Dust storm, Paradise Waters, City of Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. Image credit: Michael Dawes/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

The Real Precautionary Principle for Conservation

by Daniel Schindler

Conservation has never been more important. From its historical roots in concern for charismatic species and pristine landscapes, it has grown substantially to now consider the sustainability of societies, and the health and welfare of humans. This maturation of conservation science, though still in progress, is simply revolutionary.

Conservation has also grown increasingly reliant on science for developing strategies to achieve its goals. Most prominent conservation organizations proudly proclaim that their efforts are based in cutting-edge science. And conservation’s embrace of science has been paralleled by a distinct change in attitudes among ecologists — who have become more likely to publicize their work in conservation than to dismiss applied issues as distracting from the progress of science.

The power of a science is often judged in its ability for prediction. Indeed, there are increasing calls for ecologists to improve forecasts of the future states of ecosystems, under the belief that these will illuminate paths towards sustainability and guide successful conservation efforts. The reality is that the performance of most ecological forecasts remains weak and shrouded in uncertainty, particularly when projected over reasonable time scales. Despite the best efforts of bright new scholars, of more sophisticated analytical techniques, new technologies, inter-disciplinary approaches, etc., we must realize that we will always have limited ability to reduce the uncertainties of our forecasts, especially as we head into a state of the world not seen before. Climate change, ocean acidification, exotic species, and the rest of the familiar list of impacts are creating new ecosystems that will continue to challenge our skills at prediction.

We need to realize that we are not doing rocket science — we are doing something far more difficult. We will always have limited ability to fully observe the systems we are working on, never mind fully understand them. —Daniel Schindler

Many believe that science focused on teasing apart the intricacies of biological systems, re-emphasizing natural history, and developing a deeper understanding of nature will ultimately improve our ability to predict and manage coupled human-natural systems. While it is clear that science can make progress in these realms, it is critical that we recognize the serious limitations of our potential to do so. As scientists studying nature and humans, particularly for the purposes of developing effective conservation, we need to realize that we are not doing rocket science — we are doing something far more difficult. We will always have limited ability to fully observe the systems we are working on, never mind fully understand them. This is true even for commercially important, well-studied species and ecosystems (e.g., Schindler et al. 2008).

Senbetge, one of the poorest districts of Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The deforestation process of recent decades, combined with soil depletion and erosion, has increased the area’s proneness to droughts and flooding.

The precautionary principle is often invoked as a guide to action when uncertainties are large. To implement it, we are typically told, we must become more conservative about how we interact with nature — we should harvest less, protect more, etc. This approach has distinct limits considering the growing number of people requiring food, clean water and productive lives from the very systems we are trying to conserve.

What we should be more concerned with is developing conservation strategies that allow us to learn about the systems we are managing and to alter our plans when we discover something new or where threats change. “Precautionary” should be interpreted as maintaining flexibility and keeping options available — for both the organisms we seek to conserve and the institutions that manage ecosystems. Serendipity also provides opportunity, assuming we are in position to capitalize on conservation opportunities when they present themselves. Conservation scientists can contribute importantly to understanding how to maintain flexibility and capacity for adaptation in ecosystems and in institutions.

“Precautionary” should be interpreted as maintaining flexibility and keeping options available — for both the organisms we seek to conserve and the institutions that manage ecosystems. —Daniel Schindler

At the end of the day, conservation is about managing the risks to systems we will always understand poorly. Trial and error, as promoted by adaptive management, must remain part of our strategies. As conservation plans are implemented, we must also perform the monitoring and assessment needed to evaluate success and the need to change course. Developing efficient monitoring programs must remain a critical component of conservation science (e.g., http://www.monitoringadvisor.org/), even if it is not generally considered intellectually sexy. However, monitoring should be linked to specific conservation questions and actions, not simply collecting data on variables we can measure remotely or with ease.

And it’s equally important for us to devise ways to spread the risk of undesirable outcomes in systems we hope to conserve. Scientists can contribute to developing conservation strategies that allow us to hedge our bets against the uncertainties of the future (e.g., Ando and Mallory 2012). We need to do the science to develop approaches that are robust to the uncertainties in our understanding of future states of ecosystems and their associated threats. Decision-makers have come to expect scientists to provide clean prescriptions for solving conservation and management challenges. We should be wary of doing so, as it is rarely the case that we fully know what the single best strategy is.

The current reward systems that govern the scientific world have probably caused scientists to over-promise what our science can do (Walters 2007). What high-profile scientific paper does not claim to provide some critical piece of a solution to the world’s predicaments? What large grant proposal doesn’t argue how new research will develop the knowledge and the tools needed to remedy the most pressing problems? We may be innocently setting ourselves up for failure by convincing users of science that we can provide simple answers to their questions about how to proceed in a world full of unknowns (Game et al. 2013).

Conservation scientists have become increasingly aware that communication with non-scientific audiences has potential for bigger conservation impact than the easier path of communicating with our peers. Unfortunately, we are often not good communicators, nor are we typically trained to improve these skills. As we learn to promote our science to non-scientists, particularly those who use science in decision-making, we must figure out how to balance providing clear, parsimonious explanations while simultaneously being honest about what we really don’t know with certainty. Such explanations should not stall the impact science has on conservation action. Instead, decisions that fully confront uncertainties might emphasize long-term institutional flexibility and dispersion of risk rather than the prescriptions we currently tend to provide.


Ando, A.W., and M.L. Mallory. 2012. Optimal portfolio design to reduce climate-related conservation uncertainty in the Prairie Pothole Region. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:6484-6489.

Game, E.T., P. Kareiva, and H.P. Possingham. 2013. Six common mistakes in conservation priority setting. Conservation Biology 27:480-485.

Schindler, D.E., X. Augerot, E. Fleishman, N.J. Mantua, B. Riddell, M. Ruckelshaus, J. Seeb, and M. Webster. 2008. Climate change, ecosystem impacts, and management for Pacific salmon. Fisheries 33:502-506

Walters, CJ. 2007. Is adaptive management helping to solve fisheries problems? Ambio 36:304-307.

November 9, 2013. The views expressed above are the author’s and should not be taken as those of SNAP or its member organizations.

Daniel Schindler

Daniel Schindler is the Harriet Bullitt Endowed Chair of Conservation in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Most of his research focuses… Read More