The Technological Fix

(Originally posted as guest moderator at America's Wild Read)

George Perkins Marsh is primarily known today for his 1864 book, Man and Nature, which is widely credited with ushering the idea of conservation into the national discourse. Seven years earlier, though, Marsh wrote a state-commissioned report on the decline of Vermont’s fisheries that previewed many of the same themes.

In this fascinating document, Marsh drew a connection between the loss of fishing opportunities, “duller,” and “more effeminate,” American men, and a threat to “our rights and our liberties.”

Industrialization, logging, and overfishing had initiated the problem. However, “The unfavorable influences which have been alluded to are, for the most part, of a kind which cannot be removed or controlled,” he wrote. “We cannot destroy our dams, or provide artificial water-ways for the migration of fish, which shall fully supply the place of the natural channels; we cannot wholly prevent the discharge of deleterious substances from our industrial establishments into our running waters.”

What to do? Marsh advised artificially propagating and stocking fish into the public waterways. Boys would go fishing again. Democracy would be safe.

Flash forward to the present day. After hearing me talk about the ecological impacts of fish stocking, people often describe the joy they found as children fishing for what they now realize were probably hatchery rainbows. They connect these experiences to their present love of the out-of-doors and the natural world. And they propose that if stocking fish creates a constituency for such things, perhaps it’s worth any harm it may cause, especially in ecosystems that have already been so dramatically altered by humans.

Perhaps. But I think we should also consider what happens when we try to solve our problems with a technological fix rather than addressing the root of the problem.

On the one hand, history has shown the effectiveness of the technological approach over and over again. For just one example, take the famous 1980 bet between ecologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich believed that overpopulation and overconsumption would lead to a catastrophic depletion of resources unless we tackled both. Simon countered that human ingenuity would mitigate any scarcity issues. They agreed to use the price of certain commodities as an indicator, with Ehrlich betting prices on these items would rise over the next ten years, Simon that they would decline.

Simon won.

On the other hand, there may be some things that can’t be measured by such simple proxies. Fisheries biologist Ray Hilborn laments that the public in the Pacific Northwest seems to believe that the region’s salmon runs depend entirely on hatcheries. “This belief is particularly pernicious because it inexorably leads to the acceptance of hatcheries as a mitigative measure for further habitat loss and dam construction,” he concludes (full article here).

And when I was researching this book, I had the opportunity to talk to long-time Montana fisheries manager Dick Vincent. He believes that his state’s decision to eliminate most fish stocking has generated an unparalleled river conservation ethic. Because the technological fix is off the table, he maintains, Montanans fight like no others to conserve such things as clean water and spawning habitat.

I’m not a purist, and I don’t have the answers. But I do believe that relying on technological fixes for things like fisheries management can have widespread ripple effects. I wonder, for example, whether our unwillingness to address the root causes of climate change can in some small way be traced back to a hatchery rainbow stocked many years ago to mitigate the effects of a dam.

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