Ecology as a Contingent Science

The Northern Hemisphere is working through a summer of very warm weather, often temperatures 10ºC above ‘normal’. Climate change should in these conditions be obvious to all. Yet despite these clear changes, all the governments of developed countries – including Canada, USA, Australia, Britain – are doing next to nothing about the causes of climate change. This bald statement will lead to a lot of noise about “all we are now doing…”, a carbon tax promoted loudly but that is so low it can have little effect on emissions, and endless talk in the media about “sustainable practices” that are far from sustainable. Why should this be? There are many reasons and I want to discuss just one that pertains to the science of ecology.

Imagine that you are a physicist or chemist and are studying a physical or chemical problem in a lab in Germany and one in Canada. You would expect to get exactly the same experimental results in the two labs. The laws of chemistry and physics are universal and there would be consternation if results differed by geographical locations. Now transform this thought experiment to ecology. You might expect the converse for ecological experiments in the field, and there is much discussion of why this occurs (Brudvig et al. 2017, Marino et al. 2018, Zhou and Ning 2017). We need to think more about why this should be.

First, we might suspect that the ecological conditions are variable by place. The soils of Germany or France or New York or Vietnam differ in composition. The flora and fauna vary dramatically by site even within the same country. The impacts of human activities such as agriculture on the landscape vary by area. Climates are regional as well as local. Dispersal of seeds is not a uniform process. All these things ecologists know a great deal about, and they provide a rich source of post-hoc explanations for any differences. But the flip side is that ecology does not then produce general laws or principles except very general ones that provide guidance but not predictive models useful for management.

This thought leads me back to the general feeling that ecology is not categorized as a hard science and is thus often ignored. Ecologist have been pointing out many of the consequences of climate change for at least 30-40 years with few people in business or local political power listening. This could simply be a consequence of the public caring about the present but not about the future of the Earth. But it might be partly the result of ecology having produced no generality that the public appreciates, except for the most general ecological ‘law’ that “Mother Nature takes care of itself”, so we the public have little to be concerned about.

The paradigm of stability is deeply embedded in most people (Martin et al. 2016), and we are in the process of inventing a non-equilibrium ‘theory’ of ecology in which the outcome of ecological processes leads us into new communities and ecosystems we can only scarcely imagine and certainly not predict clearly. Physicists can predict generally what a future Earth climate with +2ºC or + 4ºC will entail (IPCC 2013, Lean 2018), but we cannot do this so readily with our ecological knowledge.

Where does this get us? Ecology is not appreciated as a science, and thus in the broad sense not funded properly. Ecologists fight over crumbs of funding even to monitor the changes that are occurring, and schemes that might alleviate some of the major effects of climate change are not tested because they are expensive and long-term. Ecology is a long-term science in a world that is increasingly short-term in thinking and in action. Perhaps this will change but no politician wants to wait 10-20 years to see if some experimental procedure works. Funding that is visionary is stopped after 4 years by politicians who know nothing about the problems of the Earth and sustainability. We should demand a politics of sustainability for our future and that of following generations. Thinking long-term should be a requirement not an option.

Brudvig, L.A., Barak, R.S., Bauer, J.T., Caughlin, T.T., and Laughlin, D.C. (2017). Interpreting variation to advance predictive restoration science. Journal of Applied Ecology 54, 1018-1027. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12938.

Chapman, M., LaValle, A., Furey, G., and Chan, K.M.A. (2017). Sustainability beyond city limits: can “greener” beef lighten a city’s Ecological Footprint? Sustainability Science 12, 597-610. doi: 10.1007/s11625-017-0423-7.

IPCC (2013) ‘IPCC Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.) http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_ALL_FINAL.pdf

Lean, J.L. (2018). Observation-based detection and attribution of 21st century climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews. Climate Change 9, e511. doi: 10.1002/wcc.511.

Marino, N.A.C., Romero, G.Q., and Farjalla, V.F. 2018. Geographical and experimental contexts modulate the effect of warming on top-down control: a meta-analysis. Ecology Letters 21, 455-466. doi: 10.1111/ele.12913.

Martin, J-L., Maris, V., and Simberloff, D.S. (2016). The need to respect nature and its limits challenges society and conservation science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 6105-6112. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113.

Zhou, J. and Ning, D. (2017). Stochastic community assembly: Does it matter in microbial ecology? Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 81, e00002-00017. doi: 10.1128/MMBR.00002-17.

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