The unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist*

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.

Over the holiday break, my family logged about 2000 km in our gasoline-powered car, loaded with people, luggage, gifts, and ski equipment.  We do something like that four times per year, visiting family east and west.  “Love miles” people call them, and we feel guilty about the carbon emissions, but it’s far less starting from where we live now in Sherbrooke, Québec, than it would be with air travel from where we used to live in Vancouver, BC. And our second car is 100% electric, in a province with “clean” electricity.  So, in terms of our ecological footprint, it’s bad, but it could be worse.

A couple times per year, I use air travel to go to professional meetings of one sort or another.  For 2-3 others I drive or take buses or trains.  I’m pretty sure the flights alone put me well above my yearly fair share of contributions to atmospheric pollution, but I turn down a decent number of invitations, in part because of consumption guilt, and I travel less than many fellow ecologists.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have travelled by plane to Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, Tanzania, and Malaysia, among other places, with the primary purpose of experiencing the world’s unique ecosystems, flora, and fauna (birds especially).  But for the most part, we try to keep things local, with frequent trips to natural areas nearby.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

What does any of this have to do with ecological science?

For as long as ecology has been a science, it has been entangled with environmentalism.  Being an academic ecologist does not logically commit one to being an environmentalist, but I’d bet that the vast majority of DE readers have a stronger-than-average environmental conscience.  Without any need for speculation, we can also all see that the conferences we fly to these days often have a major focus on environmental change: all the ecological and evolutionary consequences of human activities, in particular carbon emissions (via climate change) and land-use change.  We step off of carbon-belching planes and proceed to spend several days bemoaning extinctions driven ultimately by carbon emissions.  We sip B.C. wine at dinner, sharing our outrage at the loss of yet more natural habitat to vineyards in the Okanagan Valley.  Of course other scientists (and people of many stripes) fly to meetings and drink wine with friends, but ecologists are in the special position of being directly concerned with downstream consequences of these activities for the natural world.

In this article in The Guardian, I thought Madeleine Somerville captured the gist of what I’m getting at perfectly with the phrase “the unbearable hypocrisy of being an environmentalist” (mostly I’m just re-channelling her article here).  In a recent review of Chris Thomas’ book (Inheritors of the Earth), David Biello captured the essence of many ecologists’ travels: “…a truly strange world in which people fly all over to see rare of declining animals and plants, emitting the greenhouse gases that make those animals and plants extinct”.  Ring a bell?  I struggle with inconsistencies in my thoughts and actions almost daily.

It is entirely possible for an individual to choose to reduce personal air travel to zero, to live in a small communal apartment, to use only public transit, to forego food with a steep environmental cost, and so on.  But hardly anyone is willing to incur the full costs in terms of relationships (e.g., visiting family at the other end of the country), having a job that is fulfilling and satisfying (the reason you’re at this end of the country), or simply doing the things we enjoy most in life (e.g., traveling).  I certainly am not.  Some students seem to come close, but my sense is that adherence to the code of conduct wains as people attain the financial means to start making exceptions.  Thus the hypocrisy, which does indeed feel unbearable sometimes.

So what to do?  I certainly don’t have any good answers to that question.  My main reason for wanting to write about this, apart from a bit of self-therapy, was to hear how others face down their hypocrisy.  Do you feel it?  Personally, I deal with the unbearable hypocrisy by:

  • Owning the hypocrisy, rather than denying it. It’s bad and yes it could be worse.  But how could it be better?  I try to continue to ask that question.
  • Trying to be less judgemental (than I used to be) of people who have made different life decisions, especially when they involve contradictions between actions and stated values. “Judge not.  Before you judge yourself” (Bob Marley).
  • In some cases, replacing professional air travel with online meetings. I’m not quite yet willing to ground myself completely, but maybe one day.
  • Limit second-guessing. If I’ve committed to something I’m unsure about, I try to think more about not doing it again in the future than whether I should have done it the first time.
  • Exercise my democratic right to vote in ways that seem most likely to promote collective environmental responsibility. A great deal of consumption seems to be driven by a general unwillingness of people to forgo what everyone else seems to be enjoying so much (cue Facebook photos of your friend swimming with turtles in a tropical reef), so I wonder sometimes if “top-down” (dis)incentives are the only way to really advance these things.

Anyone else feeling conflicted?

*Title phrase modified from here.


132 thoughts on “The unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist*

  1. Yes, absolutely, with you 100% – I feel guilty for just existing! Not sure I agree with all of your ways of dealing with this, but I’d add that a lot can be done to offset some of the bad stuff by focusing on what we do that’s good (in environmental terms), such as the fact that we train future generations of environmental professionals who hopefully are going to make some difference.

    On a personal level my wife and I try to reuse and recycle as much as is humanly possible at home and at work, and to make purchasing decisions that are as environmentally friendly as possible, given the constraints of budget etc. So for example we have just had the back of our house remodelled and a new kitchen installed. Amongst the things that we did to reduce the environmental impact of this work were:

    – reuse as much of the old masonry as possible on other projects, e.g. a new brick path in the garden. Anything unusable was recycled as hard core for building projects.

    – every scrap of metal, down to the last nail, was recycled.

    – every scrap of timber was either repurposed in the garden or is being burnt in our fireplace over the winter.

    – our old kitchen (which was perfectly serviceable and which we would have kept had we been able to get additional doors) was given to a young couple on low income who had just bought there first house and were short of cash.

    – our new kitchen included as much wood as possible in the doors and worktops, rather than granite, plastics, etc.

    – we installed a more efficient gas boiler and under floor heating.

    I try to make these small kinds of decisions every day in relation to things like composting and recycling, walking to work, putting cat poop into the shrub borders rather than in the rubbish bin, etc. etc. It can be exhausting and I wonder sometimes whether it’s all worth it when so many other people really don’t give a shit. But it eases the feelings of hypocrisy….

  2. Via Twitter (that last one is particularly interesting to me because I suspect it will be a minority opinion on this comment thread):

    • “the only reason to not go to a conservation conference is if it doesn’t make you a more effective conservationist”. Fair point, but surely there must be some cost/benefit ratio considered. How much better a conservationist will one be after a single meeting? Does flying across an ocean increase the bar for justification? Could one not stay home and do something else to become a better conservationist?

  3. Great essay. I think we all make compromises and all lead less perfect lives than we might like (speaking now only with respect to carbon footprint; I’ll leave it open whether this applies universally). I’m always surprised how many environmental advocates own dogs (which have substantial carbon footprints), just as one example. (Cue outraged responses from dog lovers; but they’re just an example.) In my own case, I own a very old house that resists energy-efficient retrofits for various reasons; but we don’t drive to work – etc etc. Everyone has their own set of tradeoffs and I agree with Mark that deciding to get better in whatever way you can is probably more productive than despairing because you’re not perfect.

    And since Mark didn’t, I’ll drop a link here to Brett Favaro’s book “The Carbon Code” ( which I think is pretty compatible with this viewpoint. (And also good!)

  4. Great Post Marc Vellend.
    I think about this stuff all the time, and at a certain point I decided to act on it. I used to do research in Panama, and came to the point that my travels to and from that country were probably doing more harm with my carbon footprint than than any good my research and training did. I no longer attend international conferences unless it is absolutely necessary or I can mix them in with visits to family or friends. We do not own a car, but do rent them occasionally for outdoor recreation etc. I have used a bicycle as my principle form of transport for 40 years.

    Nevertheless, I still have have “love miles” – the annual trip to Ontario and Quebec to see family and friends, for example. And although I have not calculated it recently, I am sure my carbon footprint is far above the global average. Of course, that does not stop me from banging on about the evils of climate change and the need for a low carbon future. Does that make me a hypocrite? In the eyes of some – particularly the self-interested commentators in the fossil fuel lobby. But to paraphrase George Monbiot (, I’d rather be a hypocrite trying to do the right thing than a cynic who denies their personal agency and refuses all calls to change.

    I am aware that these withdrawals (from international research, from meetings) are probably limiting my career prospects. So in fairness to those who feel they still have to do this sort of thing, I turned 60 this year and so my career probably has limited mileage left in it. Younger ecologists can probably get far more out of attending meetings in the form of Networking and getting their work out there.

    But consider this. If we go on with business as usual, we will bequeath an unrecognizable world to future generations. Faced with that prospect, we should be seriously considering whether our travels are worth it.

    Also interesting is the fact that neither governments nor popular environmental science text books talk about the most effective measures that we as individuals can take to reduce our carbon footprint. See this article in Environmental Research Letters ( The top five things you can do? In order of effectiveness: have fewer kids, Live car free, avoid one trans-Atlantic flight per year, buy Green Energy (ahh, but what energy is really “green”?), and / or buy a more fuel efficient car.

    • Also @tpoi (above), I find interesting the question of the cost of _not_ going to a given conference. Tim says he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out, but I sometimes do. I’ll see the schedule for a conference somewhere on another continent, and think about how it would be great to be there. Maybe we need to start live-streaming all this stuff?

      Here you raise career prospects, which is an interesting one. There’s the networking and visibility, which is a real benefit. But one thing I’ve noticed is that when people get evaluated for grants, awards, and so on, there’s an expectation that they’ve been present(ing) at ‘major’ meetings. So there’s a benefit just to being able to put it on your CV. Personally, that doesn’t sit quite right with me. It’s not an accomplishment to go to a meeting.

      • I definitely feel like I’m missing out, and am a poorer scientist, because I can’t got to the ASN standalone meeting in Asilomar, and to the occasional other conferences and workshops that really interest me. Lately I increasingly feel like I’m falling out of touch with the collective thinking of my colleagues about what science is most worth doing and how best to do it.

    • “falling out of touch with the collective thinking of my colleagues about what science is most worth doing and how best to do it”. Is that a bad thing? Maybe too much communication too rapidly and frequently leads to group-think and sub-optimal diversity of opinions? (Although perhaps unlikely given disagreements about the importance of just about any topic.)

      • Oh, it’s definitely a bad thing. At least for me. I am at no risk of succumbing to group think! But if I don’t even know what the group is thinking about, then I can’t even join the conversation in a productive way, never mind agree or disagree with it.

  5. Wow, great post. I think a lot about these issues.

    A great hypocrisy is when plastic disposable cups are used in ecological (and conservation!) activities, meetings and seminars. It’s so easy just to bring one’s own reusable cup! it’s also surprising how people use air conditioning and keep the lights on all the time – OK, living without air conditioning in Bahia is not trivial, but it’s not hard to turn off the light when there’s no one in the room…

    I wonder if there’s more to it, though. I’ve read that religious people may be less kind than non-religious ones – perhaps with a “hollier than thou” mentality. Could this not be happening to ecologists? A mentality of the type “I’m doing research to protect threatened ecosystems, so I don’t have to avoid single-use plastic / turn off the lights / use public transportation.”

    Thanks for writing this!

    • I think the “holier than thou” attitude does happen, and it probably creates backlash – nobody wants to be preached at, especially when there’s underlying hypocrisy. Being less judgmental is part of this issue for me.

  6. Via Twitter, what I suspect will be a minority opinion in this discussion (start of a Twitter discussion that includes Brett Favaro, author of the Carbon Code linked to earlier in this thread):

    • Do personal consumption choices make much difference? The last point in the post leans somewhat towards ‘no’, in agreement with zarana. If a top-down policy restricted everyone’s travel, it would have a huge impact, and also reduce everyone’s fear of missing out. But hoping that individuals will each make sacrificial decisions that add up to much might be unrealistically optimistic. But the push has to start somewhere, which I suppose puts me on the fence…

      • A lot of this comes back to Garrett Hardin and the tragedy of the commons, doesn’t it? Hardin claimed that the way you resolve tragedies of the commons is “mutual coercion, mutually agreed to.” For instance, government regulations that privatize the commons or otherwise prevent its overexploitation. Hardin is pretty scornful about appeals to personal morality as a way to resolve tragedies of the commons. There are of course substantial arguments that he’s wrong, and I’m not up on the social science literature on that.

        Semi-relatedly, I confess I’m a bit skeptical of what I understand to be the Carbon Code’s argument that the reason for each of us to personally reduce our own C footprint is so that politicians and policy makers will listen to us and take us seriously when we ask them to implement environmental policies. I’m no expert on theories of political change (and based on recent experience I’m not sure if politicians, political activists, political scientists, and sociologists are either!). And quite possibly I haven’t grasped the full argument. But FWIW, I don’t quite see how my influence on the Canadian government’s environmental policies has anything to do with my choices to get my house insulated, take public transit to work, etc.

      • I agree with “the push has to start somewhere”… I try to live the way I think that, if most people lived this way, the world would be a better place. I don’t think personal choices by themselves will make much of a difference – but they are maybe an essential (yet insufficient) condition.
        I mean, I can’t speak for public transport if I don’t use it. So I leave my car at home and take the bus, sometimes waiting over 40 minutes for a bus that never comes, with no shade.
        But of course, in order to maje a difference, political participation is needed. But setting the example might help.

        …By the way – is taking a bus trip significantly less impacting than flying? E.g 36 hours by bus VS two hours by plain.

  7. As an ecologist who logs nearly 100K air miles per year, I think about this a lot. Although my house is virtually carbon-neutral (PV, wood-stove), and I drive a hyper-fuel-efficient car, and I recycle everything, air travel cancels it all. But the one thing that beats out air travel in carbon costs, by an order of magnitude, is each additional child ( I often wonder why that has fallen off of ecologists’ and environmentalists’ discussions of carbon costs and ecological footprints. And yes, my *choice* has been to not have children.

    • Aaron, doesn’t that line of thought mean that your parents should take the blame for your carbon emissions, not you? Not trying to troll at all, it’s a serious question. When you’re calculating your personal carbon footprint, you shouldn’t double-count any units of CO2. So which CO2 emissions are your fault, and which are your parents’ fault? See item #1 in this list:

      • I agree, we don’t want to double-count. As a first pass, parents are responsible for children’s contributions while the latter are still dependents (i.e., < 18 yrs old; still living at home…). But as more-or-less independent adults, we make our own choices.

      • The whole issue of whether or not to have kids and, if so, how many to have is such an emotive one, but ultimately I respect anyone’s right to not have kids or to have as many as they want, whilst noting the environmental impact of each individual. But someone has to have children otherwise where are the nurses and doctors and plumbers and carpenters and so forth going to come from in the next generation? A reduction in human population is a good aim, for sure, but it has to be done slowly if we are going to avoid all kinds of social catastrophes. Aiming for an average number of children per couple of about 1.9 should do it in the long term.

    • I can think of a few reasons why the government wouldn’t tell people to have one less child to conserve resources. For starters, it sounds just like the intro to some dystopian sci-fi story.

      More seriously, fertility rates are already “controlled” in such a way that they lie at or below replacement level in the most affluent populations. Ignoring this negative correlation between population growth and per capita emissions is the main issue (both scientific and moral) in the cited article. In practice (even if not in intention), the article amounts to people from populations with high per capita emissions telling people from less affluent groups to have less babies.

  8. This is something I’ve struggled with a lot recently. I wrote a correspondence in Nature Ecology & Evolution about how ridiculously few academic conferences (9%) advertise any form of sustainable practices

    and how paradoxically “sustainability science” was one of the biggest offenders. My blog post about it is here

    This past year I voted with my money and time and only traveled to conferences with Carbon Offset policies. I decided that I wasn’t willing to give up conferencing (it has too many benefits) but I was willing to make sustainability a factor in my decision about which conferences I go to (since there are so many good ones each year – it’s fairly easy to avoid environmental offenders in ecology). Side note: ESA’s annual meeting does do carbon offsetting – but perplexingly they haven’t advertised that in years and didn’t respond to emails asking for the information [which was incredibly frustrating].

    There are serious philosophical/moral/practical issues to offsetting, but I think in this case they are a net positive.

    • I was wondering if carbon offsetting would come up. Every time I look this up, and see that I can spend let’s say $20 to neutralize my coast-to-coast plane trip, it seems very hard to believe, although I’ll admit I don’t know much about where exactly that $20 goes. Surely it’s a better environmental ‘investment’ to simply not go on the trip. I can see this helping assuage some people’s guilt, allowing them to proceed with business-as-usual. Have the purchase of personal carbon offsets really made any difference to the atmospheric CO2 concentration? I’d love to know if there’s an answer to that question.

      • I’m very skeptical of offset options offered by airlines and other for-profit corporations (they have an incentive to make it as cheap as possible, and it’s hard to know where your money is going). However, usually, academic conference committees who choose to include a carbon/biodiversity offset into the registration price do a good job making sure it is a scientifically valid offset. See for example the society of conservation biology, who puts out a call to NGOs/governments to offer offset projects for their big international conference. They select the best offset project from the bids (and their requirements are rigorous).

        I think the offset needs to be in the ticket price. What I want to see is a randomized controlled experiment where a University allows half their staff to charge offsets as a travel expense and the other half not to. Will the half with the offset fly more? My guess is no, not for work (it might be true for personal vacations though).

      • This knee-jerk suspicion towards offsetting is common in conservation circles. It’s normally based on feelings and suspicions, rather than evidence. I personally think it’s based on the sociological idea that tabu violations cannot be remedied with material compensation. To an environmentalist, carbon emissions have a negative moral dimension. The idea that you could pay someone $20, and that your emissions would be essentially voided seems impossible. It’s the same way the early protestants saw Catholic indulgences.

        But carbon is a chemical. The processes that take it out of the atmosphere are relatively well understood, and help form the basis of global carbon accounting. Are you equally skeptical of national carbon emission estimates? Carbon trading schemes? Or when the IPCC say that the global oceans sequester 2B tonnes of carbon per year? The principles (and many of the assumptions) are the same.

        Is is unfair to draw parallels between this skepticism of carbon offsetting and vaccine skepticism? For example: how can an injection of a tiny amount of liquid help someone avoid a disease in two years time? How can we trust vaccines when they’re made by corporations who are driven by the profit motive? I don’t mean any offense by this, I just think that we all have to be careful of our own cognitive biases.

      • Good points, though I’m not sure C offsetting is on exactly the same basis as C accounting. Describing existing stocks and flows of C is different (and in some ways easier) than saying what those stocks and flows *would* have been had you not paid $X to C offset scheme Y. My admittedly-limited understanding is that the (a?) main difficulty with C offsets is evaluating that counterfactual hypothetical.

      • Yeah, great points – offsetting is much harder than accounting. I think the only one of my equivalencies that holds water is carbon markets and carbon trading schemes, many elements of which depend on counter-factuals.

      • “My admittedly-limited understanding is that the (a?) main difficulty with C offsets is evaluating that counterfactual hypothetical.”

        This is true. It’s usually quite difficult to evaluate counterfactuals in many fields (and my understanding is that carbon offsetting is no exception), as your blog post a while back reminds us

        The Society of Conservation Biology, has a stringent list of requirements that help address this.

      • I can definitely admit to not knowing the evidence, which would need to involve at least two things: (1) how the $20 pulls carbon out of the atmosphere (e.g., if it’s planting a tree, how much _more_ carbon is fixed semi-permanently than whatever would have grown there had a tree not been planted; perhaps a volunteer tree grows a few years later anyway)?; (2) how do the get-out-of-jail-free cards influence human behaviour (do people not reduce consumption that they otherwise would have)? Do we have the answers?

  9. I am agricultural engineer, I carried out my master in plant production (industrial agriculture) and I realized that I wanted to “change my mind”, “change my focus” and “Save the world” carrying my PHd in ecology. Now …. I realized that is the same thing…

  10. Not that this post needs any more conversation starters, but in retrospect I kind of wish we’d included a poll asking respondents “Which of the following, if any, is it hypocritical for an ecologist to engage in? Check all that apply.” Besides the actions that have already come up in the post, others I’d have liked to poll on include:
    -eating meat
    -supporting immigration from poor to rich countries (personally, I’m strongly in favor of this one. But not all ecologists are. Decades ago now, Paul Ehrlich got in a lot of political hot water for arguing that immigration from poor to rich countries should be banned on ecological grounds, because it raises the environmental impact of the immigrants)
    -opposing government limits or bans on child bearing, like China’s one-child policy.

    • The real hypocrisy in my opinion (not excluding me) is actually our current focus on a personal “environmental” lifestyle and consumer choices as this will save the world.
      Without a huge cultural and political change not much will change. And here, I think ecologists have a obligation to improve the understanding of people how we are not independent of our environment and most things in our world are interconnected. Maybe more, but I guess that is a matter of opinion.

      PS: Of course, personal change is important, but it is more like treating symptoms and not causes.

    • I think eating meat is not necessarily hypocritical. For example, if you eat kangaroo in Australia or deer you shoot yourself in the USA*, the environmental impact of that is low (lower than commercial dairy products). Additionally, Chicken and some sea-food products have just as low a carbon/ecological footprint as dairy.

      As a compromise, I personally allow myself some meat consumption at restaurants but mostly eliminate the big ecological culprits of beef, lamb, and unsustainable fish I know about. For many people average carbon benefit of eliminating beef/lamb from their diet is greater than going from beef/lamb-free to vegan!

      As a mathematician, and given my personal utility, I saw that compromise as a huge nonlinear return on my investment – way too hard for me to pass up.

      I assume you were suggesting an ecological argument, but there are of course animal welfare arguments. I think animal welfare and ecology/conservation are completely different subjects, but my guess is that some ecologists might disagree with me on that.

      I don’t judge people on their diets choices. I think the bigger culprit is subsidies for unsustainable production. I really wish meat (and all products) were priced to match their ecological footprints. I really like the idea of a carbon/ecological tax, and then people can make their own decisions based on the prices they have to pay and their personal utility.

      *commercial venison is farmed in the USA I believe

      • Agree that animal welfare and ecological footprint-type considerations are completely different reasons for cutting back on or eliminating meat from one’s diet. For instance, one could make an ecological argument for eating invasive or otherwise undesirable wild animals. But on animal welfare grounds, that’s just as bad as eating farm animals.

      • Exactly. Hugh Possingham once pointed out to me, that if your metric of animal welfare is # of individuals killed, conservation and welfare are especially antagonistic objectives (e.g. a shark is probably one of the least sustainable things you could possibly eat, but would provide enough calories for people to consume as killing thousands of chickens)

      • I’m going to push back a bit on this one because it really depends upon how you define “animal welfare”. There are many aspects to trophy and non-game hunting that are clearly issues of animal welfare and also relate to conservation. Fox hunting is a very good example: part of why the lowland English countryside looks the way it does is because land owners have planted small woodlands to encourage foxes that they can hunt, however most people in the UK see fox hunting as cruel and anachronistic. Likewise trophy hunting of big game, removing top predators or culling large herbivores such as elephants, all have implications for (or are indeed encouraged by) conservation efforts. But again, most people in the west would see this as cruel animal exploitation.

        I’ve always considered animal welfare and conservation to be related in as much as they reflect the ways in which humans relate to, and respect, the non-human life with which we share the planet.

      • They are often related, yes, but I’d still say they are seperate objectives. Some people can care greatly about one and not at all about the other (on both sides). But of course most people care about both to varioius degrees. I suspect the majority of people in the west care about animal welfare more than the ecology.

  11. Pingback: Pick and mix 15 – some results from sampling the World Wide Web | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  12. Via Twitter:

    • Good one. There’s the environmental cost, and also the financial cost to government agency from country A of sending researchers half-way around the world to study a question they could address in their backyard. Efficient investment? I have always preferred local field work, but I’d be lying if I said it was only because I wanted to minimize by environmental footprint. But as with many things, we make decisions for a variety of reasons, and then do an accounting afterwards, giving ourselves points for the environmentally friendly decisions, even if they were made for other reasons. Points for me for local fieldwork!

      • “But as with many things, we make decisions for a variety of reasons, and then do an accounting afterwards, giving ourselves points for the environmentally friendly decisions, even if they were made for other reasons. ”

        Interesting remark. When I reflect on some of the major environmentally-related decisions I’ve made in my life, they’re not dissimilar to yours or those of many other environmentally-conscious middle class and upper-middle class Westerners. But I mostly haven’t made those decisions to try to reduce my environmental impact. I don’t have any field sites (I’m a lab-based ecologist) and my students have only ever had local ones, but that’s for scientific reasons (I can’t do the work I want to do in the field) and financial reasons (I can’t afford to send my students to far-flung field sites). Most years I only fly to one conference (the ESA meeting). But that’s because (i) there aren’t many other conferences that interest me, (ii) family obligations, and (iii) teaching obligations (it’s that last, not C footprint considerations, that keeps me from going to the ASN standalone meeting in Asilomar every year, which really bums me out…). We’re a 1-car family and I take public transit to work. But that’s because a second car would be expensive relative to how much use and benefit we’d get from it, not because I want to reduce my C footprint. We paid a lot of money to have our house well insulated, but because we were sick of feeling cold and because we figured we’d get the investment back in the form of savings on heating bills and increased price when we eventually sell the house. And we only have 1 kid, but environmental impacts did not enter into our decision to have a kid at all, and did not enter into our decision not to have more than one. And if anybody was inclined to give me “bonus points” for those choices, my response would be “You really shouldn’t”.

        I am cutting back on eating beef, and we don’t eat a lot of fish either, and that’s for conservation and C footprint reasons. Which means my family is cutting back too, since I do the cooking. And I do care about environmental policies when deciding who to vote for in elections.

        As an aside, I’d also note that reflective, conscious decision making has its limits. Nobody has time to derive every decision from first principles–and trying to do so would presumably itself be a terrible decision, because you’d spend your whole life trying to decide the right way to live. Plus, the net environmental impacts of individual actions are notoriously small, diffuse, indirect, and hard to assess. So shortcuts and heuristics are indispensible to decision making. I think this is one reason why we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on others’ heuristic decisions. And to ecologists’ collective credit, I don’t get the sense that many of them *do* pass judgment on others’ heuristic decisions. Nobody on this thread has scolded anyone for flying to conferences, or having kids, or etc. People are relating their own personal decisions, but nobody’s adding “and anybody who doesn’t do as I do is making bad choices”.

      • Instead of flying to faraway sites, it’s often (not always) an option of hiring local people or inviting local researchers as coauthors to collect the data.
        But fieldwork is a fantastic learning experience. So I personally think it’s perfectly justifiable to have faraway field sites as part of one’s studies, when the focus is on one’s formation, and not on the data collected.

  13. Via Twitter:

    I’m curious to know how many ecologists feel this way, and if/how it’s affected the number of conferences in the world and how well they’re attended. Attendance at the ESA Annual Meeting, for instance, is on a slow long term *upward* trajectory. But attendance at ESA obviously reflects lots of factors, so I don’t know that you can just look at ESA attendance and infer anything about how many ecologists are cutting back conference attendance on C footprint grounds.

  14. Some pushback via Twitter. Don Yee says that Mark, and most of the commenters on this thread, should stop conflating ecology with environmentalism, and suggests that ecologists have neither more (nor less) obligation than anyone else to consider the consequences and trade-offs associated with their actions:

    • And pushback against Don from Jeff Ollerton:

      • I’m of mixed mind here. On one hand, I think ecology and environmentalism can easily be defined in a conceptually distinct way, as Don does. But in reality, a great many people become ecologists precisely because of an environmentalist bent, and the hope that one will feed back to the other. I don’t think we can pretend they aren’t entangled. Personally, a great deal of my science is curiousity-drive, with no direct path to “making a difference”, but even some of that research ends up feeding into discussions of environmental management, policy, etc.

    • To which Don has replied:

  15. Via Twitter, another claim that if you really care about your environmental impact you won’t have kids:

    For the record, I disagree with this because I think other considerations trump environmental impact. I hope to elaborate my possibly-unpopular opinions on this in a comment later, but I’m absolutely swamped today. I really shouldn’t even be taking a few minutes to copy the Twitter convo into this thread…

    • Come on Jeremy – what could be more important than elaborating on a possibly-unpopular opinion on human reproduction?! Maybe another day (but looking forward to hearing it)

      • Maybe I won’t have to; Jeff Ollerton beat me to (some) of it on Twitter. And honestly, this particular opinion of his (and mine) probably isn’t all that unpopular:

        I’d only add that I think history shows pretty clearly that the only way people cut back substantially on reproduction (absent totalitarian government intervention) is when their countries get healthier and wealthier and undergo the demographic transition.

      • Well according to Tom Collins on Twitter robotics are going to be doing all of that in the future. If you’ve ever had a prostrate examination you may find that prospect somewhat alarming…..

      • And in reply, Tom Collins says he wasn’t actually talking about a categorical imperative that nobody have kids. Which as an aside is a small illustration of the difficulty of having a substantive conversation about difficult issues on Twitter–misunderstandings are likely when it’s difficult for people to elaborate.

  16. There’s a tendency in mainstream newspapers to put the blame on the individual citizen (be him/her an ecologist or somebody else) and to forget the economics of it and orders of magnitude of consumptions (in that regard, the above link to the Science piece on what affects most one’s climate footprint was a step in the right direction but individual action is only a tiny part of the story, in my view). Industry and governments have a huge responsibility there. If you government taxed gasoline really high and put everything on electric cars, you might have done the 2000km sustainably.

    It is easy to agree that moderation, for travel as for all things, is a good thing. (I usually tend to moderate myself because travelling in high doses is expensive on a researcher’s budget!). But does individual travel moderation – by air notably – really has an impact?

    Air travel represents a small part of the overall forces generating climate change, around 3.5% to 5% (I picked these here – I hope it is correct). So we might have more impact on climate change mitigation as ecologists by working towards an agriculture or industry using less carbon rather than working on our flight schedules.
    Second, if air travel is polluting more than other means of transportation, it just means that the levels of taxation are not high enough. Lobbying for (much) higher taxes on planes may have a much much higher impact than limiting one’s travels (because it affects everybody and not only environmentally-conscious folks, which are a minority), even if limiting oneself seems the *right* thing to do from an occidental perspective. Third, concerning cars, there is already quite a few electric options but they are super-expensive, and this is in part – not only – due to the companies revolving around the oil business, so that’s a structural not individual problem.

    Focusing on the individual contribution to climate change is presenting an economic and largely industrial/agricultural problem as an individual moral issue, which – in my view – diverts us from the real levers to fight off climate change (and make people guilty about stuff they control very little).

    • I agree with this, though I might quibble with the claim at the end that focusing on individual consumption behavior “diverts” us from focusing on the “real” levers. For instance, if this post (which focuses on individual consumption behavior) hadn’t been written or published, would any more political activism or voting or etc. have happened?

      • You got me there – concerning this post in an academic setting where everybody debates, the opportunity cost is low. But in general, it must be so great for the bosses of big industries to read news pieces where journalists explain to concerned citizens how they can deal with climate change themselves one step at a time…

    • Great comment Fred. For many of the core climate issues it is structural deficiencies in the system. Like most of the commenters here, my family and I picked an area to make a lifestyle change in. In our case it was to try and build a ultra efficient near net zero house in Saskatchewan. We largely succeeded, but along the way encountered many bureaucratic and economic disincentives that required perseverance and the willingness to put out extra cash.

      If we had not sat at that intersection of being both committed/concerned to the issue with having family member with a stable and well paid faculty position, that house would not have happened. As a result a tiny fraction of the new houses in my city meet anywhere close to their efficiency potential.

      A political decision to fast-track better standards in the National Building code on the other hand…..

  17. Clearly a post that touched a nerve (or three).

    If we really want to be intellectually rigorous and unflinching, then it needs to be acknowledged that the most environmentally friendly thing a human can do is to commit suicide and eliminate their consumption (and make a small nutrient donation to the biosphere, hopefully in a place that is not already eutrophic). I guess I especially start thinking about this extreme endpoint when people start talking about not having kids. But it logically applies to all environmentally friendly actions not taken.

    The fact that almost nobody brings this up as a solution (and thank goodness, I roundly reject it as a solution) acknowledges that there are trade-offs and positive values to be placed on human life and human quality of life (reverting to a hunter gatherer society would be environmentally beneficial too…) that must be weighed against environmental impacts. I think the fact that ecologists often talk like they care more about an insect going extinct than the very many humans living without enough food doesn’t help our cause. But once we’ve moved to the place of admitting that there are trade-offs and values to be considered other than environmental impacts, it becomes a complex and interesting conversation worth having.

    Personally, I try to stress in my own life and in my public outreach that binary thinking is the main enemy of change. Eating meat is a great example that is not binary – very many people are willing to eat less meat (and more chicken and less beef) when they’re not willing to give it up completely. Reducing air travel without eliminating it is another. And I guess that kind of thinking is “hypocrisy” only if I judge others for doing differently than I do. So to me the goal (be it outreach or my own life choices) is to acknowledge nobody is a perfect environmentalist (nor should be actually) and then get on about the more useful discussion of personal choices around incremental improvement.

    This gets to larger questions of why ecologists think our outreach should mostly consist of communicating doom and gloom. Social scientists have shown pretty clearly that optimism and positivity are much more likely to invoke actual behavioral change.

    Would it kill ecologists to say that nature is pretty darn robust (see past global change events ranging from 14 glacial cycles in the last 2 million years, bolide impacts, etc) and can survive 7,000,000,000 humans (or a future 13,000,000,000) if we are smarter about how we allocate our resources, smarter about our interaction with the the environment, and for those of us in high consuming countries reverse our consumerism red queen race to ridiculous levels of consumption? That seems like a message much more likely to invoke behavior change than “I can’t believe you’re destroying the planet and killing the polar bears. Stop having any impact on the planet.”. And we wouldn’t be hypocritical.

    In short, I think the hypocrisy comes from how we present our message. Not in what realistic ecologists expect others to actually do. But the real problem is not that we are hypocritical. Its that we’re distracting from the real conversations we need to have (many of which are economic about rampant consumerism and inefficient allocation of existing resources, but some of which ecologists have an important role to play in designing a human-built world that is smarter in reducing how legitimate human needs impact our planet).

    • Thanks, Brian. I agree that a good bit of hypocrisy comes from how we present our message, and the Chris Thomas’ book mentioned is one approach to altering the message. Although I also think that many people (including myself) are prone to having expectations about what other ecologists “should” do (i.e., we judge).

      I think many recognize the importance of the “real conversations” that might dwarf individual decisions, but I also think there is a really strong attraction to examining our own individual actions, since changing them seems so doable (positive message!), as opposed to changing things like consumerism and society-wide resource-use inefficiencies (depressing to ponder).

      • “Although I also think that many people (including myself) are prone to having expectations about what other ecologists “should” do (i.e., we judge).”

        Do we? I dunno, I haven’t gotten the sense of much judgmentalism on this thread or in the associated Twitter conversation. It’s been mostly just people sharing their own thoughts, mostly without even a hint of judging anyone else who thinks differently. This lines up with my own admittedly anecdotal experience. My experience is that few ecologists feel strongly enough about not flying to conferences or not having kids (or whatever) to be willing to judge others for not making the same choices.

      • “I also think there is a really strong attraction to examining our own individual actions, since changing them seems so doable (positive message!), as opposed to changing things like consumerism and society-wide resource-use inefficiencies (depressing to ponder).”

        This hints at something I was thinking too. When you talk about costs that middle and upper middle class Western ecologists aren’t willing to pay for the sake of their beliefs, would you consider things like “get seriously involved in political activism” or “run for political office” as “costs”? In some ways, changing your own behavior is very much a path of least resistance, compared spending significant time and effort* to change the system–get a C tax implemented or whatever.

        *I wouldn’t count voting and donating money to political or charitable organizations as significant time and effort. I do both and think both are very valuable. But neither costs me more than a trivial amount of time.

      • I agree individual actions are attractive and also important to avoid hypocrisy.

        But should I frame my individual choices as C-impact (in which case as one tweeter said, maybe paying for a ha of forest is all I need to do)? Or should I frame my individual choices as being about consumerism and working as a scientist to improve rather than eliminate the human-nature interface? Is the former really just a form of escapism (or at least irrational choice of focus) to avoid the deeper issues.

        In short larger contexts can and should inform individual choices even when I am choosing to act just as an individual. I think its easy for the micro-decisions to get off-target when they’re not placed in a larger context.

      • @jeremy: Do we judge? I agree that there’s not a major judgy thrust in today’s conversation, but I speculatively think it’s there in the minds of many. If someone decides never to fly in airplanes or to not have kids because of the huge environmental impact, it seems likely that they’ll be prone to having judgmental thoughts like “how can an ecologist, knowing what they know, justify flying internationally once per month or having 5 kids (see: Suzuki, D.)?”. I will admit to such thoughts – the kind I’m trying to minimize. I definitely hear this sentiment from ecology students.

        Not getting involved seriously in politics or political activism would only be a cost if getting involved is something you would like to do in the first place. I would like to have a lighter ecological footprint, but I would not like to get more political. Could be different for others.

        @brian: Placing small decisions in the larger context seems like a manifestation of “think globally, act locally”, which seems like a decent mantra. Agreed.

      • @ Mark:

        yes, if we including “judging oneself” in “judging”, then yeah, I think self-judgmental thoughts along the lines of yours are probably common among ecologists. But I’m not sure how common it is for ecologists to be judgmental of others on these matters.

        EDIT: Oh, and I think you misunderstood my comment about getting involved in activism or politics; sorry if I wasn’t clear. What I meant was that getting involved in activism or politics would be costly to somebody who didn’t really want to do it. You’d have to give up lots of the things you’d rather be doing in other to do the activist/political thing you felt morally obligated to do. An ecologist might be reluctant to give up flying to lots of conferences (say) for the sake of the environment, because that would involve paying a cost (not attending all those fun and useful conferences). Analogously, an ecologist might also be reluctant to give up his/her academic career to (say) run for office for the sake of the environment. Because that would involve paying a cost (giving up a fun job as an ecologist for a less-fun job as a politician). I admire people who are willing to do that, but couldn’t ever see myself doing the same (and I don’t feel hypocritical about that).

  18. I’m in the camp that doesn’t believe that individual decisions are going to be the key to conservation – this is where I believe that top-down policy decisions (e.g. carbon taxes, reconsidering economic growth as our primary policy target, higher taxes on corporations and consumption that have large environmental impacts) are required to make changes that will benefit future generations. I absolutely admire folks who make sacrifices to lower their environmental impact but I think their effect is primarily symbolic – they set a good example more than causing any substantive change in the sum of human impacts. And I’m just not a good enough person to live my life as a good example for others. The result is that I’m absolutely content not to fly if there is a general policy that flying is only allowed under specific high priority circumstances – I suspect that would actually make a difference. But to choose not to see beautiful, fascinating places simply to provide a good example for others is one step too far for me – I admire the self-sacrifice of people willing to do it but not enough to emulate the sacrifice.
    So, I end up able to live with the hypocrisy that I would happily vote for policies that promote/reward/force behaviors that I won’t choose if they are voluntary – and that’s because the cost of my individual behavior are way too high if the benefits are just symbolic…but if they’re part of a collective change that will have real effects, they’re costs I’m happy to live with.


  19. Via Twitter:

  20. Via Twitter:

  21. Ok, some of my possibly-unpopular opinions about the issues raised in this post have already been voiced by others, so maybe they’re not actually all that unpopular? But since I sort of promised up above to share my unpopular opinions on this, here they are. I emphasize that I wouldn’t try to argue anyone else into adopting them, at least not very hard, and certainly wouldn’t think any less of anyone who believed or acted differently than me on any of this.

    -Personally, I don’t feel like a hypocrite. Individual actions, even flying, are a drop in the bucket in terms of impact on atmospheric CO2 (and other environmental impacts, such as on land use). What’s going to make an appreciable difference are government policies, technological advances, and macroeconomic conditions. Though I note Ben Phelan’s point on Twitter that social networks may sometimes act as a multiplier of individual actions. I would add that most individuals can’t much affect government policy, technological advances, or macroeconomic conditions any more than they can affect the behavior of other individuals (e.g., by leading by example). And of course, different individuals will be best able and most willing to do different things to try to make the world a better place, and the consequences of those choices will be small, indirect, diffuse, and difficult to fully evaluate. All of which seems to me to be an argument for everybody just doing what they can as best they can. Without beating themselves or others up over whether they’re doing the “right” thing, or the “best” thing.

    -I have mixed feelings about whether ecologists are under any special moral obligation when it comes to their personal consumption choices that people in other professions aren’t under. If you really pushed me, I’d probably say no I don’t think they are.

    -I think the choice to have children or not is a particularly personal decision that’s not the government’s or anyone else’s business.

    -Related to the previous, I am very uncomfortable with ecologists who express deep concern about “overpopulation” and global “limits” or “tipping points” who don’t put their cards on the table and say what individual actions and (more importantly) government policies they’d like to see implemented in response (e.g., the recent IEE piece by Jim Brown linked to in this comment, though the link is broken now: Relatedly, I think Paul Ehrlich was much more wrong than right about both the population bomb and the policies he wanted implemented in response ( More broadly, I think that a fair bit of what ecologists have had to say about “overpopulation” has been some combination of too-narrowly focused and economically uninformed, at best. Though I also freely admit I haven’t read all that many ecologists’ writings on overpopulation.

    -I care a lot more about people than other species, and I don’t think nature has any intrinsic value for its own sake independent of the people doing the valuing. I’ll just leave that one unelaborated for now, because it’ll be most unpopular that way. 🙂 In the unlikely event anyone is still reading this already-lengthy thread and really wants me to elaborate, I will. 🙂

    -I’m an optimist. I think the world overall has become a much better place over the last several decades, not worse (for instance, see this thread: And I think we have a decent shot that people 50 years from now will be able to say the same.

    • I share your general lack of concern about overpopulation. All else being equal, I think it would be better if the world population were lower, or if its growth rate were smaller, but I’m skeptical of the measures it would take to get there. It strikes me that opinion has really solidified against any form of reproductive coercion — whether pro-natalist, like Ceausescu, or anti-natalist, like Garrett Hardin — and that even people who are really concerned about overpopulation mostly want to expand contraceptive access or promote education for women.

      Similarly, I think most ecologists in the US today would be averse to trying to raise enforcement against illegal immigration or deport illegal immigrants. While I respect his intentions, I think Paul Ehrlich’s logic on immigration is kind of perverse. Many sorts of development raise the environmental footprint of society, but they also make people’s lives better. Why should we, who enjoy the fruits of development through an accident of birth, stand to oppose those who want them for themselves and their children? If we could bring proper sanitation, safe housing, and education to everyone in the world, we should! (I think I’m preaching to the choir here.) Surely, there must be some way to meet a reasonable standard of development in a sustainable way — we in the US are just not doing a very good job at achieving it.

      • I’d be very interested to see a serious poll of ecologists on this. Like, better than the non-scientific polls we do on this blog. I *think* you’re probably right that Ehrlich-type positions on overpopulation are now rare among ecologists (and how common were they, ever?). But I’d be very curious to know.

  22. One thing that sobers me is knowing that so many many people on this earth will never have the opportunities many have had to visit foreign lands, to either formally or informally the earth’s staggering biodiversity. Thanks for pointing out multiple ways to view this existential crisis, and for keeping this conversation going.

  23. Honestly, if ecologists stop flying for field work or going to conferences you just gonna have flights with less people in it but planes will be flying anyway. It’s ok to feel guilty but don’t let it ends in actions that just gonna make harder for us do our science with few, if any, environmental benefits.

  24. Via Twitter:

  25. The hypocricy has bothered me for a long time too. Especially when as a PhD student, due to my husband’s new job, I had to commute 90 miles one way to my University several times a week. I’ve sinced moved to Europe where I feel much better about my carbon footprint. No more driving, much more eating locally and seasonally, etc. There is very little that we can do (individually) about the type of environment in which we live, such as living in a culture in which it is necesary to drive, so we shouldn’t feel too guilty about that. But as ecologists and therefore people more aware of environmental consequences of our cultural habits and behaviors, we have a responsibility fo find ways to shift general attitudes and therefore put pressure policy making towards more sustainable living, e.g. more public transport. Of course, we are up against more powerful interest groups and people that benefit from the status quo, but it is our responsibility to try. Such a smart bunch can figure it out. Take for example, the shift in general attitude towards homosexuality and the consequent legislation legalizing gay marriage. We need to try to do the same kind of thing. As academics, this would involve communicating our research and making it accessible to a larger audience, turning it into action if possible, and making sure our research has a positive impact on the environment and society. “Valorization”, if you will. Ask yourselves how you can make a difference with your research. After all, why many of us decided to become ecologists.

  26. The argument that personal actions make little difference (because everyone else just continues as usual) is fallacious. One reason is that things will continue just the same if individuals fail to act. As Ghandi said “you may never know the result of your action, but ifvthere is no action there will be no result”. Another reason is that individual actions reflect moral choices and if recent work in environmental psychology has shown anything it is that climate change is as much a moral and psychological issue as a technical one. More so in my opinion.

    As for 13 billion people, I’m sorry Brian McGill but we do not actually know that 13 billion people can live sustainably on the Earth. Perhaps they could at a much reduced material standard of living, but there are few indications that humanity has the collective will to accept such a constrained future. And of course one of the reasons we are having this conversation is because the activities of 7.4 billion people are self evidently unsustainable.

    • The actions of 7.4 billion people aren’t self-evidently unsustainable. Going to have to agree to disagree with you on that one Andy. Any more than the actions of many billions fewer people were self-evidently unsustainable decades ago, Paul Ehrlich’s claim to the contrary notwithstanding.

      • I’m on the fence on this… while I don’t think it’s self-evident that 7.4 billion people are unsustainable (long-term) – that probably depends on what kind of world you’re willing to live in – I do think there is evidence that 7.4 billion people have a negative impact on things many of us consider desirable. And it’s probably important to estimate what is sustainable (i.e. the threshold past which we will see a population crash) because I suspect we’re going to get relatively little advance notice in real time about what number is sustainable.
        As for the argument that personal actions make little difference being fallacious, I’m not sure what the basis of that conclusion is. I’m not saying that individual actions never matter nor that I know with absolute certainty that individual actions won’t matter in the context of environmental conservation. What I’m saying is that I believe individual action (and specifically my individual action) seems unlikely to make a difference and I’m not a good enough person to pay a very large cost for a benefit that, in my opinion, is very unlikely. I’m relatively content to cede the higher ground to people that are willing to make the sacrifice even though the payoff is likely to be primarily symbolic.
        I do agree that action is required…but on the policy end. Let’s propose and support ideas that will result in collective sacrifice for future benefit – I’ll be on board as will, I suspect, many well meaning and decent people. While that’s happening I’ll be occasionally eating California raspberries in the middle of a New Brunswick winter.

      • “that probably depends on what kind of world you’re willing to live in”

        Yes, exactly. Joel Cohen is good on this in How Many People Can the Earth Support.

        “And it’s probably important to estimate what is sustainable (i.e. the threshold past which we will see a population crash) ”

        I highly doubt that’s estimable with anywhere near the precision to be useful for any policymaking or other purpose. Indeed, I even question whether a purportedly-precise and rigorous estimate would be useful for any policymaking or other purpose. To be clear, I think there’s a ton of useful forecasting work going on trying to predict the effects of climate change on all sorts of variables and the effects of various policy interventions to prevent/mitigate/adapt to those effects. Projections of sea level rise, for instance, that inform policies on where people are allowed to build, flood and storm insurance premiums, etc. I think that kind of work is super-useful. But none of that stuff involves trying to forecast a *global human population crash*, as far as I’m aware.

    • And I don’t see how it’s a fallacy to say “your individual consumer choices probably don’t make much difference, so just do the best you can and don’t feel guilty about it.” That doesn’t contradict the Ghandi line you quote.

    • Andrew Park – There is an enormous amount to unpack as to how many humans the earth can sustain. And we’re not going to resolve it here.

      But I never used the word sustainably (mostly because I don’t have any idea how to define that and I don’t think anybody else does either).

      What I said was “nature is pretty darn robust … and can survive 7,000,000,000 humans (or a future 13,000,000,000) if we are smarter about how we allocate our resources, smarter about our interaction with the the environment, and for those of us in high consuming countries reverse our consumerism red queen race to ridiculous levels of consumption”

      I’m willing to stand by that statement. If you are really predicting that nature will fundamentally collapse at current population levels? I sure hope you’re wrong. Because neither of us is going to shrink the world’s population (or even cap it at current levels) any time soon. Are you really predicting we are about to experience catastrophic failure of earth systems? What exactly are you saying is about to happen? What does “unsustainable” mean?

      But I also don’t disagree with Jeff’s statement that we are already causing harm to things we care about. That its true and does not contradict what I said. When you get down to it, “survive” is a low bar, but its an important bar as far as humans are concerned. There are a lot of degrees in between nature “doing great” and “catastrophically collapsing” and reality is almost certainly in between the extremes. Where exactly is important. And then you have to weigh human well-being into the balance of how far away from “doing great” to “castrophically collapsing” we are willing to go. Presumably nobody on the planet wants to go to “catastrophically collapsing” And presumably most ecologists (including me) want it to be as close to “doing great” as realistically possible. But if we’re honest “doing great” or close to it is not realistic (unless we want to shut the door and tell 5,000,000,000 they can’t live as well as we do or to hope for war and famine that wipes out half the human population). So what is? Subject to human needs would most of the earth accept “seriously degraded but still performing all ecosystem services”? or would they insist on a higher standard like “substantially changed but able to recover in the future as the human footprint declines due to technology” or …? Its a complex conversation. But it is the most important question.

      Also, note that I qualified my statement by needing to do a much better job than we are now in three areas. It seems like we at least agree about the need for improvement in those specific areas?

      I fear ecologists get instantly consigned to ivory tower irrelevance when we sound like pristine nature is more important than human lives. And I fear ecologists lose credibility when we continue to make dire overpredictions that sound like science but don’t actually have much science behind them. Reality is bad enough.

  27. Via Twitter, another vote in favor of the argument made earlier in the thread, that climate scientists’ individual abilities to influence politicians, policymakers, and members of the public depends on them minimizing their own personal C footprints:

    As I said above, I’m skeptical of this argument In part because at least in the US I think climate change policy is sufficiently politically polarized that I doubt it matters much how climate scientists behave in their personal lives. I think Federal Republicans are going to ignore and undermine them no matter how they live their personal lives, and Democrats will listen to them no matter how they live their personal lives. But I’m far from an expert so maybe I’m totally wrong about that. I also think that, except for prominent climate scientists or climate science advocates like Al Gore, the personal lives of *individual* scientists aren’t likely to draw much political attention from anyone, and that *collective* attacks on the personal lives of climate scientists as a group (“they’re all jet-setting to conferences while telling the rest of us to cut back”) aren’t going to be rebutted by every climate scientist forgoing all air travel or whatever. But again, I’m far from an expert so maybe I’m totally wrong about that. To move this discussion forward, I’d be very interested to hear research or anecdotes showing that any environmental policy debate has been appreciably influenced by considerations of the personal behavior of the scientists involved.

    Thinking of other cases that I know a little more about, it’s not my sense that US Federal tax policy, or public opinions on same, has been at *all* influenced by charges from the right that prominent left-of-center economist Paul Krugman is a “hypocrite” for drawing a high salary and living an expensive neighborhood while simultaneously calling for higher taxes on the wealthy to reduce inequality ( As an aside, this Krugman example articulates why I personally don’t share the feelings of Mark and many of the ecologists on this thread that they’re hypocrites for flying, driving long distances, having kids, etc. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to live within the rules of the system (rules that you didn’t yourself create) while simultaneously trying to change the system. And as I said in the previous paragraph, I’m not convinced that in order to change the system you first have to refuse to do things that are permissible in the current system but wouldn’t be in the new system you’d like to see. For instance, Krugman (I presume) often has voted for elected officials who would raise his taxes, even though he doesn’t voluntarily pay extra taxes beyond what he owes. His vote counts just as much as it would if voluntarily chose to pay extra taxes. I think that voluntarily refusing to do things that are permissible under the current system is *a* way to change the system, and I’m totally fine with any ecologist who chooses to take that approach. But I don’t think it’s the only way or necessarily the most effective way to change the system. But clearly, your mileage may vary on this. And I won’t pretend that I am an expert on competing theories of political and social change (I doubt many ecologists are).

    The tweet above was followed by this one, which I confess I find strange:

    Not sure why it’s a criticism of ecology papers on climate change impacts that they haven’t reduced air travel? Isn’t that like criticizing a coffee maker because it can’t drive you across town? And nobody in this post or comments has claimed that ecology papers on climate change impacts have (or should have) changed anyone’s individual behavior. So this seems like a weird straw man to me. But tweets are brief and lack context, so perhaps I’m totally missing the point?

    • Semi-related, this recent tweet from Ben Phalan:

      Which honestly just seems incorrect. As I’ve said above, I don’t make decisions on whether to fly or not based on C footprint considerations (though I also don’t fly all that much, for other reasons). But I’d vote for a carbon tax, and I’ve voted for many politicians who’ve supported one. As another example, back when I lived in London, I was in favor of London’s congestion charge as a way to encourage use of public transport, even though I drove to work (outside of London) rather than taking public transit to work. Etc. I highly doubt I’m alone in any of this.

      Why does anyone think that not only can people not *credibly* advocate for policies that would be costly to them personally, but that they never *do* advocate (credibly or otherwise) for policies that would be costly to them personally? That just seems like a very strange view to me, but clearly it’s a widely-held view. What am I not getting?

    • Yeah, sorry–even the 280 limit makes things difficult, as does my inability to properly reply on Twitter. My comments were meant more as responses to other responses that I interpret as implying that “being an ecologist working on climate change is, in and of itself, enough of a contribution, and these individual decisions make no difference, so why bother until there are top-down regulations”. I’m sure my interpretation exaggerates what previous twitter respondents meant, so caveat emptor, and no offense intended. The vast majority of applied work on climate-related problems has had no influence on policy. It’s not that the studies are flawed at all. That scientific products haven’t altered airline usage is a straw man, of course–it’s not the purpose of the endeavor–but my point is that the argument that one’s scientific contributions (or decision to pursue scientific contributions) somehow cancels out one’s carbon footprint or justifies it is equally nonsensical.

      Re. US politics: yeah, there are entrenched polarized camps, and you may well be correct that walking the talk is not likely to have any influence on policies enacted from the top-down. I disagree that public opinion does not move based upon perceived hypocrisy. The alt-right/alt-truth branches of society *live* on the trope of the person whom wants you to change your life but doesn’t want to change his. I get that people fly because it’s convenient and makes things easier, and that some of these people also happen to work in some sort of conservation discipline and may even work on climate change issues. For somebody to imply that because they work in some field related to climate change, or that because it is a tragedy of the commons, that they have some justification for flying (again, my interpretation of some previous twitter responses) is just terrible optics…jeez, just hand Brietbart a check.

      I’m not arguing that more ecologists walking the talk is going to lead to some bottom-up sea change in how people choose to manage their own carbon footprints. But I think it does play an important optical role that and that honesty and personal conviction are important values for many voters whom are not currently in favor of pursuing stronger climate change policies. I totally get the point regarding living within the system while trying to change it. As another example, Noam Chomsky has consistently admitted that he has a nice house and Volvo in the Boston suburbs while stringently criticizing, uh, many things that have allowed him to come into these possessions. I have no problem with people trying to enact systemic changes using means that they are comfortable with. Nearly everyone makes certain ethical or political compromises when personal livelihoods are at stake. I just happen to think the arguments are more effective when people are honest about these compromises, and how far they are willing back their convictions.

      • All fair enough John, even though I think we might have to agree to disagree to a minor extent (I don’t think our views are *very* different). Thanks very much for stopping by and taking the time to comment so thoughtfully.

      • Whoops, didn’t even include my main points about the actual post(!): a) Mark’s post is a great entry into thinking honestly about compromises between broader ethics and personal choices that both science and advocacy need more of; b) is it me, or do the posts that generate the largest responses here tend to highlight tensions between science as a process and scientists as people (statistical machismo seems like another example)?

      • @ John Clare:

        ” is it me, or do the posts that generate the largest responses here tend to highlight tensions between science as a process and scientists as people (statistical machismo seems like another example)?”

        Hmm. Not sure. That’s not really how I’d characterize this post, and it’s only sort of how I’d characterize the statistical machismo posts…

        Posts generating 100+ comment threads are pretty rare for us, and so it’s difficult to characterize them. I’d say that posts with powerful personal stories that resonate with a lot of people have a better-than-normal chance of going viral and generating many comments. But it’s tough to generalize about rare events.

        The topics of our most commented posts, all time (all with 80+ comments):
        Why AIC appeals to ecologists’ lowest instincts
        Popsci book recommendations
        You don’t need to work 80 hours/week to succeed in academia (and hardly anyone does)
        Are the stats in ecology papers becoming too difficult to understand?
        Favorite novels featuring scientists
        Is the notion that species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics a zombie idea?
        This post
        Sexism in academia
        There is crying in science
        Weird and unwise things to include on your CV
        Stats vs. scouts, polls vs. pundits, and ecology vs. natural history

      • Question for you John, if you’re still reading: if one’s scientific work doesn’t justify one’s C footprint (e.g., flying to a distant field site to do climate change-related research), what does? For what purposes is it ok to fly? Or do anything else that increases atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases? Or is it never ok for anyone anywhere to live in a way that’s not C-neutral or C-negative? Honest questions; interested to hear how you think about the trade-offs here.

  28. Via Twitter, a proposal to ban Hawaiians, Alaskans, New Zealanders, etc. from attending scientific conferences. And for abolishing national scientific conferences in the continental US and Canada:

    Ok, I’m being snarky. But that really is the upshot, I think. If you think there should be “no more far flung meetings”, (meaning, presumably, “conferences many attendees have to fly to”), well, that’s another way of saying that only very local conferences are allowed.

    Indeed, as was pointed out on Twitter by someone the day this post first went up, this proposal is really a proposal to ban people who live in rural areas far from any large concentrations of scientists from being or becoming scientists. Are you ok with that? If so, you should say so. Recognize and own the full implications of your position.

    • Has the percentage of scientists from rural areas actually increased significantly since the advent of mass air travel?

      I disagree that only “very local” conferences are possible without air travel. Most of central Europe is accessible from the rest of Europe within about a day’s train travel. It is also entirely possible to cross the United States and Canada by train although the North American rail network is of course less well developed than in Europe.

      As for the tweet in question, while there may be a good reason to hold a particular conference in Hawaii, I think that choosing sexy, “prestigious” locations far from the vast majority of attendees is a particularly egregious practice. Far better for 10 people to fly from Hawaii to the mainland than for 500 to fly from the mainland to Hawaii!

  29. Saw an interesting remark on Twitter a few days ago, suggesting that other fields have analogous debates about the personal responsibilities and political commitments that anybody in the field has to have, on pain of being a hypocrite. A US sociologist tweeted that right-wing critics of academia see “sociologist” as just another name for “social justice warrior”–and that most applicants to sociology graduate programs seem to see it that way too, judging from the personal statements in their applications!

    I know nothing about sociology besides what I happen to read on the intertubes, so I’m in no position to evaluate this claim. I just thought it was interesting.

  30. Pingback: Environmental, Water, Neonics – Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

  31. Apparently unbeknownst to those commenting here, there is a growing movement among scientists and academics to fly less, if at all, (, @flyingless) and to convince universities to revise their travel policies. Also, there is beginning effort into convincing scientific societies to hold their conferences less often or by virtual means ( These efforts are starting with individual and small group effort, but are aimed systemic change in how science can be conducted well, and this example – with more momentum – can transfer to changes in the mindsets of broader society.

  32. Pingback: Happy 6th birthday to us! | Dynamic Ecology

  33. There is a lack of practical application in all of these actions.

    Ecology has nothing to do with books or lectures (or even votes). We must go outside and stop caring about buying local, recycling everything or all that modern stuff from people divorced from nature (it sounds like the residues of consumerism). Ecological studies care about the extinction of insects, but how many those ecologists actually care about insects? How many had ever fed a bee honey from their own hand or a black wasp with water? How many have enticed a colony of ants to settle beside a growing plant to make it grow better? How many know the importance of field mice tunnels?

    Understand plants, weeds, clouds, rain, decay, destruction, bugs, animals, etc. by observing them. Start with the smallest plot of land possible and experiment with it. Collect leaves during fall and place them on the plot. Observe how the addition of organic matter increases the growth of things next year. Have weeds choke off a plant and then cut the weeds to see the benefits while also leaving the residues beside the plant. One doesn’t need to go to South America. One shouldn’t care about the fate of the world without first improving the fate of the immediate local.

    There are many people who buy giant plots of land and employ countless people to “sustain it”, but I believe this is not the way. We need to be alone with the grass to understand its importance. We need to know that something has to cut it and either stomp it or eat it. Why does it surprise anyone that grass kept uncut will ruin the ecology of an area? People don’t listen to words that are not backed by actions. Lectures focus the attention of others to “global” problems that have no solutions. The solutions are found by observation of nature without thinking or assuming.

    People go on and on about the decline of the bumblebee. Many of these people plant (rather weak) flowers in unobserved places till no end, but bumblebees don’t own the entirety of nature. There are pieces to this puzzle that books don’t mention…if they did mentioned them then we would know how to solve all of our problems. Isn’t it more important to create a small paradise for everything than it is to teach ecology lectures to a billion students?

    The fish may be chocking on plastic and choking under a red tide, but why focus on that? Why not take care of your own set of fish before worrying? Teaching people by actions is more powerful than words or even videos. A person not afraid of spiders is more knowledgeable about them than a person with countless books about spiders, who fidgets when one is in their home.

    When the interest in nature lacks any sort of fear of what it is or of the opinions of others, then one will know exactly what to do to improve nature. I started long ago by simply staring at leaf cutter ants and millipedes in Nicaragua. My greatest moment was not from reading books or watching videos about nature, it was from making my first successful garden without the help of any of them.

    Observe life without habitual thoughts intruding and changing the meaning of things that never were able to show their actual meaning. When something seems wrong, it probably “mostly” wrong. By continuous observation one will pinpoint both the good and bad of everything. We really need to free ourselves from unchecked consumption of intellectual properties, stop making plans for the future, and just savor the moment.

  34. Pingback: Maximize the benefit of Conference travel! | Mathemagical Conservation

  35. I don’t know if anyone is still reading this, but here are my 2 cents.
    I gave up flying in 2015. The decision came from my growing concern about the effects of climate change on people, especially poor people, and my role in that. So it was a decision based on personal morals. I did the math and discovered that the biggest portion of my carbon footprint was due to air travel. I do sympathize with the guilt-ridden mental struggle described by Mark. But over time I found it more and more difficult to justify individual flights, and so eventually I just gave it up. (The second biggest portion of my carbon footprint was from my gas furnace, which I have now got rid of.)
    I did not give up flying to be an example to others. And I didn’t give it up thinking that my personal actions would actually affect anything. In fact I recently read a report indicating that air travel is the fastest increasing component of carbon emissions (currently at 8% of total), largely because of retired globe-trotting baby-boomers, some of whom are my friends. I gave up flying because I felt I had to.
    I have not had any negative responses from people when turning down invitations; ecologists do understand. As far as I can tell it has not really affected my career, although I have definitely missed some interesting meetings. But I’ve also accepted more local invitations than I would have in the past. Also, I’ve been discovering that rail travel is really very enjoyable.

    • The 2018 round up the other day prompted me to check this post again, and I was surprised to see some new comments! Lenore – I didn’t want to mention you by name in my post, but learning about your decision to eliminate plane travel definitely played a role in pushing me to think more about this, and to eventually write that post. I’m glad you added your 2 cents.

  36. Re: the argument that you shouldn’t have children if you care about anthropogenic climate change:

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.