Shifting Forests, Shifting Minds: A Journey in Reshaping Mental Models

Published in Earth & Environment and Economics
Shifting Forests, Shifting Minds: A Journey in Reshaping Mental Models

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As I stepped back from my desk, my eyes lingered once more on the chaotic lines of code sprawling across my screen, then paused on a graph that hinted at a story I couldn't yet understand. I was about to embark on an unconventional journey for a model-driven scientist like me, moving away from theoretical constructs and statistical analyses to the unfiltered reality of the natural world. While it didn't seem so at first, this apparent deviation would ultimately inspire me to lead our latest research article in Nature.

This journey was part of my passion as a climate communicator, which runs parallel to my academic path. It took me, along with an amazing filming crew, to mountains, rainforests, and lakes across Mexico. We intended to document and experience firsthand the deep connections people have with their natural environment for a documentary series aired in Mexico in 2022

During the production of this documentary, a pivotal encounter occurred in the forests of Balancan, Tabasco, where we met Manuel Tejero, a local forest resident and protector of howling monkeys. At some point, our discussions centered on one particular theme: the movement of the forest. He delved into how the forest grows aided by the monkeys' seed dispersal and how it responds to changing human uses of surrounding land. Manuel was curious about the impacts of climate change, and I told him about the potential for biome range shifts, discussing how changes in temperature and rain patterns could lead to the gradual displacement of forests. This dialogue, occurring near the Usumacinta River, which further south marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala, made me ponder about the implications of forest displacing across country boundaries. 

Still from documentary series: Bioguardianes (2022) Dir. Victor Garcia. From left to right: Bernie Bastien, Manuel Tejero, Raiza Pilatowsky. Source: Canal Catorce, Mexico.
Still from the documentary series Bioguardianes (Dir. Victor Garcia, 2022). From left to right: Bernie Bastien (me), Manuel Tejero, Raiza Pilatowsky. Source: Canal Catorce.

This realization was further crystallized during a summer collaborative school  I led as a National Geographic Explorer. We convened a diverse group of unconventional storytellers from across Mexico in Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz, to share our challenges and methods on environmental narratives. Central to our gathering was the exploration of the stories surrounding the Red Macaw reintroduction efforts; through this, we delved into the understanding that the forests, the very habitat of these macaws, is on the move due to the dual forces of climate change and land use change. It was here, among the combined stories of conservation and change, that I truly grasped—not through scientific analysis, but through an intuitive and emotional connection—the potential impacts on cultural values linked to the ecosystem we were exploring and the ecosystems of the regions we hailed from.

Collaborative Summer School for Environmental Communicators in Los Tuxtlas, Mexico. 

Learning from these stories in the field was one aspect, but it wasn't immediately clear to me how I could contribute to understanding this through my research. Then, as if in a flashback while in the forest, I remembered the last graph I had seen on my laptop: country-level estimates of natural capital worldwide. This graph, which later inspired Figure 1 in our paper, showed the value of global forests in terms of ecosystem services they provide to residents, like clean water, recreational spaces, and raw materials for industries. I wondered, how would these natural capital estimates change if forests were to shift due to climate change as we were starting to see in Los Tuxtlas and in Balancan. That became the question we sought to answer, utilizing the best global data and methodologies from various disciplines.

Fig. 1: Country-level natural capital by type and geographic region. Source: Bastien-Olvera et al. (2023)
Fig. 1: Country-level natural capital by type and geographic region. Source: Bastien-Olvera et al. (2023)

While the core findings of this research have already been widely covered in articles and podcasts, I'd like to focus on an aspect I haven't yet had the chance to share: the capacity of our mental models to rearrange and find connections, often unconsciously, and how this was an essential behind the paper step that allowed us to develop a paper suitable for publication in Nature.

A mental model is essentially how we perceive the functioning of the world, identifying key connections between concepts that shape our reality.  Mental models are intricately complex and challenging to identify within individuals. They are shaped throughout our lives, influenced not only by formal education but also by family, popular culture, and media. A particular mental model can sometimes be a barrier to new knowledge, especially if this new information clashes with the existing framework of our perceived reality. Behind most research endeavors lies an implicit mental model that guides the formation of hypotheses. In the realm of educational theory, numerous methods have been employed to explore, broaden, or correct mental models. These include using visual aids, revising entire syllabi at different educational levels, and other innovative approaches.

In my case, my mental model underwent a significant reshaping through the experience of filming the documentary. This process was not about explicitly redrawing diagrams with circles and arrows, as is commonly done in academic exercises. Instead, it was a more subconscious journey, one where I stepped back from the rigorous analysis of my models to immerse myself in the relationships I was studying, but in a completely different context. This kind of mental model expansion isn't limited to filming documentaries, of course. It can occur when engaging in activities such as writing for a general audience, crafting conference presentations, or even in informal conversations during happy hours with colleagues.

Returning to my desk after months of filming and sharing storytelling narratives, I was greeted by the same graph I had left behind. However, it now shined with meaning and seemed to interlink with other of my PhD projects, which had previously hit dead ends. This insight led me to draw upon diverse sources: the World Bank’s natural capital dataset, dynamic global vegetation models from ecology, ecosystem service valuation datasets, and macroeconomic models. The path forward became clear. It was as if, in those three months, my mental model had evolved on its own.

In sharing my journey, I aim to encourage fellow computer-centric scientists, especially those working on climate and sustainability issues, to seek experiences that allow them to view their subjects from different perspectives. It's important for researchers in our field to recognize the pursuit of human knowledge as a quest that often extends beyond academic boundaries. Engaging in activities outside the traditional scholarly environment can be just as valuable as attending conferences and publishing papers. These experiences can provide fresh insights and novel approaches to our work, demonstrating that sometimes the key to progress lies in stepping out of our comfort zones and exploring the world from a new angle.

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