If we want to save the environment, choose hope

Environmental scientists need to avoid being doomsayers to increase public trust in, and use of, their research, warned a renowned ecologist. 

‘Hope is the elixir of action. Not pessimism,’ said Dr Steve Morton, a former CSIRO executive and now Honorary Professorial Fellow at Charles Darwin University.

He said there is a prevailing attitude of pessimism in ecology. ‘We turn people off. Pessimism produces guilt and fear, which can be a stimulus for change initially but then becomes a negative if there’s too much gloom. People then turn away from and avoid the topic.’

Pessimism is not a problem faced only by ecologists, said Dr Morton. ‘Australian society is generally going through a period of pessimism, even though Australian lives are on average the best that humans have ever lived.’

Dr Morton said that as a result of being overly pessimistic, environmental scientists are not universally trusted. ‘There’s a sense that values have influenced the interpretation of facts. We need to decide if we are being scientists or advocates, otherwise we risk giving the impression the science is not scientific, that it is value-infused.’

Dr Morton does not intend to criticise colleagues; rather, he wants to encourage thought about the discipline to make it more effective. ‘I want ecology to be more useful and used, not be a goad to poke society with. It needs to be there with solutions.’

He said student education should include consideration of how to position and communicate science, and have it used. ‘This ought to be taught, so practising ecologists are aware of the challenges.’

He said there is a process of grieving over loss of species and environments. ‘As a citizen, I despair, too. But as environmental scientists we need to accept that the world is changing, and that not every change is bad. We can’t decry all changes; that’s not useful. Knowledge needs to be for human benefit, and that involves more acceptance of the reality of change driven by humans.’

“On pessimism in Australian ecology” was published by Dr Morton in the journal Austral ecology, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aec.12410/full