Field of Science

I'm not here for the whales, okay?

I'm starting to think that the average American has no clue what ecology is all about, as a discipline.

Example 1: In undergrad, I worked at an ice cream parlor, and there was a woman who was one of our 'regulars' that I got to know pretty well. This lady is a humanities academic, and one day she was telling me about her work and her students. She asked me what I was studying, and when I mentioned ecology, she went off on a rant about the lack of an adequate recycling program in our neighborhood.

Example 2: I had a livejournal all through high school and throughout most of undergrad. Before I left the website for good, I joined an ecology discussion group, but wound up leaving the group within a week because the community was full of posts about veganism, reducing carbon footprints, and sustainable agriculture.

Example 3: A few years ago, I was catching up with an ex from way back in the day. He's been finished with school for a while and is fairly successful in his professional field. He asked about my graduate studies, and when I told him I was an ecology student, he went off on a tangent about Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth.

This leads me to the core of the problem. I think that most people who don't have a life sciences background think that ecology is a synonym for environmentalism. This couldn't be further than the truth. I remember when I took my intro to ecology course, the professor spent a significant amount of time during the first lecture to emphasize what ecology is not: it isn't about recycling or saving the whales. Most environmentalist principles are informed by ecological information, but ecology itself is not about activism. It is the study of the interaction between populations and their environment, and the change in these interactions over time.

One can read an ecological study and interpret it with an environmentalist frame of mind, though. For example, an ecological study on how the deforestation of an area affects neighboring bird populations can be used as an argument in favor of recycling to preserve those populations, but the study itself does not (or should not) assume a moral position. Ecology tries to understand why things change in response to a stimulus so that we can predict similar changes under similar circumstances. It does not say we should recycle because birds are losing their habitats to deforestation. It tells us that birds are losing their habitats because of deforestation. The end result is not a course of action, but merely an attempt at understanding.

I'm not saying that ecology and environmentalism aren't closely linked, because they are. Environmentalism is informed by ecology. It is, in many cases, the natural conclusion to an ecological study. Most of the ecologists that I know are also environmentalists. Okay, whatever. But the fact remains that they are not the same thing.

This is a big reason why I tend to de-emphasize the ecological side of ecophysiology when I explain my discipline to layfolk (I'm more interested in the physiology side of it anyway, so it ain't no thang). I'm just tired of people thinking I spend my days trying to figure out how to save the whales.


  1. I would imagine most grants would mention environmental issues related broader impact.

    My undergrad offers environmental studies concentration in several majors, and for the most part all that means is taking an extra ecology course and a seminar. No wonder people would get confused.

  2. It's annoying. The eco-everything prefix marketing campaigns have a lot to do with it.

  3. The next time someone does this to me I'm going to go off on a tangent about ManBearPig. That's the only possible solution.

  4. Nice one Michelle,

    The other effect of the association people have with ecology and environmentalism is the idea ecology is a soft science for beardy, kaftan-wearing, tree-hugging, gaia-worshiping hippies. Whereas ecologists generally do a much better job at stats and experimental design than other fields within the life sciences.

  5. Especially when you get into people who do ecological models and stuff. Holy crap that makes my brain hurt. So much math.

  6. Unfortunately, this confusion is not restricted to the states. I spent some time in Sweden and always found it odd that organic products there are labeled "ekologisk." The supermarket is filled with "ecological" cereal, dish soap, beer etc. Of course, "organic" is an equally confused modifier I suppose, when you think about what exactly an "inorganic" vegetable would be?


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS

Anonymous comments will NOT be approved. You must include a name at the very least.