Exploring Botkin’s Book: Bring Your Stories and Your Right Brain

This is not the Chapter 4 post I promised but will post this weekend, with Chapter 5 right behind it.

Rather, it is a bit of a reflection on the discussion that Guy started here, which started me back to talk about what I thought we might do with book club. What Botkin sees as some kind of philosophical disconnect is, perhaps, a journey of discovery (to echo one of his other books) into the right brain, into the complexities of our thinking and feeling. So when I read this book, I saw the repetition as leading to rumination and calling forth from us something deeper and intuitive, which we could learn through right-brained activities like story-telling and personal experiences. Botkin shies away from theology; but I am a theology student and John a theology graduate. So, indeed, we, here in Book Club, are positioned to go deeper.

So when people say things like “it’s too repetitive”, I think that you could say the same thing about many books. That’s not the question, in my mind, ..I’m interested in what the book calls forth from you. If you don’t want to read it because it’s too repetitive, that’s fine. The book struck me as something for sitting down and meditating, a kind of non-spiritual Lectio Divina.
But, of course, I never really explained that, and it was only when I read the discussion that started with Guy’s post did I realize that I had never made those points very clearly.

Another critique that came up is “Botkin is too self-confident” or something along those lines. Indeed, we could argue his personal virtues or lack of them all day. But that’s what’s called an Ad hominem argument (see this Wikipedia entry).

Now I don’t expect any of us to necessarily know that. I went into forestry (probably like many of us) to provide for my family, and philosophy (and learning how to construct arguments) was not required. Indeed, when I taught Environmental Ethics, I found that the natural resources mind seems generally more aligned to practicality than to philosophy.

I should point out that Botkin was on the USDA Advisory Committee for Agricultural Biotechnology and made many valuable contributions (my only successful effort at getting someone on a FACA committee). And who among us is not irritating in some way? I’m not casting any stones.

As Bob Zybach said in the comments, the point that Botkin was making was not that ecologists don’t know about dynamics. The point Botkin was making was that some of them don’t behave as if they do, especially when it comes to public policy.

In Botkin’s own words, page xii, of the Introduction, he says

“If you ask ecologists whether nature is constant, they will always say “of course not”. But if you ask them to write down a policy for biological conservation or environmental management, they will almost always write down a steady-state solution.”

I don’t think the review Guy mentions here addresses that. In fact, the author seems to blame “applied” ecologists and natural resource managers for not keeping up with the “pure” ecologists. I get the feeling he doesn’t understand what Botkin is really saying, nor the problem he identifies in the paragraph above. But that’s fine because it won’t be hard for us to find examples. Then we can observe them and determine what kinds of scientists are doing this; they might be “applied” ecologists or not ecologists at all. But I learned something I had never heard before from this review…

Second, Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]).
Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.

But that’s probably a topic for the NCFP blog. I was pretty surprised when I read the author’s biosketch here, because it seems like his research tends to be about real critters and their diversity, and not necessarily theoretical models. So not that different from applied people, nor from people who are in Book Club. More fodder for rumination.

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