'Following the science' can be complicated

Posted 2/2/23

Can “following the science” save Okeechobeeland?

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'Following the science' can be complicated


Can “following the science” save Okeechobeeland?

Following the science is not as simple as it sounds. Scientists don’t all agree on the best path forward for the South Florida environment.

“Socio-political influences affecting the management and restoration of Okeechobeeland: Lake Okeechobee and the Greater Everglades,” by Daniel E. Canfield, Roger W. Bachman and Mark V. Hoyer was recently published by the University of Florida, Fisheries and Aquatic Science. Okeechobeeland includes Lake Okeechobee, the Greater Everglades and environs.

Reviewing the history of Okeechobeeland, the authors found a change in the way the environment is perceived by the public has influenced political decisions that impact the environment.

Before the 1970s, the Judeo-Christian Worldview was prevalent. For Okeechobeeland, this meant the government “was concerned with taming the wilderness, expansionism, “the American Dream,” and so on.”

After the 1970s, the Deep Ecology Worldview, which “has its foundation in Native American cultures and merges ecology with spirituality,” came into play.

“The clash of these two worldviews greatly influences how humans interact with their environs and how interested parties promote their solutions to their immediate problems,” the authors explain.

At the beginning of the 20th century, growth and development were political imperatives in Florida. “Developers advertised Okeechobeeland as an agricultural paradise and coastal developers advertised south Florida as a paradise to make your home (especially after development of mosquito control and air conditioning, but not during major hurricanes), contributing to waves of migrants that ultimately made south Florida home for millions. Florida is now the 3rd most populous state in the Union,” the authors write.

By the 19070s, the worldview was beginning to change as more Floridians were beginning feel their Florida paradise was at risk of being lost. “The Judeo-Christian Worldview of European colonizers of North America clashed directly with the philosophy of indigenous people. Nearly all tribes had a cosmic vision in which the conception of creation was a living process, resulting in a living universe in which a kinship existed between all things. Mother Earth was a living being,” the paper continues.

Discussions about Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades often bring pleas to “Follow the Science.” However, science often becomes politicized. In a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, “most scientists believed that policy regulations for land use, clean air, and clean water were often not guided by the best science. These surveyed scientists (84%) also considered that the public’s knowledge about science — or lack thereof — was a major problem for science,” the authors state.

When a regulatory body (such as a water management district) controls the research, this can ensure results will support that organization’s policy decisions, the authors explain. Former University of Florida President Robert Q. Marston, a distinguished fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, “noted that without a clear vision of desired outcomes, project goals become a process rather than a destination. Big government’s solution is, therefore, to feed money into a complex composed of government agencies, universities, and consultancies, resulting in development of an Environmental-Industrial Complex,” the authors continue.

Concepts now widely accepted by political leaders and the public such as “biological integrity” are ill-defined, the study explains. “Asking science to prove that there is such a thing as ecosystem health would be like asking science to prove the existence of God: an impossible task.”

In the case of Lake Okeechobee, flaws in the SFWMD proposed plan to reduce phosphorus levels “were rejected by SFWMD and policymakers because most environmental scientists supported nutrient control. Parental affection for a ruling theory is therefore dangerous because it can quash scientific discovery and lead to bad public policy,” the authors state.

“Existing historical and scientific evidence demonstrates that the restoration of Lake Okeechobee, using nutrient control to lower in-lake total phosphorus concentrations has failed and will continue to fail because it is impossible,” the authors wrote. Nutrient control alone won’t solve the problem. There is so much phosphorus already in the lake bottom that phosphorus levels in the water will continue to stay high until a way is found to clean up what is already in the Big O as well,

Understanding the history of Okeechobeeland, as well as the political pressures, demands of the growing human population and future environmental changes are all part of determining the best path forward for the Big O and surrounding lands. The authors call for well-defined measurable management goals for Okeechobeeland and the Greater Everglades, to “prevent people charged with caring for South Florida ecosystems in the future from forgetting (George) Santayana’s admonition as paraphrased by Churchill, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’”