What did we know…and when did we know it?

When you live near Washington, DC (a.k.a. the Land of Accusations) and in the early 21st-century (a.k.a. the Age of Accusations) one question you often hear mooted, just before the charges and indictments begin to fly, is “What did he (insert your favorite whipping boy) know and when did he know it?”

For me personally, some of the secondhand stuff I “know” comes from the pages of The Economist. It’s dense reading, and arrives weekly, relentlessly. As a result, I’m usually running behind and learn much of its content only belatedly. That’s why we’re starting only today with two stories from the science section of last week’s issue: Pollinators: variety is the spice of life and Marine Biology: finding Nemo’s role.

Both articles are worth the read. They’re short. Neither requires much time. The first reports on an international study, spanning nineteen countries, and some 40 crops, ranging from kiwi fruit to coffee, and a finding that pollination by varieties of wild insects… bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, etc… is more successful than pollination by managed honeybees. The second finds that clownfish aid the anemones they frequent not just by eating predators that would otherwise chew on the anemones but also by oxygenating them.

Who knew?

Research such as this reminds us that the question “What did he know and when did he know it?” can apply not just to individuals but also to entire societies. Here’s an example. Based on U.S. experience, we know today that building dams on watersheds as an approach to realizing many societal goals such as managing floods, generating hydropower, etc. carries unintended consequences. [See, for example,  The infrastructure spending we sorely need or  Dam, dam, dam, dam… from this blog and the links therein.] As a result, our national enthusiasm for such infrastructure, dating back a century, has dimmed somewhat. But suppose we’d known back then what we know today? We might well have not built many of those dams. We might have saved ourselves a lot of difficulties we now face trying to maintain ecosystems that had once thrived on the unmanaged rivers. We might have been quicker to identify more effective and sustainable strategies for coping with riverine hazards and benefits. We might be achieving many of the ecosystem services, tourism and recreational and other economic benefits afforded by floodplains. We might not be experiencing repetitive flood losses. Similar statements apply to our coastal zone management nationwide. Think of how different the impacts of Katrina and Sandy would have been if for the previous century we’d valued undeveloped coastlines, and we’d located our coastal businesses and residences a little (not really that much!) deeper inland.

The conclusion from all this is that we can never know all the ins and outs of Earth- and related natural sciences soon enough or well enough. Investments in Earth observations of every stripe, and the related R&D, aggregate to no more than say $15-20B/year of a $3T/year federal budget. Yet they’re essential to building the knowledge and understanding needed to anticipate the consequences of our decisions and actions in agribusiness, energy development, water resource management, and transportation that may sum to as much as 10-20% of GDP… consequences that may be beyond price.

We’re nowhere near the end of understanding how clownfish interact with anemones. Our understanding of pollination and how it occurs in natural and managed ecosystems is embryonic. Yet both these studies, by themselves, tell us a bit more about what ecosystems need and what’s involved in managing and protecting them. The concern? They’re no more than hints. And they are but two reductionist studies of a far larger universe of ecological and geophysical work that urgently needs doing as seven billion people move into the future and irreversibly impact the planet.

A colleague in our office has ventured (with considerable oversimplification) that as a group, economists are relatively unconcerned with climate change because they see most of the impacts as ameliorated in part by possibilities for substitution (e.g., a hotter world just calls for a bit more air-conditioning). By contrast, he suggests, ecologists see climate change as a catastrophe because they’re the ones learning about these sensitive interdependences of all flora and fauna, and contributions of biodiversity to the ecosystem function and services we enjoy today (some economists of course explore this space as well), and realize how disruptive climate change can be to these natural processes. [According to my colleague, physical scientists are somewhere in the middle.]

We cluck our tongues as meteorologists struggle with uncertainties in their forecasts (“snow-quester” or “no-quester”?), but by comparison, the uncertainties in ecology are immense. At the one end… are our ecosystems so fragile that the slightest disruption compromises them forever? Or is the opposite true? Do they typically embody so many redundancies and compensating mechanisms as to be insensitive to climate variation and other changes? It’s likely the answer varies from ecosystem to ecosystem, and question to question. Some of all of this is going on, in different ecosystems, in different places, with different consequences. But the simple truth is we don’t know.

It behooves us to be less vague. That requires more investment in science. Will we keep learning what we need to know only in hindsight? Or will we get better at seeing consequences of our decisions and actions in advance… before bad things happen?

The issue really is:

What will we know, and when will we know it?

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