Does ecology have a role in sustainability science?

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!

15 thoughts on “Does ecology have a role in sustainability science?

  1. My supervisor Peter Morin used to give (as far as I know, still gives) the same advice as you once did Brian: if you want to save the world, you should go in to law, economics, or politics, not ecology. Lack of scientific knowledge is rarely one of the most important things hindering solutions to global environmental problems. I tend to share this view, but I also freely admit I haven’t thought about it much. So I’m looking forward to learning something from you on this.

    Of course, what sort of ecology you need to study in order to sustain the world is another question. Presumably not the sort of ecology I do. Of course, that’s not why I do what I do (I have an old post on why I do “fundamental research” in a world with pressing applied problems). But it’s a problem if I were to claim otherwise, say in a grant application or paper. How many fundamental research papers in ecology include a paragraph that begins “This work has important implications for understanding the possible consequences of anthropogenic climate change.” when in fact the paper in question is a fundamental research paper with only the most tenuous (at best!) connection to that issue?

  2. Outstanding first post Brian, thanks.

    I voted “High” although that does not mean that we should not spend a great deal of time and effort studying social systems. Both studies are essential. Some sustainability problems are extremely straightforward such that a fourth grader could provide an effective solution. But others–particularly those involving biotic resources–are so exceedingly complex and murky that even with lots of effort, it’s still quite a bit of roulette game as to what will happen if humans apply impact x to the system in question. Something I hardly need to tell anyone here I realize. Frankly, we have for example, not really much better than rough guesses as to what the ecological (and other) impacts of climate change are going to be as we go out several decades. And if he didn’t have climate change to worry about, would we have much better of an idea about what habitat loss, land use change etc would have on biodiversity or community stability over the same time frame? I don’t think so

    I have always been a strong proponent of intensive and extensive study on a wide variety of topics, and the paramount importance of having a strong cadre of folks who can synthesize disparate pieces of info/data and model entire systems, which requires a unique and interesting set of skills, some of which might fall under what is commonly referred to as “wisdom” or even “gestalt”. This means we need theorists and empiricists, mathematicians and natural history experts, and relevant to this topic, social scientists, economists, etc. However, I also believe we need studies by those various contingents to be shrewdly tactical, i.e. well designed to return the maximum useful information for expended resources, and on that we are faaaar from “there” IMO. Let me take it even one step further even–we also need humanities folks, artists, and just the average general joe, because those people provide valuable input into human values, thereby helping to keep the whole enterprise in a larger perspective.

    But we need a societal commitment also, and on that front we are sorely lacking.

  3. Engineering is another choice. Those wanting to save the world but not inclined toward the social sciences should consider engineering. We’re going to need a lot of new technologies. Ecology is sometimes necessary, but not that often at this point.

  4. Why not try becoming a politician? After all, you need power to change the world.

    But seriously, even if no new global scale environmental problems were to emerge, ecology would still be important for finding and helping to find sustainable practises at regional and local scales. In my country the primary reason for declining biodiversity is forestry, so ecologists are needed to 1. demonstrate the benefits of species-rich forests 2. help create sustainable foresting methods.

    In a way one could answer to the poll question in all three ways. We need ecology to identify non-sustainability and contribute to sustainable policies. We also need to understand our own species to be able to create acceptable and effective sustainability policies. (You could also study humans from an ecological perspective) None of this really matters, of course, if the knowledge produced is not taken into account at the legistlative level.

    I think we need ecology to create a sustainable world. But even more than that we need ecologists to act like leaders. Ecologists know how exploiting the natural world can have serious consequences for the health and well-being of people, especially those in the lower end of the income spectrum. Their work is needed to get the message out there. And from the climate change debate we can see that constant new, confirming results are needed to make it impossible for politicians to refute science to please their ignorant voters. The more accurate the predictions get, the more politically compelling they will become.

    One way of putting it is that we don’t need to study nature OR humans to know what we’d have to do, but we’ve already studied people so well we know we need to study nature more to compel people to act.

  5. Great answers. An interesting dynamic on the poll too – it was totally leaning one way all morning and then turned the other way all afternoon to evening. I’m curious to see how that turns out.

    Adding engineering is a really great idea. One good technology to (e.g.) improve our clean energy prospects could change the world.

    I can see people are not going to fall into a false dichotomy (trichotomy?) and are instead arguing that we need to do all three: ecology, human studies and power/activism in the real-world. This is of course true. But in a world of limited resources I do think it is interesting/necessary to talk about priorities. And of course most individuals can only do one thing. This is partly driven by interest and abilities but also presumably for many by where one thinks one is going to have the most impact, thereby forcing a choice.

    A sub-theme I see in the comments, which I strongly agree with, is that it matters a lot what kind of ecology one is talking about doing. Jim & Konsta both mention measuring/ minimizing the impacts of humans and Konsta mentions measuring the value of biodiversity.

    I do wonder about Konsta’s point – if I understand it correctly – that we need more science to overcome human nature and activate people. This question is really a critical one. What will get the public motivated? Is it more science? Is it better communicated science? Is it science that asks and answers different questions? Probably a good blog posting in that question alone. For now, put me in the camp of being skeptical that the first two will really matter. And I’m not at all convinced the 3rd will either, but I don’t have a better answer. I like Jim’s proposal about humanists (poets, etc). One could argue that television and Hollywood are what really will turn the tide (depressing thought!). I’m also a fan for better education of children in the areas of data numeracy and how science really works (hint its not really the simple four steps of the scientific method they teach everybody, which I think trips us up when people see scientists don’t really act that way).

    Great ideas!

  6. My issue with not keeping ecology high on the list is that actions taken without some sort of scientific basis/knowledge/expertise may cost us more in the long run than not doing so. I understand that good choices can be made without such prior knowledge but political decisions and court actions are a gamble at that point. I would like to believe that ecological research, whether fundamental or applied, has benefits that impact science that informs policy or directly informs policy (maybe too idealistic). Maybe we as ecologists/conservation biologists/environmental scientists have to take more of an interest in how our research can influence policy and work towards that. Or researchers that are doing that work need to make sure that the science isn’t conducted with the industries completely on the outside. Buy in is important (and this is where the social science part plays in, right). It would seem to me that most of the research done with conservation/environmental science is not conducted with the groups that directly impact sustainability (although maybe we are getting better at this). For instance, if I say as a conservation biologist I am going to create a tool to help energy developers make decisions with wildlife populations/ecosystems/ in mind and I never talk to the energy developers then that is my fail.

    Overall I think ecology is a really important part of sustainability. And in terms of sustainability, I don’t know that I could choose one of those three as more important than the other.

    • Thanks for the comments. I would agree that for those of us who want to claim that our ecological research is policy relevant, we have some obligation to make sure this information gets where it needs to go (and not just casually throw in a sentence in our papers about how it could be relevant as Jeremy mentioned). Our failure to do this is mockingly called the “loading dock model” by social scientists who study science policy. The scientists puts the new information on the loading dock and waits for the trucks to come pick it up (which they rarely do). And of course if we accept ecologists have an obligation to take an active role in dissemination, then this raises all sorts of issues from do we train ecologists how to do this to do universities reward ecologists for doing this?

      But to me an interesting question is do we need to just communicate what we already know (a valid function for a PhD trained ecologist – in the US we call them extension agents and many universities have them). Or alternatively, from an influencing policy/sustainability point of view do we really need to do a lot more research (again I still support basic research but its a bit of a different animal). In short, do we already know enough about the ecology? Yes there’s always more we can know. But given that ecological knowledge is already only one input to decision making that is only noisily heard, is what we know already good enough so we should turn to communicating/advocating?

      There is an analogy to climate change – climate scientists are desperate to do more research to find that silver bullet that convinces people, but you could argue there is already more than enough research to tell us most of what we need to know (we need to reduce CO2 and methane emissions or we’re headed for a disaster with some reasonable approximations on rate and amount). I very much doubt that we will see a sea change in approach to climate change due to more science. Is ecology the same?

  7. Ecology definitely plays a major role in sustainability. Dare I say that any suggestions otherwise are cynical?

    However, the role of “the ecologist” in sustainability science is changing. Instead of serving in the role of advisor or consultant on ecologically-minded conservation initiatives or as the sooth-sayer who predicts dire consequences, ecologists and conservation biologists are steadily becoming the auditors and scorekeepers of the success/failure of such initiatives.

    One might argue that this is not ecology; it seems as if it is merely monitoring. Very often this is true. But adaptive-management needs some “scientific-depth” to be effective. It is no longer enough to say that the conservation project has failed, you now have to explain why it failed (a lawyer or a politician cannot do this) so that the management plan can be tweaked and, hopefully, corrected.

    May I suggest this editorial to emphasize my ramblings?
    Possingham, H.P 2012. How can we sell evaluating, analyzing and synthesizing to young scientists? Animal Conservation 15: 229-230.

    • Hmm – cynical vs realistic vs pragmatic – these are in the eyes of the beholder I think.

      Thanks for the Possingham paper reference, although I think I read it slightly differently – he mostly talks about field vs. synthesis and modelling. I don’t see him giving up on influencing policy, but arguing about the most effective way to influence policy.

      To me personally, if you argue that the primary role of ecology is to “keep score” and “audit” the success of initiatives determined by others, then you would have to answer the poll as saying that the role of ecology in sustainability is “low” or “lowest”. I don’t know anybody who thinks of auditors as having a major impact on the future direction of things. Accounting auditors get paid well, keep the world slightly more honest than it otherwise would be (but see Enron), and thus are a function that needs to exist and therefore by some logic as important as anything else.

      But I don’t think the ecologist as auditor has turned out too well in the cod fishery which collapsed all the while as we exquisitely documented the collapse. And in the opposite corner of the continent, ecologists are doing a pretty good job of documenting the trashing of the California Mediterranean ecosystem by invasive grasses and eucalypts and urban development but I would argue that this is at most an intellectual satisfaction that this is being documented because its not changing much.

      In the end, I don’t think “become an ecologist – you’ll be able to audit the consequences of what the real decision makers decide” is a compelling sales job for being an ecologist.

      But maybe I’m being simplistic. I welcome a clarification if you think I have misunderstood.

      • Sorry for the delayed response… I’m a sporadic blog reader.

        First, I apologise for the ambiguous cynicism reference. You are right: cynicism (in the classical Greek sense) embraces realism and pragmatism as opposed to to the contemporary view which is characterised by mistrust and pessimism.

        Second, regarding the Possingham paper. No, he does not argue against informing policy. However, if this is what I implied in my original comment, then I apologise for my lack of clarity. What Possingham argues, as do I, is that the way to solving real-world problems no longer lies in generating new data on the natural world as a means to understand ecological systems. Instead, he proposes that we evaluate, analyse and synthesize existing data on the responses of natural systems to human interventions. We will, therefore, no longer try to understand ALL the processes within the natural system (which I assume is the goal of fundamental ecology) but, rather, gain knowledge on effects of man-made interventions on the natural system. The distinction is slight but has major application implications.

        Third, I am certain that their are many examples of dismal ecological events that happened despite efficient monitoring. Here I agree with you that auditing data alone are insufficient to ensure sustainability. That being said, I would like to believe that a sustainable outcome is implausible without sound data regarding the success or failure of intervention strategies; unless we are just very lucky, which I don’t think we are (making my the cynic in this case).

        Lastly, I am ashamed to agree with you that “become an ecologist – you’ll be able to audit the consequences of what the real decision makers decide” is a compelling sales job for being an ecologist. But just because it is not a sexy job doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.

        To sum up:
        Is ecology currently important in present day sustainability targets? NO, probably not. The are more pressing social, political and economic issues that take precedence.
        Should it be? I think YES.
        How can we make ecology more useful to sustainability? Ecologists have to prove which interventions work well and provide evidence against those which don’t. i.e. scorekeeping

      • Thanks Falko – I was probably taking an excessively devils advocate point of view. There is much I agree with. The points about it being impossible to be intelligent about sustainability without data, and deriving from this view maybe to spend more time with the data we have instead of in the field are all spot on (I’m a macroecologist so this is my approach even to basic research). I hold out hope that ecologists can have an even larger role, but I admit I don’t have a clear vision or answer though.

  8. Looks like I’m a little late to this party, anyone still hanging around?

    To me the answer depends on the time scale you are interested in. If you want to save the world right now, policy is clearly the way to go. But if we all went that route, then who would save the world in 50 years? That is actually John Harte’s line, which he told me he used when arguing with Paul Ehrlich about this very topic. It just emphasizes how long it takes for research to influence policy and management, and how unpredictable its influence is. Whether this is “too long” or not depends on your need for environmental gratification.

    • “Looks like I’m a little late to this party, anyone still hanging around?”

      Everyone will know the party’s still going on because now we show recent comments in a sidebar on the homepage. 😉

    • Hi Peter. Thanks for commenting. We’re really trying to encourage dialogues on the blog so as Jeremy said, never too late.

      Interesting that two big names like Harte & Ehrlich were having the same debate we are.

      I guess Harte’s hypothesis is testable. I wonder how much sustainability science today is driven by science that is less than 50 years old? For simplicity, I’m going to narrow it to conservation biology. Corridors, metapopulations, stochastic extinction, and obviously all the molecular “conservation genetics” is new. In particular spatial structuring seems to be a genuine new vein in ecology (although it was on the cover of Andrewartha & Birch’s textbook many decades ago and Levins metapopulation model is almost 50 years old …). Density-dependent population regulation, habitat preference, many of the really core tools are, I would bet, >50 years old. I wonder what the actual percentage would be. I would guess 70% of the science used in the real world in conservation biology is >50 years old, but I’m just shooting from the hip. If it is 70% >50 years old, is that a positive or negative commentary on the contributions of basic research in ecology to the sustainibility of the world? That of course leaves aside the original point of my post which is how important is all of the science in – say – conservation biology vs. the human side. I know I’ve also deviated a bit from your point and 50 years is an arbitrary point that you weren’t putting particular weight on. But Harte’s claim is truly a testable (and important hypothesis).

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