Touchy-feely ecologists

18 04 2013

happy scientistOne of the many reasons I started this blog nearly five years ago was to engage both minds and hearts that my (and my colleagues’) scientific journal papers were failing to do. Of course we have emotional attachment to our areas of expertise (I’ve never met a good scientist who wasn’t passionate about what they studied) – but as Alejandro Frid encourages – we just have to transmit that emotional component better to our fellow human beings.

The title is not a joke about sensitive, New Age guys. I am quite serious about it. Though no academic superstar, I have been publishing in ecological and conservation journals for almost twenty years. I love the discipline. I’d hate to see it fail.

What I am talking about is this: ecologists read and write about ‘extinction’, ‘over-exploitation’, ‘climate change’ and so forth as a matter of routine. Yet at the same time, science journals are full of examples of how resources can be used more sustainably, of human behaviours that reduce the greenhouse gases that alter the climate and acidify the oceans, and of alternative economic models that value a healthy biosphere. So why do consumer apathy and political inertia still run the same old show?

I know, I know. Social scientists are working hard on this question (check out, for instance, just about any issue of Nature Climate Change). But what matters is not the rigorous answer that they might produce (we already know that it is 42 – Douglas Adams couldn’t be wrong); it is instead that most non-scientists probably don’t even care about the question. Read the rest of this entry »





Conservation value of paddy wagon currency: civil disobedience by scientists

12 05 2012

A couple of years ago, James Hansen visited Adelaide and I was fortunate enough to attend dinner with him and his lovely wife Anniek. A truly inspiring scientist in all respects. His academic track record is unbeatable, and he puts his money where his mouth is in terms of climate change activism.

In a similar vein, but something I’m not used to publishing on Conservation Bytes, my colleague Alejandro Frid requested I publish his essay here. I’m a firm advocate for standing up for evidence-based policy, and Alejandro (inspired by James Hansen), shows us how it’s done.

I am addressing this letter to colleagues with research careers because I am compelled to share what I learned recently by crossing a new threshold. For years I have been talking and writing about the climate change crisis. As intellectually rewarding and therapeutic as it has been, these letters to government, meetings with Members of [the Canadian] Parliament, and articles for conservation-minded audiences have accomplished nothing of substance.

Others feel similarly. Prominent academics, fed up with governments that ignore science and heed the priorities of corporations, have turned to civil disobedience. James Hansen, a senior climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led by example last year when he got himself arrested in front of the USA’s Whitehouse to protest the proposed Keystone Pipeline that would carry oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the USA. That was his third arrest in three years; the previous two involved civil disobedience against the mining of coal, a huge contributor to greenhouse gases.

In the wake of Hansen’s arrests, on 05 May 2012, Mark Jaccard—a prominent economist, IPCC member, and professor at the Energy and Materials Research Group of Simon Fraser University—got himself arrested in White Rock, British Columbia, for blocking a coal train carrying US coal for export to China via British Columbia ports. There were 12 others with Jaccard, among them a man in his 80s, several men in their 60s and 70s, and a few youngsters like myself and my good friend Lynne Quarmby. Lynne happens to be chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Simon Fraser University.

Shortly before the arrest, as we sat on the tracks, I told Jaccard that I had been teetering on the decision to come, but his announcement to participate sealed my decision. Jaccard replied that, given what he knew about the climate crisis and the consequences of inaction, it was impossible for him to not be here. He was echoing sentiments shared by all 13 of us on the tracks. Later, as we were released from jail, Jaccard wondered out loud whether the arrest would affect his ability to travel for work. Then he said something to the effect that, “You can forever come up with excuses, or you can get real and just do it.”

Read the rest of this entry »