Sunday, April 4, 2010

There are no successful ecologists

Or rather, the typical measures of "success" in society or academia really aren't well suited to ecology.  Defining success by the number of papers authored, chapters written, grants won, citations, books edited or written- not so relevant to improving our environment.   Defining success by species named vastly favors ecologists that may have never even considered the term ecology, let alone called themselves such.  Certifications and degrees may be useful, but they simply mark one accomplishment.  Defining success by on-the-ground measures such as species saved, habitats restored, or hectares conserved may accurately measure the success of a person in ecology, but those successes usually can't be attributed to a single person.  Instead, it takes dozens if not hundreds of people including legislators, managers, lay activists, volunteers, land owners, non-profit workers, and more, so a single individual's contribution may be relatively small.  Describing a new ecological theory or building a comprehensive model of some system definitely can change the way the world thinks of ecology and how ecologists research, but it's a lofty goal that very few people- even those currently considered "successful ecologists"- ever attain. 

How do we measure the success of an ecologist then?  I propose that we define success in ecology by living the life we teach- living sustainably, and lowering our own ecological impact as best we can, and the number of people we encourage to live similarly.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the whole world to save our biome.  And thus, I tender my resignation from the pursuit of "success" in ecology.  The other goals I listed above are important also, but they don't define and aren't the primary factor in defining success in this academic discipline. 

Ecology is a process, and as such, one's success in ecology isn't an endpoint, but a process.  If you've written your theory and now do little else while living a comfortable life utilizing lots of resources, you're not a successful ecologist.  You may have once been, but you aren't any longer.  In this case I'd argue this person is a less successful ecologist than the child that helps pull garlic mustard all summer and participates in citizen scientist endeavors regularly.  Maybe the reason so many US citizens have disdain for ecologists is because we're too busy trying to measure our success in disingenuous ways.  Shall we change that?  Will you join me?


  1. I think you're confusing the term "ecologist" with "conservationist". An ecologists job is to understand the environment, a conservationists job is to save it. People like Ed Begley Jr might do a good job of living light on the land (and even showing others how to, too), but he certainly isn't an ecologist.

  2. I know you're right, but for the longest time, the ecologists I knew and that inspired me went into ecology because they were conservationists and wanted to make a difference. I guess it's a phenomenon that's less common than I had believed. And quite frankly, it's a bit hard to wrap my head around.

  3. After finding out who EBJ was, really? How does he come up in a discussion of ecologists? I'm saying, those who identify as ecologists, should we measure our success solely or even majorly by publications and grants? Or should we be "practicing what we preach"- concern for the environment?

  4. I used Begley as an example because he has a reality show that teaches people how little waste people can create if they put their mind to it. He played an important role in bringing the "green" movement to Hollywood, which led to is adoption by popular culture.

    And ecology, like genetics, neurology, or any other subset of the life sciences, has the explicit goal of understanding their subject, not saving it. You can often make better arguments for conservation if you understand its importance through study, however. Species conservation is a noble goal, but its not the be-all/end-all of ecology.

  5. I'd be happy if I saw fewer ecologists driving gas-hogs and eating highly processed foods. Studying ecology is a necessity, but I guess I see ecology as akin to social work- you don't go into it unless you want to make a difference. I'm frequently wrong about people, though, and apparently this is another case.