Bureaucracy and Conservation Don’t Mix?

COSEWIC, or the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, determines annually the status of animals at risk, and provides the federal government with information about how to enact consequent conservation policies. Part of this entails the compilation of a list of animals strongly in need of the protection measures provided by SARA, or the Species at Risk Act (the Canadian version of the Endangered Species Act).

Dr. Festa-Bianchet is a biologist at the Université de Sherbrooke and a chair of COSEWIC. During his most recent seminar at McGill, he was wearing his professor hat rather than his more diplomatic COSEWIC hat, and thus he was able to be a bit more honest with his opinions. Festa-Bianchet briefly described COSEWIC’s mandate and composition before charting a critique of the ways in which the federal government makes decisions about which animals get on and which ones are left off “the list.”

Of the frustrations Festa-Bianchet described, I saw two central hurdles: bureaucracy and economics. He outlined three conspicuous hypocrisies or negligence(s) on the part of the federal government. One: all marine fish are left off the list; despite severe declines in population, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will not sponsor the conservation of any species upon which people depend for economic livelihood. Second: any animal which Nunavut posits as endangered does not make the grade for conservation; this is because of sovereignty issues between the territory and the nation-state. This has strong implications for species such as polar bears. Third: once COSEWIC’s annual suggestion list is given to the federal government, there is no time-frame in which the government must act upon the information. If the government then waits ten years, their inevitable argument is that information from COSEWIC needs updating before anything can be done. And the cycle continues.

Sociologist Max Weber saw bureaucracy as inseparable from rationality. He emphasized that bureaucratic organizations were an attempt to address problems of size (or population) with rational solutions, to make it possible to conduct the business of the organization “according to calculable rules.” It seems the logistics of government conservation policies still operate in this vein. Festa-Bianchet’s exasperation with this bureaucracy was evident throughout his seminar, despite attempts to mute it. Obviously, the rationality behind COSEWIC does not match that of the federal government’s.

This seminar and subsequent discussions generated several questions about science methodology and objectivity. Publications on the decline of marine fish populations, for example, vary from one extreme to the other, depending on who the authors are, and for whom they are writing. People working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans likely have different professional opinions from more independent ichthyologists who are part of COSEWIC. This reiterates the entrenched notion that, despite best intentions, science can be political and biased; individual worldviews inevitably enter the picture at some point.

4 Responses to “Bureaucracy and Conservation Don’t Mix?”

  1. merle says:

    The reference to Weber is quite interesting in this context, since Weber is also the precursor of what is now known as the critique of the technical reason. Basically, technical reason is the ability to categorize different things, to quantify them and most importantly to find the most efficient means to attain an end. The problem Weber, which was later on diagnosed in more depth by the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, is that in our societies the technical reason is more and more seen as the only kind of reasoning there is. The problem is hence not with technical reason per se, but with its hegemony. Since it reasons within a means-ends framework without reasoning about ends (aside as being themselves means toward something else), it tends to take its own efficiency as an end in itself. It therefore strives toward more efficiency for more efficiency, without ever asking itself where it is going, what is efficiency for. Against a purely bureaucratic process managing this striving toward efficiency, one might wonder where the discussion about “ends” (or values?) will take place and how it can compete with a global system aiming at efficiency for efficiency, growth for growth, etc.?

  2. Culture Kid says:

    Is the technical reasoning you outline synonymous with technological optimism? It seems technological optimism has spread its hegemonic wings from developed countries to developing, from the global North to the global South, and to transnational or global civil society institutions, as the only kind of reasoning there is to use when looking at ideas of conservation and sustainability or sustainable development. In a world of depleting non-renewable resources, technology thus becomes the means to the end, and, by extension, the end itself, to saving and encompassing the world. Over-reliance on innovation reminds me of Homer-Dixon’s cynical comment that “innovation is becoming the new sustainability.” Technical reason, as far as I understand it (and I may be missing an important piece of the puzzle here) is strongly reminiscent or essentially equal to technological determinism. Thus I wonder how Weber would respond to the ways in which his paradigm of modernity and critique of its characteristics have entered into the realm of national and international environmental policy-making. Any ideas?

  3. merle says:

    I think that there is an interesting connection between technological optimism and technical reasoning, but that they are not identical. Technical reasoning is, as the term implies, a kind of reasoning that (at least) purports to be neutral about the ‘power’ of reason to solve problems, while technological optimism is not. The latter state that whatever problems we got ourselves into can be solved by developing new technology, even if new problems arise with every new technology. The belief, in a sense, is that the innovations will always be a step ahead of the problems they cause. Thus, if we don’t stop innovating, we will never be caught into unsolvable problems and we will never really have to face (or suffer form) these problems.
    Where technological optimism cross technical reasoning in its hegemonic form is if it does not reflect on the ends for which it provides the means. Why do we develop technology? Do we think that developing technology is good in itself or do we develop it for some other ends? If so, which ends are these and are we still moving toward these ends with the kind of technology we are now developing or are we in fact regressing? Are we to a point where we develop technology just to try to solve or diminish the problems created by earlier technology? If so, is technology the right ‘tool’ for achieving these ends? Those are the kind of questions, I think, a technological optimist merely technically reasoning will not be asking.
    The other way around, it could well be the case that technical reasoning, to become hegemonic by suppressing the reasoning about ends/value (as being, for instance, subjective, not scientific, not rigorous, not quantifiable, not relevant, etc.), needs or presupposes technological optimism. If we think that technological innovations are the key to solve all problems, then pursuing technological innovations for innovations sake can be seen is an end in itself. But even there, the reasoning misses one premise, that, for instance, a life without problem is an end in itself: life without problems is the end, technological innovations are the mean, therefore we should seek technological innovations. In other words, technological optimism can hide the need for reasoning about ends and hence promote the illusion that technical reasoning is only kind of reasoning we need, but, I think, it does remain an illusion.