Wednesday, January 20, 2010

on ecologists and environmentalists

Note: This post has been edited from its original content to reflect less gender-bias.

-Robert May (an ecologist)

A friend of mine once told me that when he sits next to strangers on airplanes, he no longer tells them he is an ecologist. Instead, he tells them that he teaches biology. He said it is amazing how differently people treat him when he simply places the emphasis on teaching instead of practicing and on biology rather than ecology. While I've never had anyone accuse me of being a tree-hugger, I know how to read people's eyes pretty well. The problem is that I'm really not a tree-hugger, I'm a scientist. It just takes too long and gets too confusing to explain the difference to most people.

Ecology and the role of ecologists in our society are often confused with the environmental movement. While it is true that those of us who study the natural world would rather that our subject not be replaced with parking lots and strip malls, we study nature in order to understand it better, and in turn, learn what role we as humans play as part of local and global ecosystems. I think Schneider and Kay (1994, Complexity and thermodynamics: towards a new ecology, Futures 26: 626-647) have a nice way of explaining various aspects of this. Get ready to be educated on the role of ecologists and that of environmentalists.

Ecology is the science of the interactions of living organisms with each other and
their interactions with the physical and chemical components of their enveloping
environment. Ecology is a misunderstood, underfunded, orphan branch of science.
The sciences of the macroscopic, astronomy, and the microscopic, particle physics,
are the darlings of the funding agencies as we spend billions of our tax dollars on
Hubble telescopes and bigger and bigger supercolliders. It is interesting to know of
an astronomical event thousands of light years ago or to know that one subatomic
particle comprises eight or ten smaller particles. These scientific facts, however,
seem to intersect us in the peripheral aspects of our lives. Ecology, however, is a
science on the human scale. We humans are part of our ecosystems, and the
environment with which we interact is on a scale that is a part of our daily lives.
Those of us who study the dynamics and functioning of ecosystems are amazed that
a science that seems so important to mankind receives so little money, and that
minimal attention is paid to understanding processes that may influence the future of
humankind and the future of our biosphere.

Part of the problem is that many people confuse the science of ecology with the
environmental movement. When one of us tells a new friend, ‘I am a theoretical
ecologist’, they often think that we are members of a fringe political movement or
that we spend time lying in front of bulldozers in national forests. Even the well
known journal The Ecologist is not a journal about ecology but a journal about
science, politics and socioeconomic issues related to environmental management.
The environmentalists’ goal should be to encourage management of the local
through global ecosystems so as to maintain or enhance environmental quality.
However ecologists as scientists should advise society on ecological interactions and
the potential impact of human activities on natural resources. Ecosystem
management is about trade-offs, and the role of the ecologist should be to identify
these trade-offs. Which trade-off we decide to make is a political decision which
environmentalists can seek to influence.

Nicely put, eh. You see, the environmentalist typically doesn't care what type of management or restoration actions are taken-just so that something is done (usually everything that can be done). This results in a lot of money spent on a myriad of activities aimed at a particular natural resource concern. But the ecologist sets up experiments that reveal just what should be done about a particular environmental problem, thus saving time, effort, and money that would have been spent on the 'do everything' approach' that is usually relied on in absence of science. Underfunding of science agencies costs way more money in the long-run.

At any rate, now when you sit next to someone on an airplane and they tell you they are an ecologist, you can treat them like you would a particle physicist or an astronomer-only you can consider the ecologist a bit more socially relevant.

1 comment:

  1. you crack me up! I'm not so sure that you are not going for the Robert May look with that reseeding hair line! Just kidding little brother!