Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The value of ecology through metaphor

The romanticized view of an untouched, pristine ecosystem is unrealistic; we now live in a world where every major ecosystem has been impacted by human activities. From pollution and deforestation, to the introduction of non-native species, our activity has influenced natural systems around the globe. At the same time, ecologists have largely focused on ‘intact’ or ‘natural’ systems in order to uncover the fundamental operations of nature. Ecological theory abounds with explanations for ecological patterns and processes. However, given that the world is increasingly human dominated and urbanized, we need a better understanding of how biodiversity and ecosystem function can be sustained in the presence of human domination. If our ecological theories provide powerful insights into ecological systems, then human dominated landscapes are where they are desperately needed to solve problems.
From the Spectator

This demand to solve problems is not unique to ecology, other scientific disciplines measure their value in terms of direct contributions to human well-being. The most obvious is human biology. Human biology has transitioned from gross morphology, to physiology, to molecular mechanisms controlling cellular function, and all of these tools provide powerful insights into how humans are put together and how our bodies function. Yet, as much as these tools are used to understand how healthy people function, human biologists often stay focussed on how to cure sick people. That is, the proximate value ascribed to human biology research is in its ability to cure disease and improve peoples’ lives. 

In Ecology, our sick patients are heavily impacted and urbanized landscapes. By understanding how natural systems function can provide insights into strategies to improve degraded ecosystems. This value of ecological science manifests itself in shifts in funding and publishing. We now have synthesis centres that focus on the human-environment interaction (e.g., SESYNC). The journals that publish papers that provide applied solutions to ecological and environmental problems (e.g., Journal of Applied Ecology, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, etc.) have gained in prominence over the past decade. But more can be done.

We should keep the ‘sick patient’ metaphor in the back of our minds at all times and ask how our scientific endeavours can help improve the health of ecosystems. I was once a graduate student that pursued purely theoretical tests of how ecosystems are put together, and now I am the executive editor of an applied journal. I think that ecologists should feel like they can develop solutions to environmental problems, and that their underlying science gives them a unique perspective to improving the quality of life for our sick patients. 

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