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Fight or Flight, Spend or Save—Risk in the Real World
Fight or Flight, Spend or Save—Risk in the Real World

Mar 5 2014 8:27AM Posted by David Ludwig, Ph.D.

The interface of human social systems and the ecosystem at large is the front line in the most important conflict in the long history of the biosphere. As we work to extract food, water, and materials for our growing population, of necessity we redesign and reconfigure the environment. As the environment changes, ecological forces push back in reaction. Desertification, vectored diseases, biodiversity, and other parameters ebb and flow as the processes of human life wash against the ecosystem.

A source of friction at the PeopleSystems interface is incompatible units of measure. Like a mis-engineered Mars lander, the ecosystem operates in one set of metrics, human society in another. Biology is driven by fluxes of matter and energy. We understand ecosystems by tracing flow, storage, and transformation of molecules as organisms grow, reproduce, and interact. We measure the work and heat cascading as solar and geochemical energy are acquired and expended in the service of physiology. 

Social systems operate via flux and storage of a conceptual entity—money. Physical manifestations of money—coins, bills, digital accounts—have no foundation in the biosphere. Yet the flux of money has enormous ecosystem consequences. In today’s biosphere, cash changing hands drives the exploitation, degradation, restoration, and even maintenance of the environment. 

Much thinking and considerable research have been devoted to the meaning of money in the context of ecology. A modicum of progress has been made, but the on-the-ground facts of markets and non-market processes far outstrip our understanding. Which means, unfortunately, that we human beings own and operate the biosphere by default. We are unable to establish and pursue desired end-states for the ecosystems we inhabit because we do not know how to equate monetary social imperatives with biological processes and outcomes. 

The primary focus of environmental economics as a field of study is on finding ways to accommodate and account for non-market goods and services in a market-based social system. In this endeavor we are slow and stumbling. But it turns out there may be an even more fundamental monkey wrench clanging around the machinery linking social and ecological systems.

Vertebrate organisms share a common response to sudden, acute stress. The well-known “fight or flight” reaction is a sequential outpouring of hormones that rapidly establishes the physiological and behavioral bases for dealing with danger. Early in my career, I worked with a research team studying direct and indirect effects of pesticide chemicals on tidal marsh biota [3]. In one of our rather comedic study techniques, we would place individual fiddler crabs dosed with varying levels of organophosphates in a runway on a laboratory table, and hunker down out of the crab’s sight with a predatory clapper rail bird borrowed from the university’s taxidermy collection. On the count of three, we would suddenly push the stuffed rail up to threaten the crab, and measure the resulting panic in time and distance traveled as a dose response function. 

Slapstick science aside, the “panic” response is a universal evolutionary adaptation, one of the key tools in the eternal arms race of predator and prey. Fundamentally, it lays all the cards the prey item is holding on the table. Depending on species and circumstances, it may manifest as a mad dash for cover, a savage attack on the threatening entity, or an almost catatonic freeze-in-place intended to disarticulate the predator’s search image. 

Recent research [1], [2] suggests there is an analogous “universal” risk response in monetary social systems. High levels of stress hormones cause investors to shrink from risky investments. When high levels of cortisol flood a financier’s physiology, investment bets reflect acceptance of substantively lower levels of risk relative to potential reward. While the evolutionary basis for this is presently unknown, it is apparently a universal outcome.

It will take me some time to think through this research finding in the context of environmental management. Does it have any meaning for that rocky interface of ecology and economics? Maybe. Financial backers of, say, a new development project proposed for a controversial site where environmental sensitivity is an issue may find themselves in raucous exchanges with stakeholders and regulators. Independent of the technical risks and benefits of the proposal, individuals at the negotiating table may experience rising levels of stress hormones. Could that make investors less likely to accept the social and environmental risks of implementing the proposed action? Could it make those arguing against the proposal fix their positions at a level of concern not justified by realities of potential environmental impacts? It certainly seems possible, given the research findings. 

Negotiations over environmental risks, costs and benefits of human activities are already complex and universally involve parameters beyond those subject to resolution by objective scientific investigation. Perhaps these new research findings give us some insights applicable to such negotiations. In any case, as we understand more about the peculiar human parameters impinging on science-based decisions, the more likely we are to come to rational and effective compromise. And that can only be a good thing. 


[3] Ward, D.V., B.L. Howes and D.F. Ludwig. 1976. Interactive effects of predation pressure and 
insecticide (Temefos) toxicity on populations of the marsh fiddler crab Uca pugnax. 
Mar. Biol. 35:119-126. Ward, D.V. and B.L. Howes. 1974. The effects of Abate, an 
organophosphorus insecticide, on marsh fiddler crab populations. 
Bull. Env. Contam. Tox. 12:694-697.

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