of the rocket or under it when it comes down. (5)
Conservation and environmental change efforts are extraordinarily complex
In environmental science, the complexity is very high — just like in rocket science — but it may be less well-understood. Think about this: we have been trying to understand the natural world much longer than we have been trying to understand how to make a rocket go to the moon, or Mars, or Venus, but we still have so much to understand about how ecosystems work on our own planet that key questions remain unanswered. Just a few of these important questions include the following:
- We know that we continue to fragment habitat, but there are other ways that we are creating more connections through extensive human travel and channels. What effects do these changes have on species and their evolution?
- We know that species have ranges that allow them healthy space for developing sustainable populations, but what governs how much space they need?
- We know that we are losing species at an alarming rate, but how does species loss affect the extinction risk of other remaining species? (6)
Maybe we do need an Earth version of the Moon Shot effort…
What this means is that if your rocket doesn’t work, you check which physics or mathematical principle you violated. But if your environmental restoration doesn’t work, the principle governing its failure may have not even been studied yet.
Put another way, if you’re a rocket scientist, you have a launch and you know that WHEW! It worked! (Hopefully!) Your years of effort and math magic resulted in a successful trip around the intended heavenly orb. But if you’re an environmental scientist, you have a program launch, and then you continue devoting your time and energy to monitoring and adjustments.
In environmental programs, we can fail and not understand why and we can succeed and not understand how.
As part of my AEA presentation, I created a rough model of how these connections and feedbacks interact and add up to create a particularly complex arrangement for a possible tree-planting project (see the tree gif).
When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco one zillion years ago, I witnessed the tail end of a boom era of Peace Corps tree planting projects. There was money available for planting trees, and people were definitely going to plant them! However, the volunteer cycles (about 2 years) were not long enough to ensure that the trees actually survived. If the community wasn’t super jazzed about the project — jazzed enough to keep watering the trees when the family needed the water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning — the trees didn’t make it.
There were several reasons these tree programs didn’t succeed at the time: community needs and interests, project design and monitoring, and planning for long-term sustainability, among others. The bottom line for this post is that inserting ourselves into the natural system to achieve even the simplest objectives by, for example, planting trees, is bold. In environmental conservation and restoration programs, there are just so many potential rival causes! We must consider not only the human-related factors and interactions that may affect our results but also the ecological complexity.
While complex, conservation requires less precision
The good news (finally!) is that the level of precision required for success in environmental work is generally not as high as that required for rocket success. In fact, we can do damage if we do not allow for variation in our efforts to restore ecosystems and habitats. Trying to be too precise in our efforts can result in recreating systems that don’t actually ebb and flow the way they should. We actually need to allow for a degree of imprecision to let the system reestablish its own rhythms and relationships. And this isn’t just Katie’s opinion, real live conservation scientists agree that we need to allow systems to breathe and adapt on their own so that we do not accidentally create a homogeneous blanket of human-restored patches. (7)
Let’s explore this through an example.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park shows how we can fail and succeed without fully understanding the complexity of a system. (8)
When Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the world in 1872, it may have been a positive innovation in federal government strategy and responsibility, but it was an abysmal change for honoring Native people and managing ecosystems.
The establishment of this park is a very long and sordid tale of remarkably brutal colonization practices by people moving west. In the name of progress, white settlers murdered and drove out Native American groups who had lived in and around this land for more than 11,000 years. It would be a long time before the U.S. government learned the land management lessons of the Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Bannock, and other people who were living in and around the park prior to the government forcibly evicting them in the late 1800s. (9) For our purpose in this specific blog post, the lesson not learned was one of deep ecological connections and cascading consequences and benefits.
After evicting its residents, who had generations of knowledge about the rhythms of the landscape, Park management began pressing on one lever after another in an effort to “manage” the park. This did not go well.
Press on any lever without understanding the system and you will see unintended consequences.
- First, the park encouraged hunting of the grey wolf to extinction within the park’s boundaries so that populations of elk and other desirable hunting targets could flourish. The other predators, like mountain lions, were already on the decline. In the absence of key predators, elk and other ungulates did, indeed, flourish. And this gap in the ecological web led to other dramatic changes in the landscape that the government intended to protect within the park boundaries.
- Next, to address the overgrazing and other ecological consequences of removing this key predator, park managers pressed down on the other side of the seesaw. The park changed direction in the 1930s and started — you guessed it — an elk control program. They reduced the population by 67%. So, mission accomplished? No. Nope. More mission failure.
- At this point in American history, people did not like this bloody strategy, so the Park Service discontinued its elk herd control program in the 1960s, allowing “natural” predation to control elk populations instead. But, we will all recall from like 10 sentences ago that those predators were already virtually eliminated from the park! So as elk flourished again, with the population five times larger in a few decades, the ecosystem changed along with the increased grazing. In dry or otherwise harsh years, elk would starve because there was just not enough forage to go around, leading to huge population fluctuations from year to year. Countless other plant and animal species in the Yellowstone food web were affected, leading to boom and bust cycles throughout the park’s connected ecosystems.
- In the 1990s, the park began reintroducing grey wolves thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Growing needs for bison and elk management supported the decision to reintroduce grey wolves. (Predominantly white hunters had made quick work of eliminating the bison herds in the park boundaries, hunting them nearly to extinction by 1902. But a bison breeding and reintroduction program had been ongoing since the early 1900s, with the first bison reintroduced in the 1950s. Bison populations had been growing while this wolf/elk seesaw continued to move back and forth.) I was in college when this began, and I remember the vitriolic debates between conservation biologists and local cattle farmers about this reintroduction program. Compromises were made, farmers were paid for calves lost to wolves, and the program continued. (10)
Today, 26 years after beginning the wolf reintroduction program, scientists have learned much about how the affected ecosystems function.
It turns out that the annual culling cycles park managers used to control elk oversimplified the complex decisions the wolves themselves would make.
Instead of making the same hunting decisions each year or each season, the reintroduced wolves strategically choose which elk to target based on several factors. In some years, they choose slower, older animals that are easier to catch so they can preserve their energy for other activities. In other years, the wolves target large bulls. As National Geographic explains, “As adaptable, intelligent predators, wolves have learned to recognize these conditions, and [in some years] they would rather kill an undernourished 750-pound bull versus a 450-pound cow. So by targeting bulls during years of scarce food, they give the cows a chance to reproduce, thus keeping the population afloat.” (11)
Isn’t nature impressive?
Scientists studying this reintroduction program have continued learning new lessons about the cascading impacts of the wolf reintroduction program. With elk populations stabilized and healthier, the entire food web in Yellowstone has returned to a cycle that may more closely resemble pre-colonization, with beaver colonies, songbirds, and plant species diversity rebounding. You may remember from grade school that beavers are the engineers of river systems. More beaver colonies mean physical changes to aquatic systems in the park. That also means there are improvements in insect diversity, fish populations, soil chemistry, etc., etc., etc. This is described as a trophic cascade by those studying the process. (12) A “cascade,” should bring to mind a waterfall or a Slinky going down a staircase. (13) The term “trophic” is a way to refer to the ecosystem’s food web. So what they’re saying, and what they’re finding, is that by taking the one (careful) step of reintroducing wolves, a series of related food web interactions is also occurring.
So many aspects of the park ecosystem were affected by eliminating wolves in the first place that we are only learning about all of those relationships decades after the wolves returned. Or as the Park Service themselves put it:
“… the large predators point us toward the true richness, messiness, and subtlety of wild Yellowstone. For a wolf pack, an elk is dinner waiting to happen; for beetles, flies, and many other small animals, the elk is a village waiting to happen.” — U.S. National Park Service (14)
For certain, all is still not known or understood. Conditions outside of the park, climate change impacts, and unknown effects from tourist visits and road on habitat and range add to the complexity of this program. The Park Service will continue monitoring park ecosystems as this program continues to make adjustments along the way. They’ll continue to learn whether and how this most recent intervention in the park’s history has had both the intended and other unintended consequences.
So hold on loosely! And don’t let go… (15)
Our charge, as people trying to save the Earth — or at least preserve our ability to live on it — is to balance our need for more information with the urgency of the task at hand. The good news, people who have actually read this far, is that while our work is undoubtedly complex, we need not fully understand it to make progress. We need to use the best information we have on how to make improvements, and then, like the rangers in Yellowstone, continue paying attention so that we can adjust and adapt our strategies to improve our results.
And this, at its heart, is the purpose of program evaluation. This is why funders require it, this is why Congress established the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.
Environmental program evaluation is the single best way to build knowledge about system complexity and thus environmental success.
- When we get something a bit wrong and we know we got it wrong, we can adjust, adapt, and refine our programs and activities to get it right.
- When we get something right and we try to understand how, we can replicate that success, and teach others to do the same.
The discipline of program evaluation — not unlike the Grateful Dead — can be made remarkably complex. There are very smart thinkers, researchers, and practitioners working to advance program evaluation techniques. But you can also just listen to the music enough to appreciate the grooviness. (16)
What we need to do, and what program evaluation helps us to do, is to keep a safe watch on our work and adapt from what we learn so that we can continuously improve our success. Luckily for us, the level of precision needed to succeed in an environmental program is not quite as exacting as in rocket science. The point of this whole post is that we do not need to understand everything to accomplish some good, and in fact, if we cling too tightly, we could actually lose control. (17)
Yes: the stakes are high. We are in an unprecedented, human-made, planet-affecting crisis, and we need to make huge progress quickly. But our version of quickly is on the order of years, not milliseconds.
Just as the rocket scientist’s work may someday help their descendants reach the stars, our work will someday help our descendants stay safely and sustainably on Earth, the only planet where we know we can make it.
Let’s keep at it.
NOTES & REFERENCES:
(1) Game, Edward T., Erik Meijaard, Douglas Sheil, and Eve McDonald-Madden. “Conservation in a Wicked Complex World; Challenges and Solutions.” Conservation Letters 7, no. 3 (2014): 271–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12050.
(2) In this post, I’m thinking about ecology-focused programs, not other environmental programs, like regulatory policy programs, that live almost wholly in the human-controlled world.
(3) I am a huge fan of science fiction, and so it will be no surprise to the reader that I’m also a fan of the space program. I know there are many problems with it in terms of opportunity cost, environmental harm, and the military-industrial complex. I know. But there’s also Battlestar Galactica to consider… But I’ve digressed.
(4) If you don’t yet have it, please go buy Monroe’s book, The Thing Explainer. It is a masterful example of how to describe complicated concepts using everyday terms. He explains not only rockets, but also geology, home appliances, space, computers, and more using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. There is also a Chinese version! I don’t know Chinese, but I bet that is also awesome and as good a language-learning tool as the English version. I do not know Monroe and have no financial relationship with this book. I do have an emotional relationship with the book, so I seriously mean it: you or someone you love probably need this book.
(5) If you want to see how you can do at explaining something complex using the 1,000 most common English words, you can try it out here https://splasho.com/upgoer5/
(6) For excellent discussions about things we still do not know, see Sutherland, William J., Robert P. Freckleton, H. Charles J. Godfray, Steven R. Beissinger, Tim Benton, Duncan D. Cameron, Yohay Carmel, et al. “Identification of 100 Fundamental Ecological Questions.” Journal of Ecology 101, no. 1 (2013): 58–67. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.12025 and Unsolved Problems in Ecology, 2020. https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691199825/unsolved-problems-in-ecology.
(7) Hiers, J. Kevin, Stephen T. Jackson, Richard J. Hobbs, Emily S. Bernhardt, and Leonie E. Valentine. “The Precision Problem in Conservation and Restoration.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 31, no. 11 (November 1, 2016): 820–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2016.08.001.
(8) “Cycles and Processes — Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/cycles-and-processes.htm.
(9) Magazine, Smithsonian, and Richard Grant Geiger Andrew. “The Lost History of Yellowstone.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lost-history-yellowstone-180976518/.
(10) Associated Press. October 13, 1995. “Wildlife Group Pays For Cattle Lost To Wolves | The Spokesman-Review.” Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.spokesman.com/stories/1995/oct/13/wildlife-group-pays-for-cattle-lost-to-wolves/.
(11) Peterson, Christine. National Geographic. “25 Years after Returning to Yellowstone, Wolves Have Helped Stabilize the Ecosystem,” July 10, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/yellowstone-wolves-reintroduction-helped-stabilize-ecosystem.
(12) Ripple, William J., and Robert L. Beschta. “Trophic Cascades in Yellowstone: The First 15 years after Wolf Reintroduction.” Biological Conservation 145, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 205–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2011.11.005.
(13) Did that ever work for you? Mine always flopped over and just rolled like a wobbly log…
(14) U.S. National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/cycles-and-processes.htm accessed on December13, 2021.
(15) OMG I teased this veritable LECTURE of a blog post with 38 Special and I waited this long to introduce why! Crime. Lock me up. Apologies, friends. And this is as deep as this gets into 38 Special. Though if the memory left you wanting more, here you go. If it didn’t leave you wanting more, my apologies to your brain tomorrow morning… “If you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
(16) Working on it…
(17) Wrote that with a totally straight face.