I’ve grown weary of the repeated assertion, expressed in journal editorials, society newsletters and conference promotions, that ‘ecology has never been more important’. Is this really true? And even if it is, does it provide a strong case that everyone else should care about it? I think we should retire the phrase and instead seek to make more direct, positive statements about the value of ecology*.
My scepticism arises from the observation that the rhetorical trope is by no means restricted to ecology. The same justification appears repeatedly in other fields, both inside and outside academia, diluting its impact considerably. I suspect that their communities of interest could make a case that everything from radiology to real ale to Renaissance poetry is now more important than ever. If you’ve seen the phrase used in another context and thought “So what?” then it’s very likely that non-ecologists are thinking the same thing when we use it, and fellow ecologists hardly need persuading.
If everything really is becoming more important then this might be caused by two broader trends. One is an ever-expanding, educated and increasingly connected global population, so for any topic there is almost bound to be more people taking an interest than before. At the same time, political, social and technological change continues to intensify, threatening to eclipse or eradicate many of the things we care about, whether it’s butterflies or Brutalist architecture. Neither of these patterns makes a strong case for ecology in particular.
If everything is increasing in importance than the absolute increase in the value of ecology (perhaps greater than before) is less relevant than the relative value of ecology. Can we say that ecology is more important than public health, or economic inequality, or agricultural production? Phrasing it in this way makes the original statement appear even more nonsensical because we are ranking the incomparable**.
A useful rhetorical approach is to argue from the opposite position. Could it actually be the case that ecology is less important? Are our claims merely attempts to draw attention to something we wish people would care about as much as we do?
The truth is that for a large proportion of people, their direct dependence on natural systems is decreasing. On an individual level, ecology is surely most important of all for hunter-gatherers, whose entire survival depends on the vagaries and vicissitudes of natural forces. I have worked with shifting agriculturalists, and I know of no other people whose understanding of their environment, formed through careful and systematic observation, is as great as theirs. Even farmers in the developed world retain a close connection with nature. I view all of them as ecologists in one form or another.
Contrast our increasingly urbanised, detached species, and for the most part it is possible to live our lives without recognising our dependence on nature. When we do encounter the living world it is often through the managed conditions of parks and gardens, and we are as likely to be repelled by the intrusions of uncontrolled nature (wasps and weeds) as to be delighted by them. Even if ecological processes underpin many of the services we require, our direct needs are often met from systems that are heavily managed, sanitised and shifted a long way from any natural baseline.
Viewed from this perspective, the problem isn’t that ecology isn’t becoming more important, it’s that to a large proportion of the people on the planet (increasing in both absolute and relative terms) it is becoming less obviously relevant. We recognise this phenomenon in issues such as plant blindness. A natural world that is not encountered or interacted with is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for. It’s not as important to people, even if it’s important for people.
This lack of connection can remain true even while nature documentaries are among the most-watched broadcasts on television. This is because they often editorially eradicate humans through the use of careful camera angles and choice of filming locations. Nature is presented as something pure and detached from humans; when a human does appear it is often in order to foreground the emotional response of the presenter. This is nature as spectacle, not as lived reality. We are not truly immersed and connected with it.
But what about the bigger picture? It is surely the case that ecology is central to solving many of the grand challenges that face humanity: climate change, collapsing biodiversity, feeding a growing population. It is in facing these problems that we can make the strongest argument for why ecology truly matters. This also makes me uncomfortable though because it frames ecology as a crisis discipline, only worthy of attention because things are going so badly wrong. Surely we can all believe in a more positive vision.
This then is the crux of the problem: ecology is important to our species collectively, even while it is becoming less directly important to us individually. Many believe that there is a connection between the two, and that by providing individuals with opportunities to experience and relate to nature they will be more likely to act in the greater interest (I’ve often heard this said but am unaware of any compelling evidence from a direct study***). How should we as ecologists address this? Blanket statements of its importance are not going to cut through.
There’s a sense in which the ‘ecology has never been more important’ claim is an admission of insecurity; a cry for attention in the face of abundant evidence that economic and social systems are ignoring our scientific expertise. It’s also one that only needs making in an affluent, Global North context. There’s no point trying to tell a subsistence fisherman to care about ecology because they already do, even if they might not phrase it in quite the same terms.
A more productive approach then is to direct our energies into finding a form of words that will demonstrate the relevance of ecology to the audiences we are trying to reach. To some extent we are already attempting this with concepts like ‘nature-based solutions’, which can help policy-makers relate to our science****. We might resent the consequent dilution of our passion into someone else’s priorities but ultimately this is likely to be the most effective way to achieve the responses we are looking for. Rather than trying to turn everyone into ecologists (although more will always be welcome) we should show others how ecology impacts on the things they already care about. Make ecology important to them instead of asserting that ecology is important in its own right.
* I’m not going to get into an argument here about what ecology means, given that the word itself carries different implications for academic researchers, environmental campaigners or outside observers. For the purposes of this post assume it means something like the study of the natural world.
** I’m sympathetic to the argument that all three of those fields can be linked to ecology. On the other hand, someone outside our own subject area might argue that studying ecology is only important insofar as it advances public health or agriculture. I’m put in mind of the absurd claim by pathologist Rudolf Virchow that ‘Medicine is a social science and politics is only medicine on a large scale’. That everything links to your field doesn’t make it the centre.
*** In opposition to this view are observations such that conservation biologists have a relatively high carbon footprint. I’d be delighted to learn of any systematic study that has tested the assumption rigorously.
**** This is a generous reading because I’m aware that there are plenty of people who dislike the term, and indeed all buzzwords and phrases that create bandwagons around poorly-defined concepts. If they achieve the intended outcome then I’m inclined to be less critical.