Add one to the Endangered Species list: ecologists

child_and_dolphin.jpgIt’s widely appreciated that the world’s biodiversity is in crisis — that many species are in danger of extinction.  How do we know this?  Because ecologists and other environmental field scientists have studied their abundance and sometimes obscure habits, tracked their movements in space and their fluctuations through time, and done the mathematical modeling to derive forecasts of their likely population trends.

Now the Guardian UK reports that, in Britain, the expertise needed for this tracking of wild species of plants and animals and other “natural resources” is dwindling because ecologists themselves are an endangered species

[I]t seems the government is not overinterested in ecology. In the last year, three premier Centre for Ecology and Hydrology stations . . . have closed, even though Monks Wood was at the forefront of climate change research and there were 2,300 objections to its closure. . . . In fact, there is growing consternation in conservation circles that government ministers are finding ecology increasingly inconvenient. Environment secretary David Miliband is said to be frustrated that licensing of marine developments – such as the Severn Barrage – is ruled by conservation legislation such as the Habitats Directive. This piece of EU legislation is felt by many conservationists to be the only effective protection for our most significant wildlife habitats. Minister of state, Ben Bradshaw, is reported to have said the Habitats Directive is “restrictive”.

Government ministers are finding ecology increasingly inconvenient — sound familiar? Anyone with even a passing interest in the news will recognize that the situation is no better, and likely worse, in the United States.  Over the past six and a half years of the Bush adminstration, there has been a continuing, generally low-profile effort to dismantle government regulations and agencies whose mandate is to collect scientific data on the environment and to provide the objective, expert advice on natural resources that we, the taxpayers and owners of those resources, need to make informed decisions.  The beneficiaries of this stealth campaign have been large oil, mining, and timber corporations.  Fortunately, we haven’t yet reached the stuation in Laos, where an ecologist working on restoration projects was abducted by uniformed men and is missing. So far in the USA, government ecologists mostly have to deal with gag rules.  

But the problem is deeper than simple government disinterest (or active hostility).  According to Karen Devine, education officer for the British Ecological Society (BES), budgetary constraints and legal liabilities are also discouraging schools from exposing kids to the natural world and nurturing their innate fascination with wildlife and habitats:

“If all kids see is concrete, their experience of ecology is limited and it becomes taught by text book.”

“Field biology has to be taught in the field by experts, many of whom are old now,” says Phil Gates, a botanist a Durham University. “When this expertise disappears it will be difficult to teach again. Much of this expertise was found in natural history societies; now some 100-year-old societies are folding because of a lack of members, the cost of insurance for field trips and societal changes.” Gates is also convinced that many students eschew low-paid, short-contract, funding-driven ecology for the far more lucrative bio-medical fields.

Where have we gone wrong? Kids are natural born ecologists.  Who has ever met a young child that was not fascinated with animals and insects and flowers?  One culprit is clearly our modern obsession with electronic media — it’s now well documented that kids and adults alike have shifted their interests from the web of life to the world-wide web. This is one argument for the importance of programs like “No child left indoors“, which aim to get kids off the couch and outside to experience the real world of nature at an early age, to plant a seed as it were.  

So kids have found other things to do than play outside — so what?  There is more at stake here than child’s play, important as that is.  The last decade or two have seen growing recognition that environmental degradation is about more than just esthetics, it is literally about the survival of the natural infrastructure that supports human civilization as we know it. Thus, effective environmental stewardship would seem to be incentive enough for concern about the decline of ecological knowledge.  But there are more immediate concerns too.  There’s good evidence that “nature deficit disorder” has lasting detrimental impacts on kids. As Julie Deardorff of the Chicago Tribune noted last year:

In the United States, Sweden, Australia and Canada, studies have shown that children who play on natural playgrounds (trees, fields, streams) are more likely to make up their own games and are more cooperative than those who play on man-made equipment. Nature also is being looked at as a form of treatment, in conjunction with behavioral therapy and Ritalin. Groundbreaking work from University of Illinois researchers has shown that exposure to ordinary natural settings may effectively reduce attention-deficit symptoms in children.

The good news is that, at a time when so many environmental problems seem insurmountable, this particular one is a no-brainer: get the kids outside!  It doesn’t take any particular expertise, it’s free, and it’s healthy for everyone. Who knows? Maybe some seemingly insignificant encounter with a squirrel or butterly or sunfish will plant a seed in them and they’ll grow up to be part of the solution. 

[Photo from the Oceans for Youth Foundation]

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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