What do you do?

Written by Edward Lewis, 4th year undergraduate studying Ecological Science (Forestry) at the University of Edinburgh. Likes everything and anything to do with woodlands. 

What do you do?

This ubiquitous question could be considered a useful social norm, as it can quickly distinguish an over-arching definition of an individual. The person who asked will then, most likely, use this information to help form their opinion of the replying individual. When I am asked I will answer, I am an ecologist. I see myself first and foremost, as an ecologist. Perhaps most think this means I roll around in mud and look at bugs (that’s not to say I don’t); but I think it should also mean a lot more.

First, I’ll explain what brought this to mind. In the last few weeks, NASA (1) and the IPCC (2) have both come to the fore in public media to reiterate, with increased fervour, that our current use of the planet is leading to unmitigated catastrophe for millions, if not billions.

For us ecologists, this is akin to the daily migration of the ocean’s battering waves upon the shore.  Sure, they hit hard, but it is nothing new, and like the beach, we have become worn down by its weathering. I think therein lies a big problem.

There is no doubt in my mind that the environmental problems humans have created from the mismanagement of the World’s resources is the single most important thing we as ecologists, and we as humans can work on right now. Yet, where are the fanfares?Where is the charge of the light brigade that will bring around a new era of anthropogenic symbiosis with our planet?

I think the answer is two-fold.

Firstly, whilst these stark reports were being published, James Lovelock, a vanguard of the environmental movement has decreed that the ‘movement’ has become like a religion – filled with dogma lacking in scientific evidence (3). This opinion forms a stark dichotomy to the gravity of the reports published by NASA and the IPCC. These polar opposites highlight the maelstrom of opinions, directions, policies and rhetoric that could now be defined as environmentalism. This maelstrom dissolves any clear objective from the environmental movement. A clear objective is paramount for an effective movement, e.g. to stop slavery in the UK needed the abolition act of 1833, to start equal rights for women demanded the vote of 1918.  To ameliorate humanities’ exploitation of the planet requires….

Now I’m not so naïve as to think that one act is enough, one piece of legislation, or one individual.  For too long I’ve been waiting for some modern day William Wilberforce, or Millicent Garrett Fawcett to inspire a generation – a nation even, into acting as one voice.
The years have gone by and my optimism has turned into that weathered beach – worn down by years of reading papers and reports, and the rhetoric of uninspirational, unmotivated politicians. I say to myself that I’m just me, what can I do?

Then I remember that I am just me, but I’m also an ecologist; as are many of my friends and hundreds of thousands of other people worldwide. Instead of waiting for one leader, perhaps we, as one collective ‘person’ can be the leader – a clichéd concept, sure – but what I mean is, are we not the most suited individuals to lead this movement?  Those of us who mark our passion for the natural world as a defining feature of our personality?

If you think that this seems far-fetched, ask yourself, does your knowledge of ecology and the environment not impact on what you eat? How you vote?  Where you go on holiday? And how you get there?

Primarily I want the environment page of the Guardian to stop being the most depressing ten minutes of every morning, but what I also want is for the empowerment of us ecologists, and a belief that we aren’t trying to hold back the tides.

1) Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? (theguardian.com)

2) Climate change report ‘should jolt people into action’ says IPCC chief (theguardian.com)

3) James Lovelock: environmentalism has become a religion (theguardian.com)

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