Ecologists and environmentalism

Ecologists and environmentalism

Donald R Strong (2008) Ecologists and environmentalism. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 6, No. 7, pp. 347-347.

Environmentalism needs serious discussion by ecologists. I was primed on this topic by recent statements made by colleagues to the effect that, “I’m no environmentalist, but… (insert an eminently reasonable environmentalist proposition of your choice here)”, as well as by a plaintive comment in a recent student evaluation, “The instructor is an environmentalist”. Denied the opportunity to reply to the student, I do so here. “This is an ecology course; by necessity, its subject matter deals with the environment. We use science to study the environment, and science provides the rationale and avenue for its preservation.”

The last place that I would have expected to hear negative branding of environmentalism is at an ESA function, so imagine the jolt when, at the Society’s Annual Meeting in Milwaukee this past August, we were told by a prominent ecologist that we are scientists and therefore should eschew environmentalism. There was, of course, ample refutation of the notion of any wall between ecological science and environmentalism throughout the rest of the meeting. Thomas Lovejoy’s opening plenary address demonstrated artful interweaving of science with environmentalism and how the study of biodiverse nature is an essential part of advocacy for its preservation. He finished with a story about Ben Bradlee, the former Executive Editor of the Washington Post, who steered his newspaper toward progressive reporting on the environment despite only a modest appreciation of science, and how his publisher, Katherine Graham, had complained that environmentalists are self-righteous. This was a warning to us not to be shrill, and reinforced the wisdom of doing our science with an eye on the political and social milieu.

Whereas ecology is science and environmentalism sometimes is and sometimes isn’t, the latter is necessary for the former. We ecologists have the same relationship to the subject of our studies as do art historians and archeologists to theirs. There is no opprobrium upon artists and archeologists advocating for the preservation of art and antiquities. Protection of the environment – environmentalism – is advocacy of what we study. Why should we not advocate for protection of the environment in our professional capacity?

The negative branding of environmentalism comes from groups that are part and parcel of the notorious war on science. They are dedicated to denying the environmental degradation that ecologists are documenting every day. Some of the most prominent of these groups are discussed by Jaques et al. in a review entitled, The organization of denial: conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism (Environ Pol 2008; 17: 349–85). The authors document the concerted anti-environmentalism and complete disregard of these groups for anything connected with the environment. Jaques et al. describe the substantial financial backing, broad reach, and scores of authors that have been encouraged to spread disinformation regarding scientific findings – particularly about global warming – by conservative think tanks. The authors argue that these powerful entities seek to interfere with the scientific communication that is the basis of society’s understanding of environmental issues.

Graduate students with whom I raised these issues at the ESA Annual Meeting had little trouble in recognizing the essential, functional connection between basic ecological science and environmentalism for understanding and preserving the objects of study to which they are dedicating their lives. Several pointed out that a substantial number of sessions at the meeting represented scientific environmentalism, including such topics as conservation, biodiversity, environmental justice, and sustainability.

Any accounting of our scientific values should include objectivity and rationality, which ecologists have used to yield facts about the environment. A few of many such facts produced by ecological science are that humans are responsible for global warming, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and profound ecosystem and food-web changes in the Great Lakes through the introduction of invasive species. These are the sorts of facts that anti-environmental forces seek to deny. Defending these facts as the products of science makes you an environmentalist. To separate ecological science from environmentalism to avoid potential negative connotations of the latter affords anti-environmentalists the power of demagoguery; with rhetoric and false claims, they will have achieved prejudice against the subject of our studies.

In short, it is precious and self-damaging to claim a separation between our science and environmentalism. It should be a tenet of our ethics as ecologists to reject and counter the defamation of environmentalism.


“Environmentalist” label not in our best interests

Indy Burke, Bill Lauenroth (2009) “Environmentalist” label not in our best interests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 240-240

We are responding to Donald Strong’s editorial about ecologists and environmentalism (Front Ecol Environ 2008; 6[7]: 347). We think advocating for the role of ecologists and ecological science in environmental decision making is different from what is commonly meant by the terms “environmentalist” and “environmentalism”. We agree that Earth is undergoing major environmental changes, and that the information ecological science can provide is a necessary component that policy makers will require if they are to make informed decisions.

We are concerned that Strong’s usage of “environmentalist” and “environmentalism” is naïve and risks misleading some members of the ecological science community. Environmentalist and environmentalism have lost the meanings he ascribes to them. They have become politically charged terms with the power to polarize conversations. We agree that there has been a “…negative branding of environmentalism…”, but we disagree that this is the sole result of “…the war on science”. We think it equally likely that it is the result of individuals and groups allowing their values to creep into their analyses of environmental problems. Regardless of the accurate identification of the source of the negative connotations associated with the terms “environmentalist” and “environmentalism”, we think that it is important for all of us to be aware and sensitive to this negativism. Equating ecologists and ecology with environmentalists and environmentalism will prove catastrophic to our science. If we are perceived as mixing our politics and our values into our science, we will lose our credibility, and risk our ability to have our science considered in policy setting deliberations of environmental change.

I (IB) am confident that I would not have been invited to recent meetings and interacted with individuals who are in a position to have a major influence on energy policy, if they thought I was mixing my personal opinions into my representations of science as related to the environment and natural resources.

Our strengths – as contributors to current and future environmental deliberations – derive directly from perceptions of the quality of our science. While it is likely that there are few ESA members who are not environmentalists at heart, we urge all members to resist being labeled as environmentalists or to allow what we do as scientists to be labeled as environmentalism.


Labels and values: a reply to Burke and Lauenroth

Donald R Strong (2009) Labels and values: a reply to Burke and Lauenroth. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 240-240.

Professors Burke and Lauenroth and I agree on a great deal. First, their assertion that “few ESA members…are not environmentalists at heart” is exactly the point of my original essay. The three of us also agree that one should not shout “environmentalist” in a theater crowded with suits from the energy industry. Even more, the “result of individuals and groups allowing their values to creep into their analyses of environmental problems” is a perfect description of the anti-environmental movement; indeed, such phony analyses “polarize conversations” about the environment.

The authors and I begin to part ways regarding their strictly negative connotation and narrow definition of “values”. The values of basic science are objectivity, rationality, and rigorous empiricism. In the sub-discipline of ecology, values are multifarious. Frontiers melds values of basic science with other values from social sciences. Social science involves more subjectivity than basic science and, in doing so, addresses values that differ among groups. Pertinent to ecology and the environment, values that go beyond those of basic science include utilitarian values (for example, ecosystem services and what the environment can do for humans: where The National Mining Association sees coal profits, others see ecosystem services eroded by global warming), intrinsic values (patriotic, religious, and deep aesthetic feelings about nature: many Americans, and the ESA, see “purple mountain majesty”, whereas an American president is reputed to have once said, “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?”), and opportunity values(if we don’t burn it now, what would all this fossil fuel – and the land, sea, and atmosphere destroyed by its exploitation – be worth in the future?). In environmental science, we endeavor to understand different kinds of values, not camouflage them.

Finally, there is one point about which I just plain disagree with Burke and Lauenroth. Although they claim that my arguments risk “misleading some members of the ecological science community”, I believe that such members are pretty savvy and will not be swayed by the word police any more than by partisan, ideological claptrap from conservative groups. Will these members dedicate their lives to a science that dare not speak one of its names?


Speaking out: weighing advocacy and objectivity as a junior scientist

Thomas A Morrison, Matthew P Ayres (2010) Speaking out: weighing advocacy and objectivity as a junior scientist. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 50-5

Thomas A Morrison (graduate student)

Ecologists wear many hats, and some fit better than others. One hat sure to provoke controversy, especially when worn by students, is that of an advocate. Ecologists become advocates when they go beyond objective research and actively champion particular viewpoints. The role of advocacy in science has stimulated considerable discussion over the past several years, particularly among conservation biologists (eg Shrader-Frechette 1996Strong 2008). I argue here that students have a unique role in this discussion. Our position as junior scientists affords special challenges, risks, and rewards when engaging in advocacy. I highlight these tradeoffs and offer suggestions for how to identify and avoid some of the pitfalls, drawing from my own brief experience as an ecologist-in-training.

What is advocacy, and why is it controversial? Advocacy occurs when, during the process of communicating research results, ecologists use scientific facts to shape an argument relevant to a particular policy goal. Often, this argument reflects some value that the scientist holds: for example, that we should conserve biological diversity. Because ecological research often has a direct bearing on conservation, human health, or land-use decisions that will influence people’s lives, including our own, some scientists believe that we have a right, or even an obligation, to advocate for particular views and courses of action (Strong 2008). However, although these views may be well informed and may even represent the personal opinion of most members of the scientific community, many scientists feel that it is inappropriate to mix advocacy and science (Shrader-Frechette 1996). They argue that this can too easily lead to dogmatism, hidden agendas, and biased interpretations. These “evils”, whether perceived or real, can diminish the credibility of scientists in the eyes of policy makers and the general public. Not surprisingly, most graduate programs in ecology and evolution teach a narrow doctrine of scientific objectivity.

The hazards of practicing advocacy as a student are numerous. Students often have little experience engaging policy makers or communicating science to the public. We also generally lack experience in weighing the strength of scientific evidence for or against particular courses of action (Ludwig et al. 1993). This deficiency in experience amplifies the potential to misjudge a situation or mangle an effort to influence political decision making. It may also reduce our ability to engage in future decision making, so that the original act of advocacy ends up being counterproductive. Without an established track record, advocating a view on our own may quickly call into question the reliability of our data and analyses. As junior scientists, we need to be especially sensitive to this particular risk, as a lack of credibility has the potential to limit our future job prospects and funding opportunities.

With so many potential pitfalls, should students avoid all forms of advocacy? Regardless of where we are in our careers, the principal risk of not engaging in advocacy is that our scientific findings may never reach the proper hands or might be wrongly interpreted. Because methodologies and analyses can be technical and because information sharing can be difficult in some countries, the potential for misinterpretation or lack of interpretation can be great. Indeed, graduate students may actually be in the best position to advocate, because we spend relatively long periods of time in the field and may be especially well informed about the details of a particular policy tradeoff. On a more practical level, practicing advocacy during graduate school may provide real-world experience and help employment prospects by raising the profile of our work. Several young biologists have emerged as influential figures in conservation biology, on account of their willingness to risk advocating controversial solutions to real-world problems (eg Donlan et al. 2005).

I wrestle with these ideas in my own work. I study a declining wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) population in Tanzania. Several general management options are available for counteracting this decline: increasing land protection in the calving grounds, establishing movement corridors between dispersal areas, or increasing the frequency of anti-poaching patrols. As I near completion of my thesis, I feel that I have more and more to say about which option I believe will lead to the recovery of the wildebeest population. While there is political will to conserve the migratory populations in this area, the lack of formal channels for information-sharing reduces the probability that science will play a role in the decision-making process. To counteract this, I feel that I must be vocal about my view of the situation. My decision to advocate is influenced by the urgency of the population decline and the high value that I place on biodiversity conservation, as well as on other ecological, economic, and aesthetic grounds. However, this decision is tempered by uncertainty regarding my research results and my lack of knowledge about the human or economic implications of the different management strategies.

Students who choose to engage in advocacy can use a variety of strategies. One sensible option is to enlist the help of senior scientists and policy makers, who will provide expertise and add credibility to the cause. Their experience can be a fitting complement to our energy and ideals. Additionally, many of the problems that arise from advocacy are simply the result of poorly communicated messages, or messages that are unsuited to the audience. Graduate school offers countless venues for honing these communication skills: departmental lectures, teaching assistantships, graduate workshops, oratory clubs, newsletters, and so forth. Each provides a different context and a new opportunity to practice the art of sharing information and honing your message. Finally, student advocates need to be particularly rigorous in understanding the sources and meaning of uncertainty in their analyses. Although general courses in frequentist statistics lay the foundation for this understanding, several modeling frameworks – namely, adaptive management and structured decision making – now provide model-based approaches for dealing with uncertainty in the context of natural resource management. Few graduate programs offer full courses in these emerging fields, but many workshops and short courses can be found throughout the year, varying in their degree of specialization.

In short, graduate students in ecology must think strategically before engaging in advocacy. Despite the hazards, they have an opportunity to take a leading role in using ecology to inform and shape policy decisions and influence public opinion. As ecological research, and the sources that fund it, become increasingly channeled toward understanding the growing environmental and climate crises of this century, these opportunities will only grow more numerous.

Matthew P Ayres (faculty response)In my view, ecology has become broadly relevant to society, but we remain unsophisticated in bringing our science to practice. I avoid the word “advocacy” because it can imply chaining oneself to a tree, which I cannot recommend as a career move. However, I strongly encourage interested young scientists to be aggressive by bringing powerfully relevant science to environmental decision making.

Powerful science begins with a powerful question. If you seek applied relevance, choose research questions that inform important, malleable decisions, are soluble through scientific inquiry, and address theoretical principles broader than your system. Study the business of those who implement resource management decisions, and the perspectives of those who influence decisions and are influenced by them. Go to their meetings. Read their literature. Cultivate collaboration. Try out your research questions on them and favor those that most interest them. Ensure that your research plans could produce different possible results that would support different decisions. Avoid research plans that can only support one model for management. Be able to justify your proposed research in terms of new basic knowledge and help debunk the misconception of a tradeoff between basic and applied research.

Powerful science is interpreted with clear and strong arguments. Avoid being too cautious in pursuing relevance, in which case the science could be misunderstood and underused by society, but also avoid being too aggressive in pressing tenuous conclusions, which compromises the credibility of the science. Without being either too timid or too forceful, one can express with more or less certainty scientific inferences that are more or less consequential if true. Explore different formulations of statements to maximize the objective leverage of your work for decision making. Embrace decision theory, which considers (1) the benefits of a decision if the premise is correct versus the costs if the premise is incorrect, and (2) the parallel benefits and costs of an alternative decision favored by an alternative premise. Avoid conflating scientific inference with contextual values. Make use of the construction, “If one’s management goal is (contextual value) X, then our results favor decision A over decision B”. Avoid unconscious bias that leads to the omission of inconvenient interpretations; if one result would have had applied value, the alternative must have value.

Disseminating powerful science is founded on publishing engaging papers in top journals. Conveniently, this is also how to succeed professionally and expand your beneficial impacts. Beyond publishing, seek to bring your science to the managers, decision makers, and stakeholders who cannot possibly stay on top of all the potentially relevant technical literature. Send them your papers. Go to their meetings. Have coffee with them. Consider publishing accessible, non-technical summaries and be alert to calls for public input during the development of environmental policy. Finally, I encourage readers to follow Tom’s lead in promoting continuing serious discussion about how ecology and ecologists can meet the challenge of accelerating social relevance.

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