Required reading for biologists: Life in the Real World, an op-ed about how biologists need to share their experiences with nature in order to engage non-biologists. Which is something I think about a lot…though rarely act on, since I don’t talk to enough non-biologists on a day-to-day basis (and those that I do regularly talk to are kind of sick of my babbling about fish etc.). I want to explain, first, why I think it’s important that people have a sort of biological literacy, and second, how my fellow biologists can foster this.
The world needs more people interested in nature—not necessarily people who want to be scientists, but people who appreciate their natural environment. Because, to shamelessly steal the Baba Dioum quote from the above-linked article, “[W]e will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
There is no doubt that humans are drastically changing the biosphere, and slightly less doubt that we need to do something about it. But only recently has this become a part of the political dialogue of most developed countries. I think this happened because the narrative of changing global climate patterns, with its threat of direct harm to humans, largely supplanted the narratives of litter besmirching our roadsides or disappearing species. This narrative has made environmentalists out of people who never were interested in conservation. It has forced governments to consider environmental policy and to fund more research in the natural sciences. And yet, political action hasn’t accomplished much.
My point is twofold: first, we have lost sight of protecting individual species (with the exception of polar bears, it seems). Mitigating climate change is important, crucial even, but we also need direct action on a species-by-species basis: things like captive breeding programs, seed banks, habitat restoration and protection, invasive species removal. Because it’s not only climate change that causes population declines; in fact, land use change is still the most important factor, regionally and globally, in causing extinction.
Second, I would argue that the initiative we need to both legislate and practice sustainability will ultimately not come of this narrative. The threat to our self-interest is simply not strong enough. We need altruism. And that altruism can be developed through the more traditional kind of environmentalism, the kind that enjoys a walk in the woods and stops to wonder what bird that was along the way.
Biologists are among the best equipped to foster this care for the environment, through sharing their own excitement and wonder basically geeking out more. We can start, of course, with our own research, but this can be hard. Especially when your research has no practical application and your listener has realized that his or her tax dollars fund your work. I’ve more than once skirted the issue entirely and ended the conversation with “Uh…I just stare at fish” and a joke about how I’ll never have a “real” job. But, naturally, what interests each of us doesn’t necessarily do it for others. So it’s also important to look for other “outreach methods”, as it were—pointing out local wildlife, for instance (you’d be astonished how many of your neighbours don’t suspect there are coyotes all over the place, if you live in urban North America), or picking up on research in the news.
There’s benefits for biologists in this. If people are more informed about what biologists do other than try to cure cancer (that’s totally what we do, yeah), they’ll be more likely to support research, including the species-specific research needed to protect endangered species, research that often sounds extremely trivial if it makes it into a headline (viz., the scandal about funding in Ontario a few years back for research on the sex lives of flying squirrels). This applies to molecular and cell biologists, too: how many people in your extended family know what a chromosome actually is?
In that spirit, here’s a blog you should follow: The Mesocosm, written by some ecologists in my department who are valiantly trekking through the jungles of Costa Rica in order to save the world, one bromeliad at a time! Because, to add one final point to my sermon, it’s not just the wacky facts about species that gets people interested; it’s the stories about people who are already interested in the wacky facts about species that really resonates.