What is an ecologist in your language and country? (includes poll)

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Bastien Castagneyrol, Pieter De Frenne, Katerina Sam,& Ayco Tack

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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 tongueTranslation for ecologistTranslation for EnvironmentalistComment
Afaan Oromoo (ET)No translationNo translationThe English words are used, adapted to Afaan Oromoo (e.g., ikkologistii for ecologist), but adding the definition
Amharic (ET)የሥነ-ምህዳር ባለሙያየአካባቢ ጥበቃ ባለሙያ 
ArabicNo word in official tongueحزب الخضر (= the Green party)Arabic confounds environment and ecology, there is only one official word used : “بيئة”, Biaa, environment
Bahasa (ID)EkologAhli lingkunganEkolog (Ecologist) is mostly known and used by biologists and ecologists themselves
Chinese (CN)生态学家
= 生态 (ecology) + 学家(scholar)
环保主义者
= 环保(environment protection) + 主义(ideology) + 者(person involved in)
or 环境保护主义者
=环境(environment) + 保护(to protect) + 主义者(person+ideology)
Both words are well defined
Creole (French Guyana)No translationNo translationNo particular word. ‘boug den bwa’ is somebody who knows the forest well.
Czech (CZ)ekologochrance 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)økologMiljøforkæmperØkolog is mostly associated to organic farming
Dutch (BE and NL)EcoloogMilieuactivist (or sometimes in  Flemish: ecologist) 
Finnish (FI)ekologi Ympäristönsuojelija (= environment protector), or luonnonsuojelijaEnvironmentalist is not clearly defined.
French (FR, QC, BE)EcologueEcologisteOnly ecologists will call them écologues
German (DE)Ökologe or ÖkologinNaturschützer or Naturschützerin or Umweltforscher 
Greek (GR)ΟικολόγοςΟικολόγος, or ΠεριβαλλοντολόγοςΟικολόγος is very often used to define both ecologists and environmentalists, mostly environmentalists
Hiri motu (PG)No translationNo translation 
Italian (IT)EcologoAmbientalistaThe 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)EkologasGamtosaugininkas (aka “nature protector”)Ecology, in general, is not perceived as a science
Polish (PL)PrzyrodnikNo translationAlthough there is no translation for environmentalist, ecologists are perceived as environmentalists
Portuguese (PT, BR)EcológoAmbiantalistaAlthough the two words exist (PT, BR), most people confound them
Russian (RU)экологэкоактивист‘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)EcólogoEcologistaMany people confound both terms
Swedish (SE)EkologMiljöaktivistMiljöaktivist is ‘a person studying the environment’. There is no word for environmentalist sensu stricto
Ukrainian (UA)ЕкологNo translationThe English word environmentalist is more and more used, but maybe not by lay people, as yet
Table 1 – How are “ecologist” and “environmentalist” used in different languages? Results are based on an online survey advertised on Twitter in August-September 2020. We preferred this over the use of an automatic translation service (e.g. google translate or deepl) because we wanted to have comments on how these words are used and perceived by real people. Comments are a summary of the respondents’ (mostly scientists) own comments. They do not purport to be the general opinion.

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.

10 thoughts on “What is an ecologist in your language and country? (includes poll)

  1. I’m a bit surprised by Sweden, because in the newspaper you can regularly read what an ekolog has to say about topic xyz. But I’m not living in the country, so maybe it’s only my perception as a swedish speaking outsider…

    • I don’t understand your surprise… Why wouldn’t ecologists make comments in the news? They often work with topics related to environmental issues…

  2. Interesting blog post, Jeremy! I don’t think the above translation into Polish is quite accurate. The word for ecologist (scientist) is different in Polish: “ekolog”, while “przyrodnik” better translates to a naturalist. It is true that Polish language does not have a separate word for an environmentalist, and that most lay people equate an “ekolog” with someone who is an advocate for conservation of nature and natural resources. Other translation choices also contribute to the misunderstanding of who ecologists are. For example, organic food is translated into Polish as “zywnosc ekologiczna”, so it is easy for people to equate ecology with something that is good for the environment.

  3. Hi, one detail, In Portuguese (PT-BR) the therm “Ecologista” also exists to define “environmentalist” similar to french.

  4. Sweden: “Miljöaktivist is ‘a person studying the environment’”.

    This is not true. Miljöaktivist literally means “environmental activist” – definitely not a person who studies the environment (that would be a “miljövetare”, i.e. someone who studies or has a degree in environmental science). It is true that there is no strict translation for environmentalist. I don’t think it is a particularly useful word – it is not very controversial to care for the environment, my guess is that it is a majority of the population – it is the activism that makes the headlines and hence they have earned a term for themselves.

    (I am Swedish)

    • Hi Joacim,

      You wrote that: ” it is the activism that makes the headlines and hence they have earned a term for themselves”.

      This is a really interesting point. I would say that what we described in the post, at least for French, is the same. Activists (even “soft” activists) initially coined the word “écolo” or “écologiste” to name themselves. It was back in the 70′, at a time when we did not have so many active ecologists in our universities. Or maybe, at least, at a time when they did not care that much about words, or about how ecology was seen in the general public.

      As for Miljöaktivist vs. Miljövetare, and other translations in Table 1, I confess I just copied-pasted answers people gave in the poll. On the one hand, it is annoying we may have written something wrong. But on the other hand, it is fascinating that even in the same country, self-declared ecologists disagree on the meaning or use of ecologist/environmentalist. It is quite normal (is it?) we do not have the same definition for “biodiversity”, “ecosystem services”, “adaptation”, …, but I was not expecting the same for “environmentalist”.

      • Hi Bastien,

        Just a note on “miljöaktivist” vs “miljövetare”. There is no confusion between these terms in Sweden. No native speaker would confuse them. Some may not know what a “miljövetare” really does, but everyone should reasonably know that an activist does not “study” the environment. It is weird that this appeared in a comment in the survey – it might come from someone with Swedish as second language.

        I think it is interesting that there is no more neutral version of “environmentalist” in Swedish (or, well, “miljökämpe” may be slightly more neutral – miljö=environment, kämpe=fighter, but not necessarily in a violent way). However, as I wrote previously, when a large portion of the population show at least some concern for the environment since decades back (my guess is that it may stem from the fact that we were hit hard by acid rain in 70’s-80’s), then such a term would not be particularly useful to distinguish a group from the overall population – distinctive terms are mainly useful for the deniers and the activists, since those are minorities. In a WWF survey from 2018, 50% think climate change will have negative effects on their lives within 20 years, 28% don’t know, and the rest think there will be no (15%) or positive (7%) effects. You can usually get the information about whether a person generally cares for the environment from the context, rather than from a specific term.

        Interestingly, there is a term for ideological “environmentalism”, which is “ekologism” (which I did not know until right now…) – the derivative for a person within this movement should reasonably be “ekologist” – but I have never heard that word being used for anyone except some philosophers writing about it as an ideology (that is the only relevant hit for the word on Google, from the Wikipedia page on “Ekologism”).

  5. In Italian, an “ecologa” (F) or “ecologo” (M) is an ecologist. An environmentalist is, as reported in the post, is an “ambientalista” (F/M), but also an “ecologista” (F/M), very much like in French.

    On a vaguely related issue, having lived in the US for so long I find it very funny that in Italian organic produce is called “biologica” (biological), like in “I am studying biological sciences while snacking on biological carrots” (on the other hand, “I am studying organic chemistry while snacking on organic carrots” is also funny). Does any language have a sensible word for this concept?

    • Hello Stefano, all,
      Same thing in French: organic food is referred to as “biological”, just as in Italian. We do not refer to “organic” at all, for food. What is “organic” is chemistry.
      That being said, many people who answered the poll also mentioned that “ecological” referred to organic farming and that most of people think about food, not scientists, when they hear/read “ecological”.

    • In Estonian we use the word “mahe” for the organic/biological stuff. It roughly translates to mild, soft, mellow. It works surprisingly well. This word was proposed by ecologists.

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