David Levy – Do environmentalists know the difference between “right and wrong”? – Apr 2014

“How are decisions made? How do decision-makers decide what is the “right or wrong” decision?

I am chair of Marinet and we have recently been confronted by a set of decisions by politicians and environmentalists (seeking to influence the politicians) regarding appropriate and necessary reforms to the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and its system of subsidies.

Our fish stocks are in a serious condition. The vast majority of fish stocks in the EU’s seas are over-fished, many are facing commercial extinction due to over-fishing, and fishing subsidies have kept at sea an EU fishing fleet which is far too large relative to the fish stocks still available. In short a serious crisis where the ecology of our seas is being radically impacted and our ability to meet our need for fish from our own stocks (fish food security) can now only be met for 6 months of the year, resulting in EU vessels trawling the wider oceans and causing a collapse in fish stocks elsewhere.

In the light of this reality, do the recent decisions on reform of the CFP mean that the re-establishment of fish food security has now become a priority, thus leading to the rebuilding of stocks, involving the establishment of “no-fishing areas” centred on spawning grounds (where fish come together to breed and are currently intensively fished) and with displaced fishermen re-employed to manage and patrol these areas, financed and supported by “reformed” fishing subsidies?

The answer is, no. None of these decisions have been made by the recent reform of the CFP, despite the clear need and necessity for these decisions. Instead, lesser decisions have been agreed focused on eliminating the discarding into the sea of unwanted fish (“by-catch”), the setting of fishing quotas at what is considered to be a “sustainable level” (defined by complicated mathematical formulae), and the delegation of decision-making to so-called local levels. Palliative measures, yes; but, not the cure that is required.

The reality is that the reform process, and the urgent need to make decisions that get to the heart of the problem, have either been fudged or dismissed. Thus the crisis facing our fish stocks and seas continues and in 10 years time, when the next CFP reform process comes around, the situation will very likely be irredeemable.

As an environmentalist and a marine campaigner, this reality fills me with despair. I am left wondering why we seem totally incapable of making the decisions which, on the basis of the evidence and logic, seem so obvious?

I have recently come across a clue which appears to help to answer this conundrum, and probably applies to decision-making not just in the marine world but right across the breadth of human activities.

My wife is a medical doctor, an anaesthetist, and she recently showed me a video of a lecture by Dr. Richard Marks, Consultant Anaesthetist at the Royal Free Hospital, London. Dr. Marks addressed the question of how to persuade medical students and doctors to join his branch of medicine and, in particular, the factors that guided them in the process of decision-making. In short, how do decisions get made?

For Dr. Marks the key factors are not, as one would suppose, rationality or evidence. Rather they are generational, and based on factors that can best be described as psychological and sociological. In other words we are complex in our decision-making process, and we often bring personal bias and needs to the forefront of this process. Even more significantly, these personal factors will vary between generations. Thus one generation will be inclined to make a different set of decisions from another generation based directly on their different life experiences, especially during childhood.

In his lecture Dr. Marks has sought to highlight and identify the key characteristics of each generation, and to show how these features directly influence the character and nature of decisions made by each generation.

In reality, there are several generations in the workplace — spanning the breadth of the human working age — and a sort of hierarchy exists based on this age profile, and each generation has its own distinct perspective on what constitutes a “right or wrong” decision, influenced heavily by their experience of the events in their time (defence/war, economic, social, cultural and so forth).

At the apex of this hierarchy are the Veterans (aged 70-90, born between 1925-44). Although Veterans are now largely confined to the Board Room and esteemed institutions such as the House of Lords, their perception of the world is heavily influenced by war, economic scarcity and the struggle to survive. Their parents were strict, frugal and often worried. With the result, this Veteran generation has a strong respect for discipline and conformity. It values wealth highly, and is acutely aware of the need to “pay its dues” to society.

The next generation (aged 50-70, born between 1945-64) is what has become termed as the “Baby Boomers”. They were brought up in a time of great economic and social change (civil rights, women’s liberation, the landing on the Moon), with the result that they are ambitious (anything is possible), value personal success and wealth, and are often rebellious with regard to conformist values. They believe that the world can be changed, and that it can be made better.

The following generation (termed by Dr. Marks as Generation X, aged 30-50 and born between 1965-84) is different again. They were brought up in the era of Thatcherism (individualism versus social cohesion, economic radicalism) and were confronted by such environmental events as Chernobyl. Their parents valued personal success, wealth and social liberation, and often both parents pursued employment with the result that their children were a “latch-key” generation. This has tended to produce a generation with an independent, entrepreneurial attitude, and less allegiance to the “single job” idea allied to a degree of cynicism towards the perspective of employers. They have been willing to embrace new methods, particularly computers and Information Technology.

The next, follow-on generation (termed by Dr. Marks as Generation Y, aged 10-30 and born between 1985-2004) has, yet again, a different set of life experiences. They have been born in an era of imminent environmental instability (Global Warming), and a world of instant communication and information. Their parents have been very attentive to their up-bringing and their needs, almost to an excessive degree (their parents have been described as “helicopter parents”, always hovering over them). As a result, although ambitious, this generation has a strong sense of sociability, a strong feeling for conformity and consensus, a feeling for co-operation and a willingness to follow the rules. It follows on that they tend to be risk averse and find it difficult to take criticism positively, however well-meant.

The most recent generation (termed by Dr. Marks as Generation Z, aged 0-10) is still emerging. However reality for them is again very different. It is a world of Facebook, everything being instant with rapid changes in Information Technology (a primary experience), and a world where environmental change is likely to be not just imminent, but immediate and far-reaching. We may anticipate this generation to be less optimistic, more realistic, and to be facing harder economic circumstances.

The perspective offered by Dr. Richard Marks, although not covering every factor in decision-making, is certainly profound. It reveals that in arriving at decisions the psychological and sociological factors are as equally important as evidence, truth and the needs of the situation, and any other factor — be it commercial, political, or in any other form.

Let us now return to the marine world, and what primarily concerns me — how to stave off ecological collapse in our fisheries and oceans, and how to arrive at decisions which will genuinely guide and lead us to a positive outcome.

2014 brings to a conclusion the UK and European debate on reform of our fisheries and seas.

I have been engaged, as Marinet’s chairman, at all levels of debate with the UK government (Defra), OSPAROSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic made up of representatives of the Governments of the 15 signatory nations. and the European Commission. From a generational perspective, I have done so as a Baby Boomer. This means I have sought solutions for the near collapse of fish stocks and ecosystems which previous management decisions have failed to deliver.

However this expectation for solutions has resulted in Marinet being “black balled” at many levels. Our requirements and perspective (the rebuilding of fish stocks managed by fishermen, using marine reserves centred on spawning grounds in order to re-establish fish food security) has been considered too radical by many, and particularly so by people from the Generation Y, aged 20-30.

Yet have I been “wrong” to seek these solutions? Does reality and the evidence not warrant and require these solutions?

I have watched as decision-makers from Generation Y team-work together, and how this generation of NGO (non-governmental organisations) decision-makers sit at the table with Government in order to agree “solutions”. Unfortunately, what I see in reality is the inexperienced members of Generation Y being ambushed by those who know the decisions that they want, rather than the decisions required by an objective assessment of the evidence (i.e. the elder generations directing Government with its political objectives, and industry with its commercial objectives — in other words, leave the situation alone and essentially unreformed).

Those people in Generation Y who grew up believing in the importance of consensus and never “losing on their School Sports Day” are ill-equipped to handle the intricacies of power politics, or so it seems to this Baby Boomer.

Have the NGOs forgotten the role which they occupy? Have they forgotten their true mission, and the imperative need to find outcomes and solutions which are capable of protecting our planet?

Frankly, an NGO’s true role and mission is not based on a priority for team-work and consensus. It reaches further and deeper than this. But psychologically, NGOs seem impaired nowadays from being able to perceive this.

Indeed when confronted by failure in their role and mission, the Generation Y contingent in NGOs handles criticism badly, and seeks reassurance from like-minded people — including those who have made similar “wrong” decisions (government/industry). This then gives them the self-belief that they are searching for. But at the end of day, the fundamental questions remain. Have they delivered what was needed? Have they fulfilled their mission?

From my perspective the answer is, categorically, No.

As a Baby Boomer, I don’t require consensus to formulate my thinking. Of course, I am open to working with others. However it must be others who are seeking more and better than the “lowest common denominator” solution.

My justification for this approach is that the “lowest common denominator” only delivers the weakest solutions, whereas the plight of our seas and fish stocks urgently demands far better from us.

The truth is that Generation Z (the new generation, currently 0-10) is going to inherit the outcomes. Whereas the reality is that their parents, Generation Y, are unable to take criticism, have little loyalty to their decisions and, when confronted by other interests and older generations, will fold. They have an inherent insecurity, are risk averse, and cannot therefore easily embrace the need for leadership.

This is a worrying conclusion for all of us who perceive the immediacy of the problems confronting our environment and the planet’s ecological systems, and the need for urgent and effective action. Consensus building is fine, but not at the price of the solution itself.

Viewing the results of the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009), the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive and its Descriptor 3 for fish stocks, and the 2014 reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy and fishing subsidies (European Maritime and Fisheries Fund), I am convinced the solutions are inadequate and that nothing has fundamentally changed

The greed of the global fleets is and will continue to drive fish stocks downwards and history, as shown in Charles Clover’s book The End of the Line, demonstrates that small-scale solutions are not enough.

With smaller catches in home fishing waters, we have exported our greed to poorer countries which really do rely on their stocks for their food security, and their stocks cannot survive such losses.

During the recent CFP and subsidy reform we needed to establish outcomes in our decision-making, and those outcomes should have been totally healthy marine ecosystems, with 100% fish food security from our territorial waters.

With the Gulf Stream and Arctic waters colliding in our region, our seas are diverse and capable of providing fish and foods for all our people. They did so in the past, and can in the future — so long as their ecological structure does not collapse from over-exploitation.

None of these essential outcomes emerged from our current round of decision-making, and therefore the question remains: should we remain exposed to the vagaries of generational idiosyncrasies when it comes to decision-making, or can we rethink and actually work out how we achieve decisions and outcomes that the environment and our seas so urgently need?

As a Baby Boomer, I am convinced the current process is faulty and flawed, and inadequate to the task. And, I wish to enter into a discussion with all concerned on how we change this process.

One way is to give the sea and its health primacy over every man-led activity, using the doctor’s creed as our guiding star: “Do no harm”.

With historical evidence stacked against marine-based industries, this “ new primacy” will mean marine industries will have to prove they can do just that; and, we must no longer rely on government agencies that rubber stamp their current activities. The “Do no harm” principle must be our new creed.

This means the world’s oceans require a “Judicial Court of Environmental Protection” with real teeth and international powers that are actually used to uphold and enforce the rule of law based on the “Do no harm” principle. Nothing less is adequate as a solution. The question is: can we decide to do this?

David Levy, Marinet Chair,
With assistance from Stephen Eades, Marinet Co-ordinator.
March 2014.

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