Sunny Power started off the first full day of ESA’s meeting with a great overview of where the society has been and where it is headed. My impression has been that ESA has been slowly asserting its rightful place as not only a source of scientific information relevant to policy but also an active commentator on existing and proposed policy. In a way, this impression is correct: ESA has over the past two decades been increasing its presence, beginning with the 1983 establishment of a public affairs office in Washington DC. But as Power pointed out, this recent history only tells the end of the story. ESA was conceived as an organization dedicated to bringing ecological knowledge directly to policy makers, and was instrumental in a number of wildlife reserve designations during the first half of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1945 that the membership voted to hobble ESA by dictating that it exclude policy activity from its mission. Thankfully this mission has been once again made whole, and at a time that is both scary (because of the ecological challenges we face as a country) and exciting (because finally ecologists and ecological knowledge are being included in policy decisions). Power has ushered the society through this period, and as she leaves as ESA president I am thankful for her work to make ESA a professional organization that advocates for policy that is in line with ecological knowledge.
Incidentally, the person who introduced Power also rattled off a couple of “top rankings” Albuquerque received for sustainable urban growth and sustainable practices, so perhaps my indictment of the city’s water sustainability was a bit premature. I say that, of course, after walking over numerous sprinkler-watered sidewalks on the way to the conference. I think I just don’t quite understand how the Southwest works.
The plenary speaker of the day was Monica Turner, one of the founders of modern landscape ecology. Back when I was a graduate student I considered going into landscape ecology and read through her textbook on the subject. I never went on to do anything with landscape ecology, but reading her book helped me to understand the importance of identifying the right scale for ecological inquiry. My most recent work, to be presented on Wednesday morning, was informed by Turner’s clear explanation of how different heterogeneity can be when measured at different scales. Her talk centered around the role of disturbance in creating heterogeneity in the landscape and how that heterogeneity affects ecosystem processes. Using her work in post-1988 Yellowstone as an example, she talked about the role that natural disturbances like fire can play in spatially structuring the productivity of recovering forests.
After the plenary I went to this great session called “Resources for Ecology Education: Fair & Share” organized by the ESA education officers. I had come prepared for the workshop because I just recently finished an activity called The Evolution of Sustainable Use (to be discussed on this blog soon). It’s a flash-based game that is designed for use in an ecology or environmental science classroom, and right now I am looking for a way to disseminate it and get feedback so it can be refined. The workshop afforded me the chance to describe my project to a small group of ecological educators. I also got the chance to hear about some of the activities that they do, which were really valuable. Teresa K. Heisey, a professor from Lehigh Carbon Community College, talked about using learning communities to enliven interdisciplinary coursework. In one such community she asked students in her ecology class to produce written reports which were then interpreted as short videos by students in a communications class. The dialogue between the two classes and two groups of students really seemed to enliven the students’ experience; this is an approach I would like to incorporate into my own teaching. Beyond sharing our ideas locally within our group, the workshop also highlighted two databases for teaching activities which are run by ESA, TIEE and EcoEd. I am excited to discover these two related databases, both as a resource to enrich my own teaching and as a forum for my projects.
I spent the afternoon bouncing around various sessions. One of the toughest things about being at a conference is managing information. There are so many talks and there are so many opportunities to learn new things, but many of these are overlapping so one needs to make careful decisions about which talks to attend and then find some means of fixing a bit of that information in one’s mind. This is my attempt at synthesizing and retaining some of the various talks I saw today; I present them as coherent wholes, although the various pieces emerged from a lot of jumping from session to session.
I am increasingly interested in urban ecology, even as I have to admit that I don’t always know how to define this subdiscipline. A session dedicated to urban ecology helped me to get a better idea of what people are calling urban ecology today. Impervious surface area played a prominent role in talks by Myrna Hall and Emily Peters. Hall’s talk focused on how to model the effects of development on watershed quality, introducing a multi-faceted model that incorporated socioeconomic forecasts with extrapolations to land use change and the effect of impervious surface expansion on water quality. Aimed at eventually being a tool for policy makers, Hall’s model seems like a promising example of what can be done to provide accessible ecological predictions to urban planners. Looking at the flip side of impervious surface expansion, Peters’ research focused on the role that urban forested areas play in mitigating storm-surge runoff through absorbing and transpiring precipitation. Another talk given by Tessa Francis provided strong evidence that lakeside development reduces the availability of food (in the form of terrestrial insects) to fish. Another session contained a talk by Cinzia Fissore that looked at the role that individual households play in altering nutrient fluxes. Using survey and observational data for over three hundred home, Fissore showed that two prominent household activities (lawn fertilization and meat consumption) greatly increase the net nitrogen efflux from homes. Based on their survey data, it appears that homes with very green lawns and very carnivorous residents (it is not clear if the two are linked) make up a small minority of households with huge nitrogen effects. I am not sure if my count is correct, but I believe this was the third direct allusion to the great ills of meat eating that has been uttered at an ESA talk; the times really are changing! It was great for me to get a taste of what kind of urban ecology is being done, because someday I would like to teach and do research in this area.
I was interested in a special symposium entitled “Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities, Locally and Globally” because it seemed to contain a strong social justice component along with information on how indigenous knowledge can enrich ecological understanding. Unfortunately the session was very poorly managed and I ended up catching only bits and pieces of the talks I was aiming for. Sadly, what I did hear was pretty dispiriting. Donna House presented a meandering monolog on her experiences as a native american and later as a biology student, but her judgment about what was appropriate for this conference was way off. Sidetracked by anecdotes about her refusal to kill butterflies for an entomology assignment and other non sequiturs, she missed to opportunity to give examples of a phenomenon that she frequently alluded to: the prescience of indigenous knowledge in anticipating scientific discoveries in ecology. To me this is the real value of indigenous knowledge: many cultures have discovered rules of nature through their struggle to survive, and these cultural adaptations can provide ecologists with inspiration for objective data-based inquiry. But another speaker, Dennis Martinez, seemed to indicate that empirical science ought to be superseded by the “intuitive” and “qualitative” methods of indigenous knowledge. This kind of thinking completely misses the boat, dangerously mingling legitimate issues of social and environmental justice with pseudoscientific mysticism. Have indigenous peoples been the victim of bad policies, sometimes aided by narrow scientific studies? Absolutely. Does that knowledge base of indigenous people represent a wealth of inspiration and insight that should be considered by ecologists? Probably. When it comes to predicting change and expanding our understanding of ecological systems, should we privilege the spiritual ways of knowing used by many indigenous people? Absolutely not.
Although I respect the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people, they are just that: spiritual beliefs. Some may have a basis in reality as they result from centuries of cultural evolution, but subjective understandings should never be substituted for objective science. That such misguided rhetoric is embraced by ESA speaks to the deep guilt of privileged western scientists, not the scientific legitimacy of some alternative way of knowing. What is missing from this discussion is the fact that scientific inquiry, when done properly, is inherently democratic. The data tell the truth, and usually when truths are not considered it is because the data has not been generated to tell the truth or scientific data is ignored. We should be empowering indigenous people to make scientific inquiries relevant to their own concerns, perhaps using their cultural experience as a launching point. If the indigenous sensibility is that science is often too reductionist, let’s turn that instinct into more holistic and comprehensive scientific approaches (which admittedly means committing more resources to such projects). But to suggest that science does not jibe with indigenous sensibilities is to damn historically-oppressed people to more oppression at the hands of a subjective American culture that does not listen to the truths exposed by scientific inquiry. Even Elisabeth Holland, a team member on the Nobel-Prize-winning 2007 IPCC who talked about carbon and nitrogen inequities on a global scale, seemed to have diluted her message in the name of honoring the politically correct message of the day. For me the sad part of this entire symposium was how distracted it was from real issues that can be addressed by science. I wanted to know what knowledge was needed to restore the world that used to be enjoyed by indigenous people, not engage in a trivial critique of how science has been used as a tool for oppression. The problem has always been too little science, and a whole lot of intuition is unlikely to solve that problem.
The theme of this conference revolves around sustainability, and there are a large number of talks here describing the ways that we can teach sustainability in our classrooms. In a talk entitled “The Politics of Green”, Denise Mitten and Scott Herron described Ferris State University’s Political Engagement Project (PEP). A campus-wide initiative supported at all levels of academic governance and involving seventy-five faculty, PEP integrates on-campus events with class activities to challenge students to get involved in the political process. They emphasized the importance and power of involving students in “on the ground” issues, which can be much more motivating than the abstract examples usually trotted out in classes. I was impressed by if not also a little uneasy about the strong integration of political action into the classroom. This has always been an issue for me: while I don’t mind speaking my mind in my class, I don’t want my students to feel at all coerced to adopt a particular political stand, particularly if that stand requires action. Although Mitten and Herron did indicate that their own left-leaning political views are in stark contrast with their more conservative students, they reinforced the idea that you can require political involvement as part of classwork so long as you don’t require that the involvement advocate a particular politics. They also pointed out that the beauty of teaching a science class is that you can allow the data — rather than personal perspectives — to lead political discussions. I could not agree more.
Another valuable education talk focused on the use of wiki’s in the ecology classroom. Tom Purucker of Gainesville State College described how he uses a site called WetPaint, enabling his students to complete projects on ecosystem services that are collaborative. We all know the problem with collaborative projects: they have probably replicated the tragedy of the commons billions of times by burdening the student most concerned about the group grade with the lion’s share of the work. But with wiki’s, a professor has the power to see exactly how each student contributed to the project and grade that student’s work individually. From what I could gather, Purucker uses a two-stage approach, with each student responsible for a particular component of an ecosystem service in the first stage and all students editing and refining the project in the second stage. Although I was aware of how wiki’s work, I was not really tuned in to how they can be used to balance the tension between group and individual grading of collaborative projects.
I like to drop in on random talks that peak my interest, especially in particular group-living animals that fascinate me. Daniel MacNulty gave an excellent talk about the effect of wolf senescence on hunting prowess. Based in Yellowstone and involving some pretty amazing observations made from helicopters, MacNulty’s study showed that wolves show a steady increase followed by a gradual decrease in their ability to attack groups of their prey, select the most vulnerable individual, and kill that individual. The models used to look at this data (linear break-point models, basically two lines with completely unrelated slopes) seemed a little suspect to me, but the data was unequivocal: wolves peak in their ability at slightly different times, all in the range of two to three years of age, and then steadily decrease in their prowess. Because attacking, selecting, and killing are all consecutive steps required to successfully capture prey, MacNulty was able to multiply these values together to get an age-based probability of prey capture. He then used a proxy for overall physical condition (serum albumin levels) to show that overall prey capture ability correlates with physical condition. Already this was a great talk but the best part involved aggregating the various ages of pack members to consider overall pack hunting success. Although the pack work was not as comprehensive as that performed on individuals, it pointed to the fact that kin-based packs face an inevitable demographic dilemma as age structure fluctuates through time and the pack oscillates between less and more senescent overall states. I am excited to see this research delve more deeply into the question of how individual and pack levels of senescence drive the survival and reproduction of wolves.
The final event of my long Monday was a special session entitled “Informing Policy with Ecological Science”. Run by the ESA Public Affairs Office, the session focused on how to interface with senators and representatives in Washington DC. We learned about the importance of congressional staffers, who were described as young, ambitious, smart, generalist task jugglers. Generally the most effective way to reach a member of congress is to reach the appropriate staffer in their office, but don’t expect to get a huge amount of their time: a typical meeting with a staffer lasts for only ten minutes. We also got an overview of the committee process that precedes the introduction of bills, and how to actually speak to your congressperson during their home district work periods. This was a very valuable introduction, and in the second hour session organizers Piper Corp and Nadine Lymn had participants break into groups to role-play a meeting with a congressional staffer. Unfortunately I just could not muster the energy to be so interactive after thirteen hours of being at the conference, so I ducked out and missed this hands-on feature.
Many of Albuquerque’s streets are named for natural resources.
I was able to attend this meeting thanks to funding from the Pratt Institute Mellon Fund for Faculty Travel. A Major Post, Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Ecology Education, Public Policy, Senescence, Sustainability, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Urban Ecology