I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.
It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.
The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.
I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?
I’m referring specifically to the big ‘sustainability’ issues of our era. This include inter alia increasing agricultural production without further destruction of ecosystem integrity, low-impact energy provision for electricity and fuels, human overpopulation and how to reduce it ethically and fairly, and massive ecosystem restoration at scales that are meaningful to prevent the greatest number of extinctions. There are many other areas, of course. While we argue about where to put the next protected area (when we know that these will never be enough), about how many individuals need to be maintained to ensure some acceptable probability of persistence, or that such-and-such logging process does more damage than another, we are losing our forests, coral reefs, climate regulation and food-production efficiency with increasing speed. Clearly what we’re doing is not working.
These are complicated issues, and usually take many other disciplines and experts to tackle simultaneously for meaningful outcomes. I wouldn’t expect a single PhD thesis could do any of these topics real justice, but embedded within a larger framework of multidisciplinary approaches could given even a dissertation a lot more relevance in today’s world.
I think that most of us – as do most people – become comfortable with what they know, and therefore spend most of their physical and contemplative time refining their area of expertise. Instead, I think more of us should jump out of our comfort zones and learn a little physics, engineering, climatology, economics and political science to expand our rather limited world view. With even a little more effort here, I think ecologists would be far more relevant and successful in turning some of the threatening unsustainability tide back towards more acceptable outcomes.
Of course, there are many ecologists who do at least attempt to address some of these issues, and for that I applaud them. However, it is telling when you take a close look at the themes, symposia and subjects of presentations at pretty much any ecology-based organisation or society meetings. You will notice that for the most part, few of them come even remotely close to tackling the sustainability topics described above. I’ve even witnessed first hand the refusal of such topics to be considered for ecological meetings when proposed, for the lame reason given that they are not strictly ‘ecological’? What navel-gazing and ultimately, society-screwing rubbish!
I won’t pretend to claim that I’ve abided by this advice for much of my career – it’s mainly a realisation that has come after building a foundation of ecological science in arguably more mundane and peripheral areas of the discipline. That said, I do not think it represents merely my own maturation and the benefit of hindsight and some degree of previous success – the issues that we need to dissect and solve are becoming more and more serious every year. My advice is therefore perhaps directed more to the newer generations of ecologists; I strongly contend that it will be essential that you take a practical and big-picture approach to your studies and career path over the next several decades. If you don’t, and solutions are not forthcoming, we are well and truly buggered.
It will take some rather lateral, out-of-the-box thinking on your part to get to grips with these issues, and to engineer solutions that are meaningful at large (including global) scales. We can no longer afford merely to refine our documentation of the planet’s demise. If you have the option, try to make your research more relevant for society than merely documenting the continuing loss of our natural capital and life-support system.
1Although there will be several months of tweaking and modifying pending reviews.