Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Bastien Castagneyrol, Pieter De Frenne, Katerina Sam,& Ayco Tack
Does something exist if there is no word for it? An odd but also complicated question from a philosophical point of view. The Irish philosopher George Berkeley argued that every existing thing has to be perceived; in his view, what makes an object real is driven by the perception and mind of the observer (solipsism). Obviously, micro-organisms, plants and animals did exist before humans and before our language evolved. But, what about cryptic species? If only a handful of experts in the world can identify minuscule variations in morphology, phenology or behavior, did these species then exist before we gave them distinct scientific (Latin) names? It is not the purpose of this article to answer this philosophical question, but at least we can explain why we ask the question.
Recently, one of us (BC) was having an interesting discussion about ecology with a 12 year old boy. BC was defining himself as a scientist studying ecology. « Well, then you are an écologiste », the boy said. « Gosh, no, I am an écologue », BC answered. In French écologiste and écologue are very different things indeed.
In English, there is a clear difference between an ‘ecologist’ and an ‘environmentalist’. An ecologist is a scientist studying ecology (the study of the relationship among species and their environment). An environmentalist is « a person who is interested in the natural environment and wants to improve and protect it » (following the Oxford online dictionary). Of course, some ecologists may be environmentalists, but not all environmentalists are ecologists, and some environmentalists perhaps have a poor scientific background in ecology.
Such a clear distinction between ecologists and environmentalists does not exist in every language. For instance in French (at least in French French, it’s different in Québecois), there are two words: écologue and écologiste. ‘Écologue’ is the French equivalent for ‘ecologist’, and ‘Écologiste’ corresponds to ‘environmentalist’. Many people simply say ‘écolo’ to qualify members and supporters of the Green party (referring themeselves as ‘écologistes’ in France and Belgium). But very few people use the word écologue, unless you studied ecology at the university yourself, or have close relatives defining themselves as écologues.
And we’re now back to the original question: do ecologists (scientists) exist if there is no word to describe them?
That’s a pretty annoying question that makes one think about how ecology, as a science, is perceived in our society, and to what extent the general public is aware of independent scientists studying environmental problems if there is no word to define scientists studying ecology. We e-mailed a handful of international colleagues from different countries, with another mother tongue than English. We also asked on Twitter whether there are different words for ecologists and environmentalists in their mother tongue, and if they believe lay people would spontaneously define ecology as a science. Their surprising answers are summarized in Table 1.
|Mother tongue||Translation for ecologist||Translation for Environmentalist||Comment|
|Afaan Oromoo (ET)||No translation||No translation||The English words are used, adapted to Afaan Oromoo (e.g., ikkologistii for ecologist), but adding the definition|
|Amharic (ET)||የሥነ-ምህዳር ባለሙያ||የአካባቢ ጥበቃ ባለሙያ|
|Arabic||No word in official tongue||حزب الخضر (= the Green party)||Arabic confounds environment and ecology, there is only one official word used : “بيئة”, Biaa, environment|
|Bahasa (ID)||Ekolog||Ahli lingkungan||Ekolog (Ecologist) is mostly known and used by biologists and ecologists themselves|
= 生态 (ecology) + 学家(scholar)
= 环保(environment protection) + 主义(ideology) + 者(person involved in)
=环境(environment) + 保护(to protect) + 主义者(person+ideology)
|Both words are well defined|
|Creole (French Guyana)||No translation||No translation||No particular word. ‘boug den bwa’ is somebody who knows the forest well.|
|Czech (CZ)||ekolog||ochrance prirody, Ochránce životního prostředí (= nature protector) or ekologicky aktivista (= ecological activists)||The word ekolog exists, but most of lay people understand it as activist|
|Danish (DK)||økolog||Miljøforkæmper||Økolog is mostly associated to organic farming|
|Dutch (BE and NL)||Ecoloog||Milieuactivist (or sometimes in Flemish: ecologist)|
|Finnish (FI)||ekologi||Ympäristönsuojelija (= environment protector), or luonnonsuojelija||Environmentalist is not clearly defined.|
|French (FR, QC, BE)||Ecologue||Ecologiste||Only ecologists will call them écologues|
|German (DE)||Ökologe or Ökologin||Naturschützer or Naturschützerin or Umweltforscher|
|Greek (GR)||Οικολόγος||Οικολόγος, or Περιβαλλοντολόγος||Οικολόγος is very often used to define both ecologists and environmentalists, mostly environmentalists|
|Hiri motu (PG)||No translation||No translation|
|Italian (IT)||Ecologo||Ambientalista||The use of these two words may be a matter of age and education|
|Japanese (JP)||生態学者 (Seitai-Gakusha)||環境保護者 (much less used)||The word ‘ecologist” is more common|
|Lithuanian (LT)||Ekologas||Gamtosaugininkas (aka “nature protector”)||Ecology, in general, is not perceived as a science|
|Polish (PL)||Przyrodnik||No translation||Although there is no translation for environmentalist, ecologists are perceived as environmentalists|
|Portuguese (PT, BR)||Ecológo||Ambiantalista||Although the two words exist (PT, BR), most people confound them|
|Russian (RU)||эколог||экоактивист||‘экоактивист’ is the term used by the Russian language version for ‘Russian environmentalists’ entry in Wikipedia, but it is unsure it is widely used in Russia|
|Spanish (ES and ME)||Ecólogo||Ecologista||Many people confound both terms|
|Swedish (SE)||Ekolog||Miljöaktivist||Miljöaktivist is ‘a person studying the environment’. There is no word for environmentalist sensu stricto|
|Ukrainian (UA)||Еколог||No translation||The English word environmentalist is more and more used, but maybe not by lay people, as yet|
Based on this admittedly limited survey, we detect three situations:
1 – Ecologist (scientist) and Environmentalist (activist/politics/green warriors) are clearly defined separate words, describing two different aspects of people’s relationship to ecology (but there is also a situation 1B, see details below);
2 – The word “Ecologist” exists, but “Environmentalist” is a fuzzier concept;
3 – The word “Environmentalist” is clearly defined, but “Ecologist”… what? Is ecology a science? Come on!
The most frequent situation is the first one, with two well identified words, suggesting well delineated concepts. This is for instance the case in English, in Spanish (both in Spain and Mexico, for example), and Czech. But although both words exist, many respondents indicated that for the general public, ecologists and environmentalists are synonyms. We refer to this as situation 1B.
We are not quite sure what to think about the second situation (as in Russian, Finnish, Serbian, Japan, Sweden). As ecologists, and more generally as scientists and citizens, we can be glad that ecology is valued as a science, and ecologists acknowledged for what they do. But, regardless of one’s political opinion, it is a bit concerning there is no separate word to describe environmentalists. Perhaps the situation is more complex than what this limited survey revealed. Most likely there are indeed different words for activists, green warriors, supporters of Green parties, etc. And maybe this is actually a very good thing.
Maybe we should be more concerned about the third situation, which describes quite well what happens in France, but also in Greece or Denmark. If we don’t have a word to describe ecologists, is there a risk ecology will not be identified as a science? It follows that one can legitimately wonder about the ecological (scientific) ground of environmental thinking in society. This is not assuming that French environmentalists (or people in countries corresponding to the third situation) do not have scientific background, and that environmental policies are not scientifically grounded. What is concerning is the ecological and environmental literacy of the general public.
As for the second question, about whether lay people would spontaneously define ecologists as scientists, 70% of people said ‘no’ (28 out of 40), 17.5% said yes and 12.5% acknowledged that they didn’t know. Again, the survey was not representative, but the trend is insightful. It is unsure whether people who answered “yes, my fellow countrymen would define scientists as ecologists” were overly enthusiastic or not. Several participants in the survey who entered two different words for “ecologist” and “environmentalist” commented that they doubted the distinction was clear in lay people’s mind and was likely dependent on their age and/or educational level (situation 1B). Likewise, participants who have indicated that in their country, people do not recognize ecologists as scientists may have been pessimistic, because even in countries corresponding to the third situation (such as France, Greece, and Denmark), universities have ecology departments, meaning that governments value teaching ecology, pay ecologists as scientists and fund ecological research.
It is not yet clear if these linguistic differences map onto differences in other aspects, such as the public opinion of ecologists, or public knowledge of ecological science. Maybe we missed something. Maybe we, as ecologists, share (part of) the responsibility for the fuzzy understanding of our scientific contribution to environment-related matters people (seem to) have.
Maybe it does not matter if people refer to us as ‘environmentalists’ even if we feel that we are not. Conversely, it may be important that the language allows for important distinctions between science and its applications, because a scientifically engaged society and positive relationships between science and society are essential to empower individuals for making informed decisions in their everyday lives.
Before drawing any conclusions from the still limited survey, we would be curious to know what you feel is the situation in your own country? Do you think the above classification is accurate? Do you recognize the alternative situations? Do you believe that these linguistic difference are important and reveal anything about people perception of science or the social importance of environmental thinking? Please answer this poll (and/or leave comments) and do not refrain from sharing your thoughts in the comments!
Thanks to Emilie Chen, Heidy Schimann, Xoaquin Moreira, Luis Abdala-Roberts, Elina Mäntylä, Slobodan Milanovic, Martin Gossner, Julia Koricheva, Andreas Altinalmazis-Kondylis, Alain Paquette and anonymous folks for their answers and comments on the questions.