Quo Vadis, Ecology? Or, back to the future?

In this 21st century, ecology should be central to national and international debates? Yet many ecologists lament that politicians don't listen to them, yet do, for example, listen to the hot air from the climate club.

One of our problems as a profession is that it is less clear now than 50 years ago what ecology is, and how it relates to broader societal concerns. For the last 22 years we have had the concept of biodiversity now solemnised into a UN Convention, and high up the political agenda of governments.

Or is it? I remember, at the 1990 IUCN World Congress in Perth, Western Australia, nearly choking on a prawn as my Minister at the time told me that they "really understood this biodiversity stuff now". The choking was largely due to a meeting held a week or so previously with senior biological and ecological figures where it was clear they didn't understand what biodiversity was about - and it seemed unlikely that an Australian Minister would have the advantage on them. (This is not however, an immutable law!!).

But recently, a new idea has become widespread; ecosystem services. It's actually a very helpful concept and area. But one consequence of closer working relationships is a blurring between biodiversity and ecosystem services. The EU study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) shows this very clearly - it's supposed to be about biodiversity, but is largely about ecosystem services.

Of course they are connected, but our biggest challenge in the next 50 years in to show how ecology is a vital underpinning for understanding biodiversity, and at the same tim, can provide insight into how ecosystems can function. And we need to grow up from narrow roots and realise that ecology is a global science that can be practised everywhere.

There is a new aspect of ecology called macroecology, which sounds useful, yet the journal dedicated to it is about as impenetrable as you can get. But the concept and idea is great - looking at large scale pattern. Understanding and explaining these patterns on earth are just what we need to be able to make headway politically. Yet - isn't this what we used to call natural history? While I'm not advocating a return to ecological information being largely the province of men of the cloth, the idea that observation and monitoring are vital aspects of ecology needs to be reclaimed. And while modelling is really useful, it must be informed by ecological sense and intuition.

The message I think is this: we need to be more proactive in taking ecological messages to the global community; to show how ecological thought and science can help the management of biodiversity at all its levels, and by working more closely with other disciplines really project the messages we think are important.

Then we will be listened to - sometimes, at least!!

Article by Peter Bridgewater, CEnv FIEEM (UK). Chair, UK Government Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Peter Bridgewater was trained in Australian Universities, has been secretary general of the Ramsar Convention and Chief Executive of the Australian Nature Conservation Agency. The article was written as Editorial for the IEEM Bulletin In Practice, No. 61, September 2008.

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