Letters

From the week of January 3, 2002

"Ecologist" is not equivalent to "environmentalist," nor is ecology the same as environmentalism. Ecology is a scientific field of study and inquiry of the relationship of organisms, populations and species to their surroundings. Ecology is a science, and ecologists are professional scientists with advanced graduate degrees from major research universities, with their own scientific societies and organizations (e.g., The Ecological Society of America, http://www.esa.org). Ecology is a major part of any college undergraduate curriculum in the life sciences, just as is physiology or genetics. Other professional fields use "environmental" as a modifier, such as environmental biology or environmental law, but there is no professional or scientific field of simply "environmentalism."

Alternately, environmentalists are advocates and activists, and often for personal, ethical or religious reasons. Whereas many professional ecologists are also environmentalists (as I am), simply because we witness firsthand loss of species diversity, degradation of habitats, introduction of invasive species, and human alterations of ecosystems, the reverse is not often true. Most "environmentalists" are not ecologists and are not scientists.

Herein lies much of the problem. Professional ecologists, such as Paul Dayton, whose international scientific reputation is beyond reproach, have rendered an opinion based on careful study. The findings were based upon scientific and ecological methods and therefore unbiased. Yet environmental activists (note, not ecologists) are unwilling to accept the results. The bottom line here is that environmental decisions must be based on good science; anything less erodes the credibility of environmentalists (I include myself here, and I suspect Paul Dayton would as well). There are too many other, and more important, environmental issues than gray whales in this lagoon, which are indeed grounded in basic ecological science, to waste one's credibility here.

The heated letters proclaiming that development of the Mitsubishi site can't possibly be compatible with gray whales recalled one of my own experiences. A student of mine presented the results of her scientific study at a recent ASU research symposium. Her results showed that cattle grazing in meadows on the Mogollon Rim increased plant diversity. An environmentally concerned passerby read the poster and decried, "This simply can't be, cattle grazing is always bad for plants" and stormed away. Never mind that: one, the study was scientifically sound and objective; two, other studies support this same finding; and three, the details of the study indicated that some native plant species were indeed adversely affected by grazing.

Unfortunately, some environmentalists are willing to suspend objectivity for their personal convictions and beliefs. Let's hope that good science wins out over personal beliefs. Without it, we stand little chance in solving our increasingly severe and complex environmental problems.

Stan Faeth
Professor and Associate Chair
Department of Biology
Arizona State University

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