Category: Social Science

New Survey Methods Bring Greater Speed and New Issues

Using tablet computers for social surveys makes this key method quicker and more affordable, but researchers should be wary of potential new issues.

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People and Nature: Announcing Our New Social Scientists

To solve today’s conservation problems, we need multi-disciplinary scientists who can look at how nature impacts people. Enter The Nature Conservancy’s 3 new social scientists, who will be working on the front lines of conservation for the benefit of people.

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Book Week: ‘Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’

Nature Conservancy senior social scientist Craig Leisher reviews “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

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Conservation Future: Announcing the 2013 NatureNet Fellows

Nine young scientists — with specialties ranging from energy infrastructure to urban ecology, Kenyan pastoral techniques to nanotechnology — inaugurate a program designed to help kick-start conservation toward addressing the challenges facing people and nature in the 21st century.

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Mind the Gap: Shattering the Glass Ceiling and Cinderella’s Slipper

Most media regarding women in the workplace tend to emphasize individual choices women ought to make to improve their own lots and ignore very real cultural limitations and institutional practices that, over time, hold women back. Plus, they are almost always limited to the perspective of white women who are citizens of the U.S., with advanced educations and socioeconomic status. This happens to be my perspective, and I find it tiresome to listen to us argue with one another when many women in the world would love to have our “problems.” So as a general rule, I tend to ignore these discussions altogether and stay occupied with my own small universe of responsibilities.

But is my attitude part of a problem?

I’m now asking myself this question because I was sucked in by the media blitz surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. My science brain was set off by the discussions of behavioral cues and how humans — men and women, as individuals and collectively — respond to them. Humans are nothing if not adaptable, and women can be particularly adept at adapting to real or perceived barriers. I bought the book.

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Long Island’s Elephant in the Room: Nitrogen Pollution

“How about we initiate a ‘poop at work’ campaign?”

My colleague Carl was kidding about how to improve water quality on Long Island, but his joke went right to the heart of the problem. Many Long Island residents commute to New York City for work every day. Carl’s idea would solve the problem that we are grappling with on Long Island, as are many estuaries around the world: There is too much nitrogen in coastal waters and much of it is coming from inadequately treated human waste.

Social science research the Conservancy has carried out tells us that the average person living on Long Island cares deeply about clean water, whether it is to swim or fish in, or live near, or it is clean, freshwater we drink. Our social science research also tells us that the average Long Islander does not know:

  • where their drinking water comes from (answer: groundwater);
  • where their waste goes when they flush the toilet (answer: mostly septic systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen, or sewage treatment plants in the more urbanized areas); and
  • that nitrogen from human waste, fertilizer and burning fossil fuels are polluting Long Island bays and harbors.

And if we do not tackle nitrogen and nutrient pollution on Long Island, our work could fail.

The Conservancy on Long Island has a long-standing marine program focused on estuarine restoration and coastal climate change resilience and adaptation. And by many counts we have been successful. We re-directed land acquisition to better protect estuaries. We acquired 13,500 acres of underwater land and transplanted over 7 million clams in over 100 sanctuaries. We supported science and policy to protect and restore seagrass, and we developed a network of monitoring sites to determine whether salt marshes are keeping pace with sea level rise.

Yet the ultimate success of all these projects hinges on nitrogen: Excessive nitrogen loading will impede our efforts over the long-term.

Why? Because regardless of the millions of hard clams returned to Great South Bay, it suffers from harmful algal blooms hampering the growth and adequate recruitment of bivalves. Regardless of the availability of land to which salt marsh can migrate, excessive nitrogen loading is a key driver of marsh loss. Regardless of successful passage of legislation we crafted to protect seagrass, science has found that impacts from excessive nitrogen and warming sea temperatures together inhibit seagrass growth and expansion even when physical impacts are limited.

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Fish and Chimps

Chimpanzees don’t eat fish. They don’t even swim. But at Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, scientists have found that to save chimps, they must look underwater.

That’s because here, everything—people, fish, water, forest, and chimps—is interconnected. Attempting to conserve the apes without accounting for the health of the fishery that provides food and income for local people would doom these efforts.

Today, fish supplies are dwindling, villages are growing fast and chimps are getting squeezed into smaller and smaller forests.

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Review: When Conservation is Successful (Too Successful)

Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness. By Al Cambronne. Lyons Press, 2013. 264 pages.

Last week’s wildlife news brought a familiar parade of depressing subjects: Poachers killed more rhinos, this time at Ol Pejeta Ranch, a reserve specifically fenced and fortified to protect the animals from this fate. Seventy percent of forest elephants have been killed  in the past ten years, and conservationists are finding gruesome scenes of slaughtered herds. And on, and on.

Then a completely different wildlife story came across my desk,  Al Cambronne’s well-reported Deerland. In contrast to the stories of rhinos and forest elephants, Cambronne’s book is about a seemingly hopeless wildlife situation that turned into a wildly successful conservation story.

Perhaps, as it turns out, too successful.

Deerland is about the white-tailed deer, yet another of those North American species that we take for granted today, forgetting a century ago the species was facing similar perils to orangutans today.

Whitetails were slaughtered for their hides and meat. Their forest habitat was logged and leveled. Deer, it appeared, were on their way out.

However, white-tailed deer were more adaptable than many conservationists believed. Given legal protection and effective law enforcement, together with the reforestation of logged habitat, deer populations began rebounding.

And thrived: Today there are more than 100 times more whitetails than a century ago. Think we can’t save declining large wildlife species? Maybe we should look to the whitetail.

Conservationists today are fond of talking about building constituencies. Cambronne argues that no wildlife species has a more effective constituency than the whitetail: an active force of advocates in the form of deer hunters, deer feeders and people who just love having large animals around.

And what about science? White-tailed deer are arguably the most studied wildlife species on the planet, with more 3,260 peer-reviewed papers published on the species between 1985 and 2010.

Policy, constituency, science, measurable success: Everything conservation needs, all working exactly as planned.

And yet, as Cambronne vividly portrays, the white-tailed deer conservation effort has become too much of a good thing, creating a host of new problems in its wake.

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How to Measure Human Well-Being in a Conservation Project

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Why and How Conservation Needs to Tackle Human Well-Being: A Conservation with Heather Tallis

Bob Lalasz directs science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Can conservation make a decisive and systematic contribution to solving social problems and improving the lives of people — especially the world’s poor?

Finding out is Heather Tallis’s job: As a new lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy in charge of the Conservancy’s new Human Dimensions Program, it’s her task to bring “people metrics” to assess the impact of the Conservancy’s work on the ground on people. She’s also charged with integrating innovative economics and social science into the organization’s field work in a way that builds conservation methods and tools that can benefit everyone.

The challenges are many — among them, getting those metrics right (something conservation has struggled to do); designing conservation from the ground up to impact people positively; and helping  policymakers and other decision-makers to recognize the value of conservation for answering many of the big questions facing the planet.

I sat down with Tallis to talk about where she and the Human Dimension Program will begin addressing those challenges:

Why does conservation need an initiative to attack human well-being head-on?

HT: Well, I like the way the folks from the Stockholm Resilience Center say it: “There are no natural systems without people, nor social systems without nature.” This is our reality, especially as the Conservancy moves to thinking about and managing whole ecological systems.

But this is obviously not the way most people see the world, so our personal decisions, our political ideas and our management process are out of synch with this reality. The next 20-30 years will see dramatic change in the face of the planet — and what lives on it or doesn’t — as society decides how to double food production, build hundreds of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and create more megacities.

Conservation needs to be in those decisions. And we won’t get past the door unless we know and can describe what nature has to do with major social problems, and how nature can contribute to human well-being solutions.

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Salmon Cam Returns

We’re pleased to return Salmon Cam, a live view of spawning Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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Creating a Climate-Smart Agriculture
Can farmers globally both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change? A new paper answers with a definitive yes. But it won't be easy.

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