To Sum Up: We Are Screwed. Questions?

I love ecology. I can geek out all day on patterns in nature: ecosystem services, food webs, eco-evolutionary dynamics, nutrient cycles, range shifts. But I’ve spent all week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in Portland, and I have to confess it’s been rough.

As a journalist who covers the environment, I’m used to depressing news. Natural systems are shifting and unraveling; the evidence is all around us. But the mind-blowing number of talks at ESA — five days of sessions from 8 am til 5 pm, with 35 talks often running at the same time (and that’s not including posters) — means that the aggregate amount of depressing news can be enough to overwhelm the staunchest optimist.

It’s not that all the talks are doom and gloom. Many, of course, are about basic research. And there are plenty that focus on solutions: giving nature economic value, collaborating with indigenous peoples, improving science communication, democratizing science by encouraging public participation in research, promoting better conservation decisions to limit unintended consequences. I attended two talks about the Sustainability in Prisons project, an inspiring program in which prisoners raise endangered frogs, plants, and butterflies. (Ed Yong covered it for Nature; check it out.)

But many of them are depressing. And I’m sure I skipped some interesting presentations because I just couldn’t bear to hear one more way in which humans have messed things up for Earth’s other gazillion species. Open to any random page in the program and the titles sink your heart into your gut. “Artificial night lighting disrupts songbird breeding behavior.” “Limited physiological response to warming in lowland tropical frogs.” “Sediment pollution reduces detrital resource availability to consumers in agricultural stream food webs.” Enough, please, stop, mercy, I can’t take it anymore.

Even in the ESA talks that tried to emphasize paths forward, the facts at hand were often grim. Three-quarters of the planet has been modified by humans. Seventy percent of all agricultural land is pasture, but this only produces five percent of the world population’s protein and two percent of its calories. A hatchery program designed to increase salmon numbers is inadvertently contributing to the fish’s decline (because the hatchery-raised fish have far lower reproductive rates).

The official title of this year’s conference is “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining Our Ecosystems.” But it feels like the unofficial title might be “Life on Earth: How Fucked Are We?”

This is by no means intended as a criticism of the science. I feel deeply grateful to many of these scientists for persisting in their research, which involves painstaking, repetitive, tedious, even hazardous tasks. But the gloom overload raises a pesky question for me as a journalist. If I can’t bear to hear the news, how can I communicate it to the public? What sort of articles — or books — should I be writing? Where is the balance between grim facts and hopeful innovations? How can I continue to write about what I believe is the most important topic of our time while maintaining my sanity?

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21 Responses to To Sum Up: We Are Screwed. Questions?

  1. Jen says:

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, many of the talks I’ve attended at the ESA conference include the speaker making some grim joke about “going to the garage, turning on the car and continuing the discussion”. What I’ve found fascinating is that many of the sessions end with a general consensus that scientists need to figure out how to explain their research in a compelling way so that the public(s) start to make different choices–and that includes incorporating hope & inspiration in their message. But… where can it be found?

  2. Chins up, Ladies! It’s the only way to proceed! I’ve been working in the environmental field for a long time, and often work with young adult students or children. Substantial research shows that people don’t listen to scary news for very long — they’ll start to tune you out. You have to find the nugget of hope. Believe me, my specialty is natural resources and endangered species, so it can be tough. But it’s there! There are even endangered species success stories — check out my blog: And I find when it’s all just a bit much, I turn off the TV, computer, radio, and put away the paper, and hang out outside with my kiddos and dogs — you’ll be ready for the fight again after a little time off.

  3. Ed Yong says:

    And yet, here is an entire conference dedicated to these issues that has no public sessions whatsoever. What sort of message does that send out?

  4. Jen says:

    Again, agree. I think there are conversations taking place, or to be had, with ESA leaders to change that. #hopeforthefuture

  5. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    We are seriously screwed and in the long term all our efforts amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. However, that is not the message I give in various talks. I point out the numerous problems we had in the past, and how we came together and dealt with them. I show how we can make a positive difference and bring species back, alter our habits, change destructive chemicals for less destructive ones, manage our resources more wisely, etc.

    I’m still pretty sure we’re completely f***ed, but if I help depress people into apathy they won’t have a chance to prove me wrong. And to keep from getting overwhelmed myself, I remember Edward Abbey’s advice.

    “One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”

  6. Andy Kniss says:

    For more uplifting conferences, go to agriculture or engineering society meetings. My experience (and I’m obviously using a gross generalization here) is that ecologists excel at defining problems. Ecology is a great way to figure out what is wrong with a system. But ecologists get so tied up in figuring out what’s wrong, they lose focus of how it might be fixed. In agricultural sciences and engineering, the focus is on solutions, even if the problem isn’t fully understood. So the meetings tend to be much more optimistic, even though in many cases we are dealing with the exact same problems (pollution, climate change, etc.).

  7. Hillary says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone. Excellent points all around.
    On the topic of messaging and communication, another thing I found slightly interesting was the huge disparity in the quality of the talks between researchers with a stated interest in communication and those without. ESA sessions are intended for scientists to talk to other scientists–and we can talk about whether that needs to broaden out, as Ed suggests–but even scientists don’t want to listen to a boring, disjointed talk, even if it’s directly relevant to their work.
    I attended the PPSR (public participation in scientific research) workshop over the weekend, and I found that overall the quality of the talks there was light years ahead. And I think there’s a clear reason why: Those people were aware that they were talking across disciplines (the conference included ecologists but also social scientists, educators, government people etc), so they had to think about what they were trying to say and how best to say it.
    And this is something I think all scientists need to do more of, regardless of discipline. I think it was Raj Pandya of UCAR who told a story during the PPSR conference –and I apologize if I mangle this, I don’t have it in my notes — of a grandmother of a village boy who goes away to become a scientist. And each year he returns to his village and his grandmother asks him what he’s studying and he tells her, and she nods and says, “go back to school.” And then he’s working on his PhD and comes home one year and she asks what he’s doing and he says he can’t really explain it to her. And she tells him it’s time for him to come home.
    In case it’s not clear how meta that is… Not only does the story resonate, but so does the fact that it came during a great talk by a guy who thinks a lot about how to communicate science.
    That’s all for now. Laptop is out of battery and I stupidly checked my charger!

  8. Well said! And thanks for pulling that quote.

  9. Tim De Chant says:

    Great post, Hillary, even if it is super depressing. That overwhelming feeling is something I battle with all the time, too. Honestly, it’s been haunting me on and off for over a decade. There are times when I can’t bear it either, and I wonder a) why the hell I picked this field and b) how do I carry on? But somehow, something always lifts my mood. I think in this case you should consider the fact that there are so many sessions at ESA.

    I remember my first ESA meeting. It was amazing—so many ecologists in one place. There are so many people out there who care about the natural world. They may not be the best at explaining why or what they think needs to be done, but I like to think that’s where journalists come in. To paraphrase Office Space, we talk to the scientists so the public doesn’t have to. (Though that doesn’t excuse the scientists who don’t talk to the public. Ed makes a good point—ecologists need to do a far better job of outreach. Some do it well, but most don’t give it a second thought.)

    What keeps me positive is thinking about how absolutely amazing ecology is. It’s incredible. I’ve been studying the science since 1999, and I figure if there are still things out there that make my eyes widen in amazement, there have to be other people out there who feel the same way. So I share it with them. Don’t let the depressing parts cloud the amazing ones.

  10. GW says:

    umm, I don’t think you are thinking of the same kind of problems here. Anthropocentric activities such as agriculture and engineering focus on solving problems of human advancement, and if anything, are the causes of the problems addressed by ecologists.
    “Three-quarters of the planet has been modified by humans. ” What do you think is the culprit for that?

  11. GW says:

    With all due respect, I don’t think it’s fair to blame scientists (ecologists) so much for not communicating with the public. It takes two to tangle, and the public would need to be interested in hearing about these issues first. People are naturally more concerned with problems that only directly impact them. It doesn’t take much convincing for the public to donate to cancer or AIDS research efforts, but it’s a different story for more abstract issues like climate change.

    And if the suggested solution is for significant sacrifices in life styles and other status quo stuff, the public tend to get even more turned off. Here’s an article in the Daly News about why scientists have a hard time convincing the public.

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  13. Rick LaPlace says:

    Of course we are seriously screwed. There are too many people. There are NO environmental or ecological problems with a world human population of under 1bn. Trying to “solve” all these problems in order to permit another 10 bn increase is a form of insanity.

  14. Liza Gross says:

    Really thoughtful post and discussion. (Surprised you left out this talk, Hillary: “The effect of complete bird loss on the forests of Guam.” )

    As for which comes first–scientists need to communicate better or people need to be interested in hearing about the issues before they’ll listen–I agree that people tend to care more about things that impact them directly and don’t want to hear that they need to make sacrifices for the public good. But as a journalist, I can tell you that if you don’t communicate your research clearly you’re nearly guaranteeing that no one will listen.

    You’re also throwing away an opportunity 1) to engage those who simply haven’t thought about it and 2) to show people why what they think doesn’t impact them (eg, climate change) actually does (and let me count the ways).

  15. sarcozona says:

    One of the things I like about talks at ESA is that they often don’t tell the kind of story journalists and the public like. I went to the PPSR talks and sure, they were fun to listen to and some important basic and applied research is getting done. But the session I really enjoyed was yesterday afternoon’s Mechanisms Leading to Drought Mortality: Links Between Hydraulic Failure, Carbon Starvation and Biotic Causes In Experiments, Observational and Modelling Studies . It got right to business, talking about the nitty gritty physiological details of how trees deal with (or fail to deal with drought). These talks would have put anyone but a handful of people in the world straight to sleep, but the people in the room were on the edge of their seats the whole time. Sure we’re getting funding to study this sort of thing because climate change might kill a lot of forests, and it’s pretty cool to be doing the basic research that’ll let people predict tree mortality and ecosystem services changes in the future, but we do not study this sort of thing because we’re altruists. We study it because wood anatomy is beautiful and fascinating, because it’s amazing how juniper generates intense suction to move water through its xylem, because sometimes a tree looks dead but it isn’t or it looks alive but it isn’t, or a thousand other reasons tree physiology is super cool.

    Sometimes I get depressed about climate change – maybe a lot of people will die, lots of super cool species will go extinct, ecosystems we love will transition to something we don’t recognize. But even though humans have a bigger impact on ecosystems than many other species, studying those impacts helps us understand cool ecological questions, like why species occur where they do and what other species might be with them or how a tree’s physiological response to drought influences the forest it’s a part of. So day to day, doing this stuff isn’t depressing to me because I’m figuring out how the world works and it’s AWESOME.

  16. Mark Brunson says:

    Maybe it’s just irrational optimism, but I always come home from ESA feeling more positive than not. One reason: we’re learning so much so fast, and I believe the world’s plight is more a consequence of ignorance than of greed (though there’s more than enough of both to go around). Another reason: so many smart, smart ecologists aren’t giving in to gloom. The PPSR workshop inspired me with the ingenuity of those who are engaging non-scientists in clever and useful ways. I was heartened, too, by the students who came to the Translational Ecology symposium I organized and other sessions where speakers see ecology as a route toward making a difference. The news is bad, but it ain’t all bad.

  17. Bairkus says:

    Our Massive Population.

    Particular practices, whether agricultural, mining, or developmental, are not the problem. The problem is their multiplication to provide for a human population of seven billion (and growing).

  18. Tim Parshall says:

    I used to go to ESA every year and felt the same way, but isn’t it the same with most scientific conferences? Scientists talking to scientists and not to a larger audience? Seems to me that scientific conferences should include a large number public talks that don’t require the high price of a registration fee. ESA has an an amazing group of scientists, but we really need to get out more.

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  20. Euan Ritchie says:

    Scientists are indeed guilty of sometimes focussing on doom and gloom, but on the other hand if that’s what happening there’s a duty to report it, without sugar coating, by scientists and the media. Having said this, this paper will help you come to terms with this issue and how we might approach things differently.

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