Conservation and Science

The relationship between science and conservation

We live in an era when the negative effects of humans upon the environment are visible everywhere. What is to be done?

The most important first step is to correctly understand the causes of the problems. The essential second step is to act — make practical changes that improve the situation.  Both of these steps require some knowledge of science.

The scientific study of the natural world is known ecology. Compared to physics or chemistry, it is a relatively new science. Most of the foundations of ecology go back only to about the 1950s, although earlier work goes back to the late 1800s.

The first text book on ecology, for example, was Eugene Odum’s book Fundamentals of Ecology, which was published the year I was born, in 1953. Most of our modern scientific understanding of ecology has developed in only the past fifty years.

The conservation pages on this web site deal with a variety of environmental problems on which I have worked over my career. They are areas where I understand the science, and where I know enough about the situation to offer some practical steps forward to protect the natural world. At the largest scale, there is a page on the world’s largest wetlands. Two of the world’s largest wetlands occur in Canada. At the smallest scale, there is a page on protecting the natural environment of the rural county in which I currently live.

Some scientists believe they should say nothing about environment issues, for fear of seeming to have an agenda. That attitude is one extreme in philosophy that has existed for a long time, and there is even an old word for it: scholasticism. It allows people to receive larges salaries but otherwise ignore their social responsibilities.  Too often, it leads to science that is out of touch with reality, and often the science is also of low quality as a result. It may also lead to arrogance and egotism. There is no better test of scientific ideas than trying to apply them to real world problems. At the other extreme are people who becomes so fixated on certain environmental problems that they become zealots who cannot be influenced by facts. People who use magical or emotional thinking can cause harm to the natural world by demanding actions that distract us from efficient solutions, or, worse, they may actually advocate actions that will cause further harm. One current example is people who demand the right to build their homes in floodplains, and who insist that the rest of society should pay to repair their homes every time there is a flood.

As a scientist, my philosophy was (and still is) to find a middle way: to insist first and foremost that we understand the ‘laws’ or ‘principles’ that describe the natural world, but also to try to ensure that those ‘laws’ or ‘principles’ are then wisely used to protect the Earth’s natural systems. It is a delicate balance to get it right, but it is necessary to try. Our future depends upon it.

History of Ecology

If you are interested in reading more about the history of ecology as a science, or about the relationship between theory and applications in ecology, here are some further readings.