The single biggest fact about human impact on nature is that it is highly variable. We’re net cutting down forests in the tropics. But we are net increasing forest cover in eastern North America. Farmland birds are in decline in the US and Europe, but that is because farmland – a fairly intense human land use – is decreasing in area in those countries. Eutrophication is harmful to many organisms, but helpful to some. Local biodiversity is trending down in some places but trending up in others. In North America beaver and turkeys, after having been completely eliminated from most of their ranges, have made amazing recoveries trending towards near pre-European levels. Regional diversity, especially in plants, is often increased due to invasive species. Island diversity in birds is often flat or down.
None of those statements contradict the fact that humans are massively changing nature, in many ways for the worse. We have half the tree biomass today compared to what existed pre-human. We appropriate half the fresh water and terrestrial NPP annually. Extinction rates are elevated significantly. We have doubled the rate nitrogen is being introduced to the biosphere. Deer are above pre-European levels in the eastern US with devastating impacts on the structure of forests. Scientists have gotten very good about communicating these negative impacts and maybe have even evolved to a symbiotic relationship with much of the press in communicating this (media loves a disaster whether environmental or human).
But what do we as ecologists do about those facts that can be seen as positive impacts listed in the first paragraph?
There is a deep seated view that we need to bury them to keep a completely consistent message of unrelenting doom. I don’t give much credence to the simplistic version of such views, specifically the notion we should not publish such findings in journals – the goal of science is to find the truth, complex and nuanced as it might be, not to stay on message to manipulate the public. Anybody who disagrees with that should turn in their scientist card.
But there is a more subtle argument. If we acknowledge such positive events (even if we believe and the evidence supports the balance is negative), won’t the anti-environmental strains of the press get carried away and trumpet the in ways that undermines the overall message about human impacts? This argument is more palatable to me – its not about burying facts, its about being careful about engagement with the media. That certainly seems like wise advice.
But in the end I have a serious problem with this argument. Empirically, I just don’t believe that the media has much of a track record of taking stories where humans have benefited nature (positive events) and turning them into anti-environmental stories. I’ve heard a lot of worry about such coverage. I just haven’t seen much of it. Is there an anti-environmental branch of the press? Sure. And they can take even a very negative story (e.g. the recent IPBES statement about a million species going extinct) and attack it. But how often does this group grab onto a positive event and turn that into a claim that “everything is OK”? I am really hard pressed to find examples. I know my co-authors and I worried about this with the Dornelas et al 2014 paper that suggested the average trend in local biodiversity was approximately flat. But in the end we had exactly one story that interpreted the paper that way – and it was by an obscure right-wing organization that as best we could tell had very few readers. Plenty of other papers covered it in a balanced and nuanced way that net net increased awareness of the biodiversity crisis. Our fears were overblown. I increasingly think that mainstream media is pretty hard wired to find the negative in everything.
And I’m really hard pressed to think of other examples of positive outcomes turned into an attack on the notion of an environmental crisis. Were there a slew of stories saying that because the California Condor (or the beaver or turkey) made a come back so we don’t need to worry about extinction? Has the fact that invasions often increase species richness (or at least don’t cause a decline in species richness) led to stories about how invasive species are great? Or that the green slime growing off the deltas of rivers running through farm country should be celebrated for an increase in productivity? I just haven’t heard many (any?) of these stories. I increasingly think the media can accurately and constructively handle some positive outcomes amidst the overall negative trend and that we ecologists should not be afraid of publishing such outcomes.
What do you think? Can you think of positive events that got swept up in the media in a way that was on balance detrimental to the environmental movement? Do the press even report positive stories (or do they have a bias towards negative over positive)? Do you think publishing positive events is more or less likely to change human behavior towards the environment?