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Conversation #101: Dan Fiscus on Regrounding Science

A conversation between Dan Fiscus (Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics) and Bart Everson (CAT+FD) on teaching, learning, and regrounding science in values.

Dr. Dan Fiscus is an ecologist, food system researcher and sustainability scientist with the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics. He has written and co-written scientific articles in soil ecology, ecosystem ecology, theoretical ecology, and regenerative economics. He has co-written two books in sustainability including Foundations for Sustainability: A Coherent Framework of Life–Environment Relations (2018). From 2007 to 2012, he was assistant professor in the Biology Department at Frostburg State University (FSU) where he taught and did research in forest ecology and sustainability. From 2012 to 2016, he served as Sustainability Liaison with FSU, led the creation of the President’s Advisory Council for Sustainability, and advised students who created the Student Sustainability Fee. A co-founder and elected member of the Western Maryland Food Council (WMFC), he served as Council Coordinator 2019 to 2020. With WMFC, Dan helped convene annual regional food system conferences and enlist interdisciplinary partners collaborating for food system change in Western Maryland. For fun Dan likes playing ultimate and soccer, hiking, folk music, poetry, composting and time with family.


Bart Everson is a media artist and creative generalist at Xavier University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. His recent work draws on integrative learning, activism, critical perspectives on technology, and Earth-based spiritual paths.

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Bart Everson: Hi, I’m Bart Everson and it is my pleasure and honor today to be speaking with Dr. Dan Fiscus. How are you doing Dan?

Dan Fiscus: Doing great Bart, thank you.

BE: Wonderful. I wanted to let our listeners know that you are an ecologist, a food system researcher, and sustainability scientist with the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics. You’ve written and co-written scientific articles in soil, ecology, ecosystem ecology, theoretical ecology. That’s a lot of ecology. And regenerative economics and also you’ve co-written a couple of books. One in particular of which we’re going to talk more in depth about that so we’ll come back to that. But also I wanted to let our listeners know that from 2007 to about 2012 you were an assistant professor in the Biology department at Frostburg State University and you taught there on forest ecology and sustainability. And after that you served also a sustainability liaison with Frostburg leading to the creation of the President's Advisory Council for Sustainability and advising students who created a Student Sustainability Fee, which is a pretty interesting concept to me. You’re also a co-founder and elected member of the Western Maryland Food Council and you served there as the council coordinator from 2019 to 2020 and done a lot of work with convening the food council’s annual, regional food system conference. So just a kind of roundabout way of saying welcome to the program and I’m wondering if there is anything else that you’d like to tell us about yourself.

DF: Well I could kind of go back to the beginning to tell some about how I got here in terms of being an ecologist.

Male (Bart Everson): Yeah, that’d be awesome.

Male (Dan Fiscus): It kind of starts with where I grew up and it’s where I still live now, in Western Maryland which is the kind of Appalachian Mountains section of Maryland. I also grew up in West Virginia as a young kid and in this sort of mountainous, beautiful forested area, I spent a lot of time outdoors and in the woods playing and fishing, in and around streams and as a kid growing up here, I fell deeply in love with wild areas. Fishing and camping and hiking with my folks, exploring. And then later you know, looking back, I realized these natural areas like forests were my home and even served basically for me as my church or as my sacred space. It’s my favorite place to be. These kind of outdoor, wild areas have also been my teachers. These are the places where I feel like I learned how best to live. So it’s kind of that beginning that fits in and helps explain why I’m now an ecologist. I also spent a lot of my adult work life, probably most of it in academia, whether as a student, a researcher, teacher and I loved all the different universities as communities of learning, so really in a nutshell, my favorite thing to do is to learn.

BE: That’s awesome because that is the name of our program after all, “Teaching, Learning and Everything Else.”

DF: Well it’s really true. I love it. It drives me, keeps me going and you know that’s coming from growing up through getting into work life and it’s really around 1993 when I started graduate school in ecology and started on working on a Master’s degree that I started to become aware that people were asking us, scientists, environmental scientists and the others collaborating in related fields. They were asking us to help solve the environmental problems. Even the money was coming to fund the research from you know groups like EPA or National Science Foundation, government and foundations. They were paying grad students like me because they were asking for help to understand the causes of environmental problems and they wanted help to devise the solutions to those problems. And I took that very seriously. That was kind of in a way a sort of late coming of age around 30 years old and I felt determined and compelled to help find real answers to environmental problems.

There’s one other part of my childhood that is the big part of my story but the other thing is that both of my parents were medical doctors. My dad worked in internal medicine and general practice and my mom worked in public health. So growing up with them constantly being in that sort of world and overhearing. The main things that soaked into me were about diagnosis, and service. So I kind of absorbed this view from them, that diagnosis was the primary challenge. And it's also an art as well as a science. I was really intrigued by this kind of blend of detective work, it's like putting puzzle pieces together, you know, is an impressionable kid, you hear them working on this, and it just sort of soaks in, it was amazing to me that symptoms were important. They were kind of manifestations of health or illness, but they were only clues. If you wanted to do more than just apply band aids or treat symptoms, they would scratch their head and you know, read books and talk to each other to try to figure out a different, sometimes invisible root cause of the thing going on, that existed some kind of deeper area behind or even hidden by the the symptoms. Sometimes also, the causal factors were public, social, or environmental. So my mom is really probably my greatest hero, because she worked in public health in that kind of an arena. So that sort of diagnostic approach is how I have approached environmental problem solving. And it's kind of linked to the book that I co wrote that came out in 2018, as well.

BE: Thanks for sharing all that. A lot of times, I think we don't share kind of that deep background story. But it really helps us understand where a person's coming from. So thank you. Referencing the book, that's actually why I asked for this conversation in the first place. Because our theme for my center this year is resilience. Of course, I was quite intrigued by your book Foundations for Sustainability: A Coherent Framework of Life-Environment Relations. Obviously, you put a lot of yourself into this effort of writing a book with your co-author. But I wanted to just ask you to explain to our listeners, what the book is all about.

DF: That story, again, kind of starts around 1993 when I started graduate school in ecology, so I've really been working for about 25 years in environmental science and ecology. And I've been really trying to use that diagnostic approach  to put together the puzzle pieces and diagnose the kind of root cause of the you know what most people might be familiar with this kind of global ecological crisis that we're in right now have been for some time, and my co author Brian Faff, he also had worked for about 25 years, in ecosystem science, sustainability, and related fields. So we were attempting to summarize and share things we had learned and things we thought were important. In addition to that, that diagnosis approach, putting together clues and trying to diagnose root causes. I also mentioned that I but growing up in this mountain forest area, I trust natural systems to provide a guide for how best to live. And so that's another part of it as well. And it's kind of hard for me to try to describe in a nutshell, but one of the main diagrams that we have where we use to explain the approach is this bullseye diagram we have so it's kind of concentric rings like a dartboard or something and we put these top 10 or 12 environmental symptoms around the outside of the outermost ring. So if you think of the big environmental problems right now, and in a way each of these is really kind of a full blown crisis in its own right. Problems like climate disruption, the mass species extinction event we're going through, threats to water quality, threats to food and food supply, energy challenges, nitrogen cycle disruption, toxins and pollution. It's a, you know, a long and scary list. So the standard mainstream science approach to deal with something like that would be analysis, to break the problem into smaller parts. Focus on one part at a time, make something more manageable. So for example, lots of folks have chosen to focus on climate disruption. And understandably and, you know, rightfully so a lot of people say that is the problem with the greatest existential threat and the greatest potential to cause the most harm. But we took a different approach, our long years of training and experience in systems ecology taught us to try to look at the whole problem. So we came together to write this book. And we were seeking to understand all of these environmental crises as symptoms, sharing and trying to tell us about some common root cause. And, you know, back to that diagram, visual idea, the hypothetical root cause that we propose is at the center of the bullseye. And this is where we focus all of the book.

BE: Is it? Is it a spoiler to ask what's at the center?

DF: Well, I don't really think of it that way. I mean, I'd love that you, you know, asked to talk about this today and I’m dying to talk about it. So no, I mean, not at all. You know, it's also a little hard for me again, to synopsize it or shrink it down, but I can give it a try. You know, we don't propose that this was all novel, we cite, you know, dozens of allied workers who contributed science and concepts to help figure this out. Some of these things are actually very old, people have been saying this, and we just tried to bring together a chorus of voices and then add ours to it. The bullseye starts with framing the problem, we do this in a holistic way, rather than an analytical way. So it starts with a really simple observation that humans are degrading and damaging the environment. It sounds, you know, simple and obvious But that starting point is important because it describes the problem, and it indicates the solution. in a holistic and general way. From there, we know we add some more scaffolding to this idea of you know, first of all, if that's our problem, then we need to reverse environmental degradation.

To solve the problem as a whole. But back to the disease metaphor, if we want to get to health, the prescription or cure would be to get to a situation where human actions lead to improvement in environmental quality over time, not damage. We see this as entirely possible just from observing natural living systems. Natural ecosystems have improved the environment consistently over billions of years. If you just think for a second about the way that we have an oxygen atmosphere here on the planet, or the fact that soils grow and increase in fertility over time. These are just two examples. But they're sufficient to show that it's possible

for a system to operate in a way that naturally improves its own environment. Oh, still kind of lasering, zooming in on this bullseye thing we keep adding more to the diagnosis, we say that industrial culture is the location of the problem. Indigenous cultures don't degrade the environment at this kind of planetary scale, like we're seeing. So we say that something is going on inside industrial culture. And then the next step is to identify science as the basis for industrial culture. So then we say something has to be going on inside science. And then you know, probably the last part to sort of try to identify or describe this bullseye, we follow Donella Meadows, who was a systems scientist and modelers, famous for writing a book called Limits to Growth back in the 70s, but she also wrote a paper in 1999, where she described the top 12 ways to intervene in a complex system. She talked about sources of leverage for change. And both of her top two sources were related to the paradigm. She spoke of the mindset or paradigm out of which the system and this is a quote from her, "the goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters arise." So that's — we followed her and we wanted to focus on the paradigm and conventional science. And that's where we lay out. It's basically a hypothesis, our book is a proposal, we're seeking critique, and we realize it may need to change. But we think this, this paradigm of science, drives industrial culture and industrial culture, is the cause of the global ecological crisis.

BE): That's very interesting. And in particular, interesting to me, and a lot of our listeners, I would think, because here at Xavier University of Louisiana, science is really, you know, a big deal. I mean, our science departments are by far the biggest on our campus. And that's really kind of what was my secret agenda, you know, in asking to speak with you, was this idea of science and values. And I'm wondering if you could speak to why that matters, and what's at stake in what you're proposing, really.

DF: Yeah, that's another big part of the book has to do with values. The reason we focus on that and how it fits into this, this critique of, you know, if we want to solve the global ecological crisis, we have to address the mainstream paradigm of science came from all those years of experience in academia that I was talking about. And even though I kind of started at 30, I was still this, you know, sort of naive, impressionable person looking to academia to learn about truth and the way the world works. And I was, I was really amazed, as I, you know, looked and experienced what was going on that seemed like this big gap and disconnect, really between the intelligence the obvious and clear intelligence of faculty and students and institutions, but compared to a very small, if not, absent, actual success in solving environmental problems. One of the stories that I use or tell to describe this thing had to do with — so working in Maryland, a lot of our funding in our work has had to do with the Chesapeake Bay. It's a really important estuary, it's crucial to the livelihood of millions of people. It's near the nation's capital, a beautiful source of beauty and food, and it's just an important place, but it's been heavily impacted by humans and damaged. I would read environmental news where people would report the estimated cost to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. And when I first started hearing about it, I was kind of surprised, because people said they thought it would cost $19 billion dollars to clean up the bay, you know, through various kinds of policy, changes in infrastructure, water quality, and addressing all those sources of pollution. And then a few years later, situation either got worse or stayed bad. And then I saw a report that now people were saying it's going to cost $30 billion to clean up the bay. And then basically, I don't remember them reporting any more cost estimates. It was as if they kind of just gave up thinking that success was possible, or that we should, you know, it was kind of demoralizing for the bill to just keep going up. So I felt like there had to be something going on sort of at this deeper level again, some kind of unseen, unconscious drivers of what questions we were asking and what kind of research was being done and why would there be this disconnect between all this work and all this learning and teaching and nothing much to show for it in terms of environmental problem-solving, so I started to look into value and values systems and value as a necessary foundation for science. And I believe that without a very solid and explicit and clear, integrated value basis, it's very possible that science can be used for bad ends, or whether intentionally or accidentally end up harming nature and people. You know, a roadblock or a sort of strange wall has been that people usually say that one of the strengths of science is that it's value-neutral. And they talk about how it's important for science to remain objective. And scientists shouldn't pick sides and political or social debates, they should just advise. But that, to me, kind of misses the point. And it's a bit of a dodge from understanding the importance of value and values. So the way we got around that complaint in our book is to choose a value basis for science that is shared by everyone. So we propose that science should be devoted to service to life. And that's life with a capital L. Which I didn't describe yet. But basically, in our book, we talk about life with a capital L meaning life and environment as a unified whole. That's life itself, life as a whole. And, if life becomes the highest value that science, aids and serves at every step, then we think that would also lead to solving our, our current, very dire global environmental crisis. But you know, as a value choice, it's not political or social, life applies equally to all humans. It’s the thing we share, provides our every breath and every bite of food and every drop of water. And really, it's a reality that holds us together. It also unifies us with all the other species and the Earth as a living whole. So we think it's really important to explicitly identify a value basis to link this to service to life. And that will guide science so that it can have a positive outcome.

BE Wow, isn't that an incredibly ambitious undertaking then to, basically to reground science as we know it in a value basis? Different, certainly, then — I mean, it's just a huge shift. Is that — I'm just wondering if it's, is it possible even? Well, I'm kind of curious how people have reacted then. This is a fairly recent publication, 2018, officially when the book came out.

DF: Well two parts to your question, these are all great questions and hard for me to answer quickly or easily. But you asked about is it even possible and how people responded to the books. So it's a little mind boggling to me that, you know, that we have to even say that it does seem like a strange kind of obvious thing. And so I don't completely understand how we've gotten here, or why, you know, I sort of feel like the kid in the fable about the Emperor's New Clothes, it's, um, it is awkward and uncomfortable. But you know, one aspect of it that also came from my experience in academia was that I haven't understood what seems to me like a disconnect between the obvious intelligence of ecologists and environmental scientists. So this field, our field knows how life works, knows how nature works, it's in all the textbooks and the papers and the teaching and the classes and the curriculum. And yet, for many years, and in most many institutions, that knowledge and intelligence and know-how is not built into our facilities, we don't apply it or embody it in the buildings and grounds of the universities. And so, I think there's a disconnect between the knowledge and the living that we have to integrate. And so it's paradoxical, you know, we just have to read our own textbooks, and then take it to heart.

And, you know, maybe it takes something like a crisis to realize we're off track, you know, we've got some fundamental misunderstanding. Another part of the bullseye that I didn't mention yet, it's in the book in detail is that the mainstream paradigm of science has at least two really important ideas, which we think have to be revised. One is the idea of treating nature, parts of nature, as a machine, or mechanism. And the other has to do with splitting things apart. And so if we split life apart from the environment, and treat parts of the world as a machine, that could explain how we've gotten where we are. Because a summary of the way the world looks right now is that it's running out of gas, it's breaking down, it's falling apart, and it's wearing out. And that's something that only machines do. Natural ecosystems don't do that. So, we have turned the world into the machine that we've imagined it to be. That's our, you know, bullseye center of the story summary of what's going on. And so we just have to change our minds and our value basis to get realigned.

BE: That is a sobering assessment and the, the reaction to the book?

DF: Well, to be honest, there hasn't been that much. I, again, is kind of naive person I thought, you know, my work was to write the book, co-write the book, get the thoughts organized, get them down, get it out there. And then things, you know, my part was done. And I'm learning that that's only the beginning. And maybe the easy part. And that promoting, you know, sharing, spreading the news trying to go, the next step is required. Somebody told me that it's a friend when I was bemoaning the fact that nothing happened, said, well, it's not the best ideas, necessarily, that are going to be adopted, it's the best sold ideas. And I am not a salesman at all. So I'm trying to learn some new skills to get into sharing it more widely. And again, another reason I greatly appreciate you asking me to talk about it today.

BE: Well, unfortunately, you're surrounded by a culture that has become extremely good at selling things. So there's a lot of competition out there. I do hope this podcast does contribute a little bit in getting some more exposure for these ideas. Speaking of the podcast and the kind of theme of this podcast, bringing it all back to the classroom, to teaching and learning. Because most of our listeners, of course, are teaching faculty, people teaching in higher education. How could the concepts that we've been discussing, the concepts in your book inform our practice of teaching? I'm thinking of course primarily of people that are teaching a science course but really people might be teaching almost any kind of course. These are some very broad issues that might cut across, you know, our traditional silos or disciplinary territory. What can a professor in higher education do differently based on the ideas that you're promulgated?

DF: Well, we have talked, Brian and I about a follow up book to help translate this one into more accessible language, add more case studies, organize it better, make it available, kind of as a textbook or a resource for teaching. But we haven't really started on that yet. You know, to sort of distill some of those principles down, one of them I think about is that it's important to think big, as well as thinking small. You know, and this maybe  is more in science, and I've been mostly in science fields, I don't have much experience at all, in other fields. But if you're in science, or anything related to science, I think it's okay to analyze and break things apart, study small bits, and ask questions or work on incremental progress. That's all okay. As long as you know, we balance it with an equal focus and equal time and emphasis on big questions and topics, ultimate truths, and values and holistic synthesis. You know, analysis by itself isn't really bad unless it's done to an extreme that would fit with things like understanding the paradigm of science, you know, that's a sort of long historical and deep-rooted issue. It's also related to understanding the values underpinning science and society. I think teaching and modeling those kinds of ways of study and learning are needed. If we're going to stay on track toward ultimate values, like truth, and beauty and wisdom and peace and environmental sustainability, justice, they have to come up every day, if we're just trying to figure out the next little incremental change, we may lose sight of the ultimate end point where we really want to be.

Another one I would say in academia is that we should lead by example. And we should really transform our buildings and grounds so that they embody scientific knowledge and ecological understanding that we can mimic nature to do that. It's really not that complicated to mimic nature, we have to run on renewable energy, we have to recycle all our materials, we have to enhance diversity. I mean, I say that, I've spent my whole life kind of as an ecologist, but I do think it's accessible.

You know, and another thing I felt as a lifelong learner has been, maybe an opportunity is to balance the flow. So that right now a lot of teaching, it kind of goes from the teacher and the institution toward the student. But there's this other flow that's more about like educing, you know, sort of the root word of education, it would be a flow from the student, as he or she is becoming their unique and best self, I always felt a little kind of upset about how these facts and famous people and all these things were kind of being jammed down my throat or forced on me. And nobody was really asking me, you know, my whole life in school, like, what do you think or what, you know, we need your input. And, and I think if schools could really show that they value the unique ideas and creative contributions of each student, and they're actually going to use the suggestions and insights to change, that would be a great way to balance this flow. And I think that if educational institutions aren't really learning constantly, then that's like a bad sign and to learn from the vibrant young people that are there would be a great, great thing to do.

BE: Yeah I’ve been working in educational development for a couple of decades, and I don't think I've ever used the word educing before. It seems like you've expanded my vocabulary a little in addition to everything else, but it's probably a good place to wrap it up. I wanted to, you know, remind our listeners that if they enjoyed this conversation, they should subscribe to this podcast, Teaching, Learning and Everything Else. Give us a rating or review on any of your podcast platforms, help people find us. I've been speaking today with Dan Fiscus, author of Foundations for Sustainability. Dan, thank you for speaking with me so much.

DF: Thank you, Bart. I really appreciate it. And I love your podcast series, and I'm gonna keep listening to more.

Transcript by Darrielle Robertson

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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