Teach your children well. — Crosby, Stills and Nash
The year 2013 marked the 100th birthday of the British Ecological Society, and the International Congress of Ecology recently met in London to mark this auspicious occasion. Like many scientific professionals, ecologists only reluctantly come away from their remote field sites to share expertise on new tools, best practices, and future priorities; and centennial conferences are once-in-a-lifetime. What priorities faced 3,000-plus global ecologists, as they spent a week discussing the global challenges of the next 100 years?
BES President Georgina Mace, professor at University College of London, presented a keynote talk about the future of conservation and science. She summarized the changing links between humans and their environments, and how the past generation focused solely on conserving species and beautiful landscapes. More recently, she explained, ecologists are beginning to view conservation with an economic lens, by defining the value of ecosystem services such as fresh water, minerals, medicines, and carbon storage as part of conservation planning. Looking ahead, her scientific priority embraces the need to acknowledge that conservation is directly tied to humans, and that, increasingly, environmental solutions should be human-driven. She also emphasized the importance of engaging multiple scientific disciplines to solve complex environmental issues.
In addition to the pervading priority that ecology needs human drivers to promote sound decision-making, three other major priorities took center stage at the international conference. One was the announcement of a new manifesto for forest conservation. Ecologists and economists have clearly shown that forests contribute over $400 billion to the global economy from wood alone, and provide billions more dollars in storage of fresh water, carbon, and biodiversity.
Acknowledging that the past efforts to conserve and manage tropical forests have not succeeded, 50 global forest ecologists co-authored a white paper declaring a new forest management paradigm: that power should be placed in the hands of local communities and decision makers if Earth is to lessen continued loss and degradation of global forests. In addition to bottom-up leadership, the assembled forest ecologists embraced a need to use new technologies for effective solutions.
A second priority for the next 100 years of ecology is to spotlight “citizen science,” a growing element of global ecology that harnesses local communities to monitor their environment. Ranging from moth collectors to stargazers, citizen science has been popular with amateurs for centuries in Britain, but the emerging availability of mobile technologies has made citizen science one of the fastest-growing and most innovative aspects of ecology. At a conference lunchtime showcase, ecologists demonstrated their newest apps and citizen science tools, ranging from tree-trackers to camera traps to bio-blitzes.
And perhaps most important for the future of ecology, a third priority involves the recognition of the next generation of scientists. A new group, called INNGE (International Network of Next-Generation Ecologists), was launched to encourage the pipeline of future scientists. Appropriately, the British Ecological Society is passing the torch to create this sense of youth stewardship. At the celebration banquet on the last evening, our British hosts offered no long and rambling speeches; instead a punk-rock band played into the wee hours, and the next generation of ecologists dominated the dance floor with amazing energy and joy. As one of a handful of Florida representatives at this meeting, I believe the future is in good hands.
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.