The Naïve Ecologist

I confess to being a member of the Naïve Ecologist Society. I began research when Zoology and Botany Departments typically consisted of a great mix of scientists working at different levels of biological organization from cells and molecules to ecosystems. As far as I can remember no one thought that it was our job to save the Earth or even a part of it. Our job was to do good science to help understand the processes we see in front of us. Physiologists studied ion transfer in the gills of fish, and muscle energetics, geneticists tried to unravel the genetics of protozoa, and developmental biologists tried to understand the embryology and endocrinology of sex determination. We thought that it was the universities’ job to do excellent teaching and research, and the government’s job to take care of the society and to protect and enhance our natural environment.

Now time warp about 40-50 years later. As far as I can see the molecular and cellular physiologists and geneticists are doing the same thing now as they did then. The tools of course are much improved, their knowledge base has vastly expanded, and modern genetic technology has provided insights into how things work that no one could have imagined long ago. But still (in my experience) if you talk to these sub-organismal biologists in general they will still not tell you they are trying to save the Earth by doing science. They will certainly twist and turn to convince the granting agencies that their work is critical to solving all the problems of humanity, but everyone knows that this is fluff and will be immediately tossed off when the money is delivered. But somehow at the present time it has become the job of the ecologist to save the Earth from human destruction. There is no time left to do pure ecological research to try to find out how ecosystems work and how species interact. We must have answers now to all the pressing questions of conservation biology, and if you wish to get funding for your research you had best try to bend your goals to the solution of climate change, ecosystem services, adaptation, and evolution in the days ahead. There is no time to think and study and observe, we must know now what to do. So we build models of unknown validity and speculate with little data about plans to save the Earth based on untested theory. No other postgraduate student or scientist in a university will operate under this imperative.

This would not be a serious problem if we had a better division between more basic ecologists in universities and more applied ecologists in government labs. Some of this division still exists in some countries, but in many cases governments have cut applied ecology research programs to save money and have turned their applied ecologists into paper pushers assigned to stamp approval on environmental impact statements they have no time or resources to evaluate. So a partial solution to this problem would be to fund more applied ecology positions in government with the resources and regulatory authority to protect as much ecological integrity as possible. State of the Environment glossy brochures are not a substitute for ecological information on environmental impacts, and when you read them carefully you can begin to appreciate how little is truly known about the state of our planet.

I enjoy listening to science programs on the radio as it provides a tiny window into what the radio stations think we need to know about science in action. Science broadcasters usually concentrate on the physical sciences because since they have the big money, they must be very important, then on the space sciences, since no one wants to think about how things are on earth, and finally on behavioural ecology, nice stories that warm our hearts about how bees and birds and orchids make a living. The overall mantra is relatively simple: avoid population ecology lest you have to think about the problems of eternal growth and the human population, and avoid community and ecosystem ecology lest you have to provide more bad news about collapsing coral reefs and the impacts of climate change. Keep the Pablum flowing and hope that the Hadron Collider will save us all.

There is a certain irony is the vast expenditures now being used in medicine to make sure humans live a few more years versus the tiny expenditures being given to environmental science to check on the state of natural world. If the human population collapses in the near future, it will not be because they have not made enough progress in medicine to make us all live to be 95 instead of 85. It will be more likely be due to the inability to appreciate the twin juggernauts of overpopulation and pollution that will render the globe a less nice place for us. By that time the gated communities of Los Angeles will be passé and we will be looking for someone to blame.

2 thoughts on “The Naïve Ecologist

  1. Mike bode

    Your first-hand memories of the late 60s and early 70s are certainly different to how we view them now. For me that was an era of academic activism in conservation and environmentalism. The decades that published The Limits to Growth, and The Population Bomb, and The Blueprint for Survival. Donella Meadows and Harrison Brown and TTAPS.

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Mike – thanks for your comment. I was not specific enough in talking about the good old days, and I was referring to the 1950s and early 1960s. I completely agree that by the late 60s and certainly into the 70s and 80s onward the academic response to population and pollution grew dramatically. Charles Krebs


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