By Marc Bekoff and Gay Bradshaw
There are few more timely and pressing needs than to reconcile humans' relationship with nature. Thus, environmental and ecological sciences are trying hard to reintegrate humans back into nature. These branches of science are becoming increasingly embedded in society and its numerous social agendas, and the interrelationships and interdependence between humans and nature have become the primary drivers of much ecological research.
Integrating natural and human sciences stems from the recognition that many issues (pollution, land-use, biodiversity, conservation, overpopulation) dominating society today involve linking social and ecological approaches. Because of growing interest in integrating humans and nature, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from schools of ecology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, Native American science, environmental education and philosophy gathered at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif., to discuss recent changes in how the human-nature boundary is perceived and implications for the future.
Discussions of the human-nature relationship include debates on science itself: How can scientists and science contribute most to helping the plight of the natural world and how does science define and influence our perceptions of humans and nature? Clearly, if the science community intends to serve humanity, it must change its perceptions. Specifically, ecologists and social scientists alike supported the need to recognize science as a social process laden with cultural assumptions. One of the chief barriers to integrating natural and human sciences rises from the insistence by many natural scientists that science is "value-free" or objective. However, accumulating evidence supports the idea that science is not
value free and that there are political, economical and personal agendas and also many valid "ways of knowing" (e.g., Western science, native science, individual experience), none of which is dispensable.
Without such recognition, current science will be unable to address the numerous complex issues that characterize most current research programs, such as sustainability, ecological restoration, genetically modified organisms, biocomplexity. Foresight also is needed. In their interactions with nature, humans have, for the most part, been reactive rather than proactive. We redefine, rekindle and reinvestigate our relationships with nature, re-engage and reconnect with nature, reset boundaries, revisit important problems, regain sensitivity to the planet's problems, try to restore or recreate ecosystems, reintroduce species, recover lost or dwindling resources and reconcile with nature.
It is well and good that we want to reintegrate humans with nature, but in the future proactivity must prevail, for time is not on our side. To foster the development of proactive solutions, our working group developed a "declaration of independence" to offer a view of what socially responsible science would look like and to suggest ways for reintegrating humans and nature. The declaration stressed that science is social knowledge and as such demands that the scientific community not restrict research, ways of knowing, citizen inclusion and respect for non-human animals.
Ecology and environmental sciences are interdisciplinary efforts in which cooperation among diverse sciences, the humanities and human cultures is necessary if we are to make progress in solving the difficult problems at hand. Researchers are accountable not only to funding institutions but also to society, and nature. Knowledge must be used responsibly in the service of life. Nowadays, researchers in traditionally separate fields are increasingly engaging in productive collaborations.
Many universities, including local schools, support interdisciplinary programs bringing together natural and social scientists. The challenges are difficult and complex, but the collective bodies of knowledge available to science can create an effective group of people responsive to pressing social-ecological issues. Dedicated efforts to reintegrate social and natural sciences have the potential to bring definition and meaning to achieving sustainable and ethical relationships with nature. Science is
well equipped to take this lead.
The new social contract between science and society must be characterized by two-way dialogue - science to society and society to science. Non-scientists must be encouraged and permitted to ask difficult questions of scientists, and scientists need to be aware of their responsibility for engaging in public discussions. Scientists have numerous and deep social responsibilities. Undoubtedly, human communities, animal communities and the environment will benefit greatly both from interdisciplinary research and open discussions among scientists and non-scientists. This is a wonderful opportunity to set a workable agenda for a more promising future.