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?