Ecologists and environmentalism

I love this essay by Ecology EIC and former Don of the Tallahassee Mafia Don Strong. I bring up his argument, that like art historians, ecologists should not be hesitant to defend what they study, whenever someone asks if I think it is alright for scientists to be advocates: Of course it is!  Don’t you think art historians would speak up if somebody were destroying the Mona Lisa?! The key is to be an objective advocate. But don’t be afraid to be one. It won’t harm your career or your reputation as long as your arguments are based on solid science. – JB

Donald R Strong (2008) Ecologists and environmentalism. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 6, No. 7, pp. 347-347.

Environmentalism needs serious discussion by ecologists. I was primed on this topic by recent statements made by colleagues to the effect that, “I’m no environmentalist, but… (insert an eminently reasonable environmentalist proposition of your choice here)”, as well as by a plaintive comment in a recent student evaluation, “The instructor is an environmentalist”. Denied the opportunity to reply to the student, I do so here. “This is an ecology course; by necessity, its subject matter deals with the environment. We use science to study the environment, and science provides the rationale and avenue for its preservation.”

The last place that I would have expected to hear negative branding of environmentalism is at an ESA function, so imagine the jolt when, at the Society’s Annual Meeting in Milwaukee this past August, we were told by a prominent ecologist that we are scientists and therefore should eschew environmentalism. There was, of course, ample refutation of the notion of any wall between ecological science and environmentalism throughout the rest of the meeting. Thomas Lovejoy’s opening plenary address demonstrated artful interweaving of science with environmentalism and how the study of biodiverse nature is an essential part of advocacy for its preservation. He finished with a story about Ben Bradlee, the former Executive Editor of the Washington Post, who steered his newspaper toward progressive reporting on the environment despite only a modest appreciation of science, and how his publisher, Katherine Graham, had complained that environmentalists are self-righteous. This was a warning to us not to be shrill, and reinforced the wisdom of doing our science with an eye on the political and social milieu.

Whereas ecology is science and environmentalism sometimes is and sometimes isn’t, the latter is necessary for the former. We ecologists have the same relationship to the subject of our studies as do art historians and archeologists to theirs. There is no opprobrium upon artists and archeologists advocating for the preservation of art and antiquities. Protection of the environment – environmentalism – is advocacy of what we study. Why should we not advocate for protection of the environment in our professional capacity?

The negative branding of environmentalism comes from groups that are part and parcel of the notorious war on science. They are dedicated to denying the environmental degradation that ecologists are documenting every day. Some of the most prominent of these groups are discussed by Jaques et al. in a review entitled, The organization of denial: conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism (Environ Pol 2008; 17: 349–85). The authors document the concerted anti-environmentalism and complete disregard of these groups for anything connected with the environment. Jaques et al. describe the substantial financial backing, broad reach, and scores of authors that have been encouraged to spread disinformation regarding scientific findings – particularly about global warming – by conservative think tanks. The authors argue that these powerful entities seek to interfere with the scientific communication that is the basis of society’s understanding of environmental issues.

Graduate students with whom I raised these issues at the ESA Annual Meeting had little trouble in recognizing the essential, functional connection between basic ecological science and environmentalism for understanding and preserving the objects of study to which they are dedicating their lives. Several pointed out that a substantial number of sessions at the meeting represented scientific environmentalism, including such topics as conservation, biodiversity, environmental justice, and sustainability.

Any accounting of our scientific values should include objectivity and rationality, which ecologists have used to yield facts about the environment. A few of many such facts produced by ecological science are that humans are responsible for global warming, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and profound ecosystem and food-web changes in the Great Lakes through the introduction of invasive species. These are the sorts of facts that anti-environmental forces seek to deny. Defending these facts as the products of science makes you an environmentalist. To separate ecological science from environmentalism to avoid potential negative connotations of the latter affords anti-environmentalists the power of demagoguery; with rhetoric and false claims, they will have achieved prejudice against the subject of our studies.

In short, it is precious and self-damaging to claim a separation between our science and environmentalism. It should be a tenet of our ethics as ecologists to reject and counter the defamation of environmentalism.


“Environmentalist” label not in our best interests

Indy Burke, Bill Lauenroth (2009) “Environmentalist” label not in our best interests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 240-240

We are responding to Donald Strong’s editorial about ecologists and environmentalism (Front Ecol Environ2008; 6[7]: 347). We think advocating for the role of ecologists and ecological science in environmental decision making is different from what is commonly meant by the terms “environmentalist” and “environmentalism”. We agree that Earth is undergoing major environmental changes, and that the information ecological science can provide is a necessary component that policy makers will require if they are to make informed decisions.

We are concerned that Strong’s usage of “environmentalist” and “environmentalism” is naïve and risks misleading some members of the ecological science community. Environmentalist and environmentalism have lost the meanings he ascribes to them. They have become politically charged terms with the power to polarize conversations. We agree that there has been a “…negative branding of environmentalism…”, but we disagree that this is the sole result of “…the war on science”. We think it equally likely that it is the result of individuals and groups allowing their values to creep into their analyses of environmental problems. Regardless of the accurate identification of the source of the negative connotations associated with the terms “environmentalist” and “environmentalism”, we think that it is important for all of us to be aware and sensitive to this negativism. Equating ecologists and ecology with environmentalists and environmentalism will prove catastrophic to our science. If we are perceived as mixing our politics and our values into our science, we will lose our credibility, and risk our ability to have our science considered in policy setting deliberations of environmental change.

I (IB) am confident that I would not have been invited to recent meetings and interacted with individuals who are in a position to have a major influence on energy policy, if they thought I was mixing my personal opinions into my representations of science as related to the environment and natural resources.

Our strengths – as contributors to current and future environmental deliberations – derive directly from perceptions of the quality of our science. While it is likely that there are few ESA members who are not environmentalists at heart, we urge all members to resist being labeled as environmentalists or to allow what we do as scientists to be labeled as environmentalism.


Labels and values: a reply to Burke and Lauenroth

Donald R Strong (2009) Labels and values: a reply to Burke and Lauenroth. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 240-240.

Professors Burke and Lauenroth and I agree on a great deal. First, their assertion that “few ESA members…are not environmentalists at heart” is exactly the point of my original essay. The three of us also agree that one should not shout “environmentalist” in a theater crowded with suits from the energy industry. Even more, the “result of individuals and groups allowing their values to creep into their analyses of environmental problems” is a perfect description of the anti-environmental movement; indeed, such phony analyses “polarize conversations” about the environment.

The authors and I begin to part ways regarding their strictly negative connotation and narrow definition of “values”. The values of basic science are objectivity, rationality, and rigorous empiricism. In the sub-discipline of ecology, values are multifarious. Frontiers melds values of basic science with other values from social sciences. Social science involves more subjectivity than basic science and, in doing so, addresses values that differ among groups. Pertinent to ecology and the environment, values that go beyond those of basic science include utilitarian values (for example, ecosystem services and what the environment can do for humans: where The National Mining Association sees coal profits, others see ecosystem services eroded by global warming), intrinsic values (patriotic, religious, and deep aesthetic feelings about nature: many Americans, and the ESA, see “purple mountain majesty”, whereas an American president is reputed to have once said, “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?”), and opportunity values(if we don’t burn it now, what would all this fossil fuel – and the land, sea, and atmosphere destroyed by its exploitation – be worth in the future?). In environmental science, we endeavor to understand different kinds of values, not camouflage them.

Finally, there is one point about which I just plain disagree with Burke and Lauenroth. Although they claim that my arguments risk “misleading some members of the ecological science community”, I believe that such members are pretty savvy and will not be swayed by the word police any more than by partisan, ideological claptrap from conservative groups. Will these members dedicate their lives to a science that dare not speak one of its names?


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