Towards an ecology of belief: The limits of science for preserving public parks

 The following guest article was written by Will La Page, author of the new book "Rethinking Park Protection: Treading the Uncommon Ground of Environmental Beliefs", which has just been published by CABI. It describes the inspiration for the book and for the thinking behind it.

Park protection coverA small group of park scientists friends were sitting around the dining table at our home in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the mid-1990's digesting dinner along with a comment my wife, Susan Cockrell a long-time wildlife activist, had made about the growing public outcry over the state's wildlife management policies. One of the scientists, obviously experiencing some discomfort with the meal or the topic or perhaps both, in an outburst of emotion revealed his frustration with the public's resources being managed by the subjective passions of poorly-informed citizens and their biased beliefs. No amount of cajoling this purely objective scientist could get him to reconsider; not the fact that the public owns the resources, and has a right to be involved in policy-making; not the fact that other biased belief systems have wildlife managers firmly in their grasp; nor even the fact that science is, itself, a human belief system, approaching if not exceeding that of the most dogmatic religion.

That discussion, while not changing the beliefs of anyone at our table, profoundly influenced my wife's and my own outlook on the nature of science and the science of nature. Shortly thereafter, Susan published a pioneering article in the Wildlife Society Bulletin on crusader activists and wildlife management policy. My own fascination with subjective and objective approaches to our resources took much longer to evolve. Over the next decade and a half, on a somewhat intermittent basis, I explored the fascinating world of the power of belief, both in general and with respect to parks specifically. Not surprisingly, the scientific community has had little to offer on the subject. To say that science has scrupulously avoided the study of beliefs would be an overstatement. But, to argue that beliefs should be seen as an incredibly complex and exciting new frontier for science just as clearly understates the enormous potential for the objective analysis of our subjective ability to believe, a trait that has driven humans to make war on themselves and their planet since time immemorial.

Since that dinner discussion those many years ago, I have collected a large number of truths about the intersection of science, emotion and public parks. Here are a few from the dozens in the book:

  • Science has yet to build its first public park. Parks are not the brainchildren of science, they are the love children of passion and belief.
  • Among today's thousands of park friends groups who share a common concern for, and belief in, public parks, there is not one group of concerned scientists for parks.
  • The very problems that afflicted our parks half-a-century ago remain with us today, despite unprecedented investments in park research made in the belief that science would find answers.
  • And, despite the millions invested in documenting the value of parks to the economy and to society, parks are still regarded as "non-essential public services" to be closed at will, in the world of public policy.
  • And, despite millions more spent on determining the load we can place on our public parks without incurring permanent damage, management by carrying capacity remains an illusive goal.

Given these hard facts about the soft science of parks, it would be easy to suggest that science has failed. But, it would be wrong. In fact, the "failures" of science, if any, are miniscule compared to the failures of our so-called beliefs during this same era. Given the huge range of beliefs buttressing the concept of Parks for Life (1), our endemic neglect of parks seems unimaginable. We have generally failed to believe that parks should be models of state-of-the-art environmental management and bellwethers of environmental change. We've also failed to convert our belief that parks are incubators of our individual and collective pride into actions that would negate arbitrary closures. How massive is our failure to live up to our belief in parks as vital sources of inspiration, personal health, and community vigor? In handing off the costs of deferred park maintenance to our grandchildren what have we said about our beliefs in stewardship, in legacy, in tomorrow, in ourselves, and in the efficacy of government? Just as Bruce Lipton (2) demonstrates the biology of belief (fear kills!), Rethinking Park Preservation advances an ecology of belief, a connecting symbiosis of beliefs and believers, that makes parks-for-life an exciting future for the park movement.

It is admittedly late in the day, the losses have been great. In fact, we may never know some of them because we have largely failed to believe in the necessity for inventorying and monitoring the assets our parks were intended to preserve. But, it's not too late to begin. "Where to begin?" is the question. Rethinking Park Protection argues that the only place to begin is with ourselves. Understanding the origins, complexity, and dynamics of our own belief systems is fundamental to an appreciation of the swarm of beliefs that confront us and challenge us every day of our lives. The belief systems of those who oppose public parks, oppose funding for parks, and oppose expansion of parks, are enormously robust and persuasive. They have to be. How else are we to explain the marginalization of our parks-public assets that so obviously complement every facet of modern life, and have been extensively proven through careful research?

Rethinking Park Protection insists that neither science nor government are the answers, but that a greater understanding of our beliefs might be. In order for that to happen we need to become far more candid in putting our organizational beliefs and our scientific beliefs out for public scrutiny. Believing in peer reviews of science, or of management, seems well founded, however, believing in the anonymity of those reviews may be decidedly out of step with the times. Few would argue that deferred maintenance is a flagrant abdication of stewardship, and yet we have come to believe it to be an acceptable norm of park management. We tend to believe that elected officials should have the right to appoint their choices to key positions overseeing parks. But, shouldn't we enjoy the benefit of knowing the beliefs of those candidates regarding park preservation?

The need to believe is an engine that powers us toward our goals. Take away belief in one's self and in the value of one's work, and no amount of science can fill the void. Belief is the foundation of our monetary systems. Belief in science got us to the moon. Belief gets politicians elected. Belief may well be the most powerful tool we have, so how do we countenance knowing so little about it? Without the power of belief we would have no public parks. Take away the belief that we can do a better job of public stewardship of those lands, and we never will. Belief is, indeed, what got us here. And belief is what will move us on.

The simple truth is that the preservation of our parklands is not a battle that can be handed off for others to fight. It is not the scientists' fight. It is not bureaucracy's fight. Not only are both loathe to fight, it is a battle of passionate beliefs. By nature, and by definition, bureaucracy must be neutral, and science must be objective. The bottom line for the rest of society is that we either believe in the necessity for parks or we do not. Given the threats facing public parks today, it is time to take a serious look at the full meaning and consequences of our park beliefs.

Will La Page

References:
(1) La Page, W. 2007. Parks for Life. 210 pages. Venture Publishing. State College, PA USA.
(2) Lipton, B. 2005. The Biology of Belief. 225 Pages. Mountain of Love. Santa Rosa, CA. USA.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A widely recognized park scientist, poet, and administrator, Will La Page draws on a half-century of working to align today's park policy with the vision that created our public parks. Recipient of the first Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Award for distinguished park science, in 1981, he moved from science to management, becoming the fifth director of New Hampshire state parks and historic sites. Will has also taught park policy at several universities, and has been a poet in residence at three national parks. A member of President Reagan's Commission on Americans Outdoors, Will has worked with the US State Department and USAID on national park assistance projects in Bulgaria, El Salvador, and Jamaica.

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