If the World Wildlife Fund is to be believed http://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/world-has-lost-half-its-wildlife-past-40-years-wwf-n214486, and I have no doubt that their claims are largely accurate, then it is time to admit that the science of ecology has failed in the past century.
We live on a planet where science has given us tehnological marvels. I can now hold a small box in my hand and access all the information the world has ever acquired.
Anywhere I stand.
I can circumnavigate the planet in an airplane in about the same period it takes the earth to revolve a couple of times. We know roughly how old our universe is and can travel to other planets if we want. Many diseases that once terrified us are being held at bay or are extinct, if we have the money to afford the cures. I can look in the sky and sort of see the stars because of the light pollution, but by God, I can see a satellite or the international space station go streaming by without a problem.
But life on earth is dwindling rapidly. At least the life we know is going away, which is comprised of the big animals and plants that are most obvious to us. Goodness knows what’s happening to the millions of plants and animals that we have not yet categorized, because natural history is so 20th century. We may be altering the diversity of viruses, bacteria, and fungi as well.
At our peril.
What does this mean? It means that the mature sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, and physiology are excelling and translating to great things for humanity. Conversely, the science of ecology is failing miserably.
I am an ecologist, although some colleagues may beg to differ.
I have had the luxury of time and experience to consider the matter. (That means I am old).
Ecologists continue to spend too much time trying to look for general patterns and search for the great unifying theory of life than applying what they know and saving the dwindling life support system known as earth. We are using too much of our precious resources talking and not enough time acting.
I place part of the blame squarely on the academic market and funding system. The best ecologists spend their most productive years trying to find a job, get tenure, and then retain the job so hardly sought in the first place. The currency of job security continues to be publishing, although most politicians, leaders of industry, and Joe public are never going to read a single sentence, even in the very best journals we academics have to offer.
What would happen if academia, in its critical place in the fabric of our society’s embrace of technology and knowledge, might encourage our junior faculty and budding scientists to engage in policy and reward them for doing so? I have no idea of the metrics of success, but perhaps it might be number of pieces of informed legislation supported, presentations before civic groups and law makers, or trade publications converted to plain English for general consumption.
Or I might be wrong.
Perhaps the problem is that ecologists do a terrible job of translating their findings to what most humans really care about, which is money and the status that follows. If you don’t believe me, count the number of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other muscle cars in the streets of Beijing, the capital of a country with a lot of people who have more pressing problems than choosing which expensive, beautiful car to acquire.
Each ecologist should be paired with an economist to show the hidden monetary value of all those vanishing species, so that the world will listen.
Because, after all, it is not knowledge gained that really speaks. It is the human need for gain that gets our attention.
That is, until the water and air run out.