Our letter below was triggered by the editorial piece of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Feagin 2017, Byers 2018) that tackled the role of Ecology in current state of global affairs. Is science of Ecology more human-focused or it is rather a humble science? Me and Christina wanted to add our own opinion but as we found out it was a pre-engineered two-letter discussion and we got rejected right away with these words from Editor of FEE:
(…) The original editorial was very much an opinion piece (as editorials always are) and we allowed someone else to provide a counterpoint to that opinion with an opposing view; having done that, it was decided that this particular conversation had gone as far as it should go, and should not be continued. Your own letter was somewhat unfocused, with mentions of all sorts of things, from terraforming on Mars to journal paywalls, and it was not felt that it added anything particularly constructive that would have justified us in re-opening this particular discussion. It was therefore decided not to send it out to peer review (which all Write Back letters go through, if they are to be considered for publication).
I hope this helps to explain our decision
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment
“ECOLOGY, THE RESPECTFUL SCIENCE”
AUTHORS: PAWEL WARYSZAK, CHRISTINA BIRNBAUM
The over-optimism in the science of ecology as laid out in Frontiers September editorial “Ecology, the optimistic science” (Feagin, 2017) was met with a call for a less grandiose attitude in Frontiers April Letter entitled “Ecology, the humbling science” (Byers, 2018). Clearly, this over-optimism in ecological science stems mainly from its anthropocentric branch. Sadly, anthropocentric values make us recreate the natural world and rationalize the utility of “designed” ecosystems. Biodiversity offset programs, which are growing in popularity, are another example of a line of thought behind “designed” ecosystems concept. Licenses to destroy remnant ecosystems are issued as over-optimistic attitudes blurs our respect and understanding of complex network or biological interactions (Waryszak 2017). Yet, no net biodiversity was gained as a result of the analysed developments (Maron et al. 2012). Hence, there are at least three additional considerations that need to be added towards the argument against the over-optimistic anthropocentric science of ecology:
- Firstly, eco-engineering will not re-create once intact and functionally complex natural ecosystems. In order to step out of anthropocentrism, one has to recognize that there is nothing optimistic in the statement by Feagin (2017) that the process of actively constructing and creating ecosystems is ethically sound. Tinkering with the remainder of the wild areas brings us to the core of existential debate around uprooting oneself from the past. Wild areas and remnant ecosystems hold the immense knowledge on the very mechanisms of how nature works. Homo sapiens is part of the natural evolutionary process, not a god-like creature who can re-create the natural ecosystems. To continue tinkering with our natural history is to uproot oneself from the rich evolutionary past towards lonely human-made planet. Only between 1993 and 2017 wilderness areas that hold the knowledge of our evolutionary past have shrunk by 10% (Allan, Venter & Watson 2017). We strongly encourage the over-optimistic eco-engineers to run their terraforming experiments elsewhere, for example, on planet Mars. We, for once, do not wish to live on eco-engineered Earth as this also means an end to the science of ecology as a whole.
- Secondly, we have to remember to see the big picture. Dry and factual reporting of how wilderness areas and biological diversity shrink may cause objectification of our study subject or system and somewhat detachment from it. As ecologists, it is easy to transition from initial admiration for nature to treat it merely as a subject of our careful study. Thus, sometimes forgetting the fundamental goals of our research – to better understand how nature operates so we can inform managers and policy makers of key habitats to conserve, species to protect and more importantly, gaps in existing knowledge that still need addressing.
- Thirdly, communicating science and the importance of nature conservation beyond academic journals. Respect towards the natural ecosystems that form the habitats for millions of other beings than ourselves is the most ethical thing to do. One does not remove wild areas to eco-engineer them to something new. All it does is justifies destruction on the premise that it can be later re-created or restored. We need ecology to understand how ecosystems worked before they were eco-engineered or offset. The volumes of ecological knowledge already exist, however, the high-quality academic publications will not solve the problem of shrinking wilderness conservation areas; our active engagement will. Publishing results in peer-reviewed academic journals only brings the so-called academic glory to the author(s), but neither local activists nor public will ever read the dry and factual paper. Scientists are one of the smartest people on Earth, and yet they express their opinions mostly through elite journals usually locked behind the pay-walls for non-academics. Respect towards ecology will grow if ecologists engage in protecting the wilderness areas – the very objects of their studies as explicitly called out by Gewin (2018) and Allan (2017). How about if every ecologist commits one hour a week to express an opinion directly to the public in plain, understandable English either online using social media or even better, in person by joining local conservation group?
Increased effort from us ecologist to disseminate knowledge of biological diversity on Earth would definitely see more attention to wild areas from developers. In growing respect towards ecology and nature lies our hope.
- Allan, J.R., Kormos, C., Jaeger, T., Venter, O., Bertzky, B., Shi, Y., Mackey, B., Merm, R., Osipova, E., Watson, J.E.M., 2017. Gaps and opportunities for the World Heritage Convention to contribute to global wilderness conservation. Conserv. Biol. 32, 116–126. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12976
- Allan, J.R., Venter, O. & Watson, J.E.M. 2017 Temporally inter-comparable maps of terrestrial wilderness and the Last of the Wild. Scientific Data, 4, 170187.
- Byers, B.A., 2018. Ecology, the humbling science. Front. Ecol. Environ. 16, 139. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1782
- Editorials, 2017. Too many academics study the same people. Nature 551, 141–142. https://doi.org/10.1038/551141b
- Feagin, R.A., 2017. Ecology, the optimistic science. Front. Ecol. Environ. 15, 351. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1522
- Gewin, V., 2018. Wilderness maps could shape biodiversity and climate targets. Front. Ecol. Environ. 16, 4–8. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1760
- Maron, M., Hobbs, R.J., Moilanen, A., Matthews, J.W., Christie, K., Gardner, T.A., Keith, D.A., Lindenmayer, D.B. & McAlpine, C.A. (2012) Faustian bargains? Restoration realities in the context of biodiversity offset policies. Biological Conservation, 155, 141–148.
- Waryszak, P. (2017) Evaluating emergence, survival, and assembly of Banksia woodland communities to achieve restoration objectives following topsoil transfer. Thesis dissertation, Murdoch University.
We think of refocusing the letter onto one given topic, be it bio-engineering or other global challenges facing Ecology. If you are Early Career Researcher who got inspired, and you want to jump on a letter-writing boat, please let us know.