Our Best Ecology Quotes of 2019

I’m generally not one for retrospectives. And in 2019, that feels like an advantage, considering how much of the world caught fire and how many backwards steps were taken regarding environmental policy.

But to take a more positive look back at the last 12 months, we at Ecology for the Masses have gotten to speak to some pretty inspiring people. One of the best aspects of running this website is that we’re able to sit down on a regular basis and talk to some incredibly prominent and interesting ecologists, managers and even politicians and talk everything and anything about the world we live in and the creatures that inhabit it.

So here are my favourite quotes from the interviews we published in 2019. If you want more context, you can of course check out the full interview by clicking on the names.

It’s mixed, but unfortunately the women who are the least protected are the ones we should be nurturing the most, that is our trainees – our graduate students and post-docs. They get very little in the way of maternity leave… We do it for faculty members, even though many said it wouldn’t be possible because it was too expensive. So I think it’s time we do it for our trainees. – Professor Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University on the state of paternal care for academics.

I would say by and large, at least the way we teach and disseminate ecology is pretty old-fashioned. One thing we should be doing better is to show how ecology and evolution are two sides of the same coin. We teach these as separate courses, the students don’t really see how interwoven these things are. But even more important is that we should put more into ecology in terms of the changes that are occurring in the Anthropocene… these literally burning issues need to be more implemented in our teaching of ecology. – Professor and children’s author Dag Hessen of the University of Oslo on modern teaching of ecology.

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“…we often use the honeybee as an umbrella species. By doing this you can conserve lots of habitat, in the name of the honeybee. And you’re actually helping lots of other species too, which helps the crops.” – Dr. Erica McAlister on the honeybee (Image Credit: kuhnmi, CC BY 2.0)

The honeybee is not a good pollinator in most situations. It’s not specifically adapted for most of the wildflowers in certain regions. But engaging people with all the different pollinators is a problem. So we often use the honeybee as an umbrella species. By doing this you can conserve lots of habitat, in the name of the honeybee. And you’re actually helping lots of other species too, which helps the crops. I don’t necessarily like it in some ways, because it’s not giving credit where credit’s due. Of the top 6 pollinators in the UK, 3 of them are flies. But if the honeybee helps get a really easy message across then fine. – Author of The Secret Life of Flies Dr. Erica McAlister of the British Natural History Museum on whether or not the honeybee deserves its status as an endangered pollinator.

I think a Natural History Museum is perfectly placed for a lot of the global ecological challenges we face today. It deals with biodiversity, it deals with understanding how nature works, natural history data and documentation. But museums need to get out of their shells and communicate. We have a fundamental obligation to document and describe, but museum experts know so much about the species that they are immensely suitable to contribute to larger ecological theory, because they understand the organisms involved. – Professor Carsten Rahbek of the Natural History Museum of Denmark on the role of Natural History Museum.

There was a study which showed that the ants of Manhattan eat an amount of fast food off the pavement equivalent to 60,000 hot dogs every year. That gives people a visual picture of 60,000 hot dogs strewn everywhere, which is not a very nice idea. I think that’s the way to go about it… You can tell them about then fun things, and that by itself can have the effect of people being less negative and hostile towards insects. But also I do believe that if people think that insects are fun, they will continue thinking and realise that these critters are quite important, and wonder how they’re re they faring. Are we taking care of these little things? – Author of Terra Insecta Professor Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences on engaging the public with the plight of insects.

What I’ve tried to do is be very honest about the challenges that I’ve faced. Because I think that hopefully will prepare them for what’s to come. You don’t want them to have rose-tinted glasses about what it is to be a female academic. Often we look up and see those who have succeeded, men and women equally, we look at them and see everything they’ve achieved. But we need to show the younger generation that it took some of those people a 99% rejection rate to get to where there are. So absolutely, look at how great these people are, but look at how many failures they’ve had to face, because they go hand in hand. – Dr. Celine Frere of the University of the Sunshine Coast on being honest with younger students about the life of a female academic.

For kids today, these California wildfires will be the new normal. When I was a little girl growing up outside of Pennsylvania we used to go ice-skating on the ponds all the time after they would freeze in winter. Nobody does that anymore because the ponds don’t freeze. You look at the record of temperatures. I take Introduction to Biology lectures, and I show the carbon dioxide curve from Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and I show them that when I was born, CO2 was 320 parts per million, and then show them the increase just in their lifetime. So now, being over 400ppm is the new normal. Kids today won’t ever remember it being less than that. Professor Johanna Schmitt of UC Davis on our shifting perceptions of what is normal.

If there’s a politician who’s really serious about a fully rounded agenda for improving the life of their people and leaving behind a liveable world, I’d like them to be thinking about every single one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But if I was in that position and trying to make judgements about how to maintain biodiversity as part of that, I would need to know so many things. What’s our expected projection of urbanisation? If my economy is decarbonising, what sort of land do I need for wind or solar farms? Today, it would be very hard to put biodiversity properly into that equation. – Donald Hobern of the International Barcode of Life Consortium on the challenges facing modern policy makers.

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“We don’t know if these changes are going to be linear, or whether we’ll see sudden shifts in entire ecosystems. It’s a real risk to be putting so much pressure on one part of our ecosystem, commercial fisheries, without considering all the other pressures from climate change and bottom up changes to the food web.” – Abigal McQuatters-Gollop on the pressure facing marine ecosystems (Image Credit: Christo Anestev, Pixabay licence)

There are many different pressures that we’re putting on the our marine ecosystem, which means we need to be even more careful about how we fish, because our understanding isn’t 100% on any of this. We’ve got lots of data, and science is progressing, but with climate change we’re seeing changes in the marine environment now that humanity has never seen. We don’t know if these changes are going to be linear, or whether we’ll see sudden shifts in entire ecosystems. It’s a real risk to be putting so much pressure on one part of our ecosystem, commercial fisheries, without considering all the other pressures from climate change and bottom up changes to the food web. Associate Professor Abigail McQuatters-Gollop of the University of Plymouth on the manifold pressures facing marine ecosystems today.

Not that I want to knock anyone’s science, but a lot of it is really dry. Communication between scientists is almost designed to be dry. I do think my scientific research is really important and really interesting, but would I rather read a book about farts or a scientific paper? I mean it’s probably going to be the book about farts. – Author of Does it Fart? Dr. Danielle Rabaiotti of the Zoological Society of London on the advantage of communicating science through flatulence.

…an ecosystem without humans is of course a false representation of an ecosystem. We are part of the ecosystem the way I see it, there’s no natural state without humans. We are one species, unfortunately influencing natural events to a much larger extent than I would want, but we are still part of the ecosystem. There’s nothing out there that we don’t affect to some degree, whether it’s through hunting or e.g. releasing nitrogen. – Associate Professor Fredrik Widemo of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences on our perception of nature as separate from humans.

A good question, the right system to answer it and unending enthusiasm! And then a study system that is easy to work with. Ideally, close to where students or researchers live. Ideally, something that is logistically not too challenging such that if you go through a phase where funding is limited, you could still do the fundamental work. They’re the basics. – Professor and International Chair of Biology Jane Reid of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology on the key to a good long-term ecological study.

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“I totally recognize the relevance of quantifying nature as a service. But from the scientific point of view it is downright bullshit… if you say yes to accepting such work as part of the decision making process then you risk someone coming out and saying that river is not worth more than 50 dollars.” (Image Credit: Luke Jones, CC BY 2.0)

I totally recognize the relevance quantifying nature as a service. There are some very good arguments for it and sometimes it works. But from the scientific point of view it is downright bullshit… we have no way of knowing what the real value of an ecosystem will be in 50 years or 500 years. When it is done by good people, and for a specific purpose, it may have some merit. But it is always dangerous because if you say yes to accepting such work as part of the decision making process then you risk someone coming out and saying that river is not worth more than 50 dollars. If you have accepted that you are kind of stuck. So I am uneasy with these kind of things, but I do not disregard it. – Former leader of the Norwegian Green Party and WWF Rasmus Hansson on assigning monetary value to nature.

There are 2 things that I think still have to be overcome. One is I think implicit bias, which I think is more insidious than the overt misogyny which is still out there.… but it’s not just implicit activity. Look at the recent report on assaults at field stations. There’s lots of well-documented examples of that going on in ecology in the past. In this MeToo era, we were talking about implicit bias as being more deadly, but I think there’s a very small but very toxic set of individuals responsible for more sinister behaviour, and those things are still going on the way they did when I was a graduate student. And it is happening in ecology. Professor Johanna Schmitt of UC Davis on discrimination within ecological academia.

Scarcity is essentially an economic term which confers more value to a resource. Like competition for a limiting resource in ecology. We all fundamentally need oxygen, but there’s no value in it, because we’re not competing for it, it’s not limited. The environment is kind of like that. We can flush stuff down the toilet, and we can see an algal bloom, but it still doesn’t affect many of our lives directly. By and large, the ‘environment’ isn’t scarce enough. It’s the next frontier. Unfortunately it’s about making people scared enough. “If I drink that water I’m gonna get sick, so I want my water not to make me sick. Fix it. I’ll pay taxes for that.” But we don’t want people to get sick. We need to find an alternative motivation. – Professor Andrew MacDougall of the University of Guelph on creating urgency in the ongoing environmental debate.

[It’s] a massive problem that in academic institutions you are still only encouraged to publish, and there is only career progression based on those metrics, not “how many workshops did you show up at, and how many partnerships have you formed?”. It’s starting to happen in the UK for example, we’ve got the Research Excellence Framework, and they have measurements for achieving research impact. They’re going to have measurements around knowledge exchange, which hopefully will then figure back into career progression metrics, but at the moment they don’t exist. – Dr. Prue Addison of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust on giving more value to networking and outreach in academic circles.

Thank you again to all those who sat down with us this year, and to all our readers as well. Hope everyone has enjoyed 2019, and has an even better 2020.

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