I have taught several undergraduate courses with a heavy component of global change in the content. These courses often attracted students from all over campus, not just the biology department. Invariably a student (usually more than one) would come up to me after class and tell me they wanted to save the world/make a difference to our environment/other lofty goal. They would ask for my advice. I would tell them if they really wanted to make a difference, they should go into economics or law. They always looked deflated after this answer. With me being an ecologist, they assumed I would tell them they should become like me and study nature in all its splendor. I think this is what many of them wanted to do, hence the depressed looks. But my thinking was that I saw a lot more species conserved because of court cases and clever ways to align economic incentives with conservation than I ever did because of great new ecological discoveries.
For the most part I really believed this answer, although occasionally it felt a tad too glib to me. Now that I am an ecologist that is part of a Sustainability Solutions Initiative , I am having to be more thoughtful. After all, one core definition of sustainability science is a Venn diagram where sustainability science is at the intersection of three circles representing social sciences, economics, and environmental sciences (also known as the triple bottom line towards which companies are supposed to manage). For this reason interdisciplinary research, coupled natural human systems, etc. are heavily stressed in sustainability research these days. My early intuition upon which I advised students was that society & economics totally trumped anything produced by people studying the environment (be it geologists or ecologists) in terms of impacting our future. It would certainly be convenient and allow us ecologists to just go back to our old ways (guilt free), merrily probing the fundamental truths of nature. But is it really true ecologists have nothing central to add to sustainability science? Is the Venn diagram wrong?
I know this is a question many ecologists are wrestling with these days. I have my own (preliminary) thoughts I’ll share in a couple of later posts, but first I wanted to get feedback from you. Please fill out the poll and expand your thoughts in the comments!