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Ecological Society of America 2011: Monday

I’m in Austin for the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting, which officially kicked off yesterday (Monday). Ignoring the fact that it’s Austin in August (which is admittedly less awful than I expected, coming from the much more humid Wisconsin), I’m having a blast. ESA is possibly my favorite meeting– I like to keep the “ecology” strong in my practice of paleoecology, and my ultimate goal is to keeping a strong interface between the two in my own research. There are a lot of active tweeters here, though not as many live-tweets of talks as I’d like (check out #ESA11). The Oikos blog is doing some nice coverage, also.

Some highlights from Monday:

The opening plenary session generated quite a lot of Twitter activity, starting with current ESA president Terry Chapin’s opening address on the meeting’s theme of earth stewardship. I found Chapin’s talk mildly troubling in a couple of ways; first, “earth stewardship” reminded me a lot a “sustainability” in terms of its vagueness. Vague, but urgent– Chapin asserted that with the current problems facing our planet, we can’t wait for the science to guide us, but will have to act and act quickly (urgent, but vague– you begin to see a pattern emerging). Chapin acknowledged that this “requires active intervention, which is risky and is best justified at local scales.” He also made an important point that scientists have contributed to the public’s disengagement of science, urging us to get involved with faith-based communities, artists, social scientists, and others (though curiously, science communicators were absent from this list).

Related to this, earth stewardship appears to be strongly grounded in the idea of ecology as a crisis discipline, and I don’t think the ramifications of this have been adequately explored. I certainly don’t mean to belittle the reality of environmental crises, the need for an urgent response, or for ecologists to be involved! Rather, I worry that the conflation of ecology and environmental science has already caused confusion and even backlash amongst the public, who are eco-weary of finger-wagging and doom-and-gloom. If we want to be effective communicators of our science we need to keep such things in mind. Secondly, there’s a difference between ecology-as-a-crisis-discipline and ecology-as-a-discipline-relevant-to-crises. I would strongly argue that ecological research has its own merits, independent of whether the results are relevant to global change.

Stephen Pacala (a fantastic speaker) gave the keynote address, exploring the role of models in a rapid response to fast-changing conditions during an environmental crisis or event (e.g., hoof-and-mouth disease spread, beetle outbreaks). He opened with a sobering truth for young ecologists– “your future will be a neverending litany of existential crises”– but made a compelling argument that models, grounded with strong first principles and empirical data, will be an important tool in confronting future challenges. Pacala urged modelers to get field experience (a long-time investment), and for field ecologists to get modeling experience (a short-time investment), but also urged caution: “if you don’t believe your model’s predictions, you’re probably wrong.” A lot of people are critical of models, and rightly so, but I think that researchers like Pacala are offering promising ways forward, and I really appreciated his balanced approach (“if you work on global models, develop a sideline of basic ecological research using simple analytically tractable methods”).

Mark Bush and I co-chaired a symposium yesterday: What is natural? A long-term view of the ecosystems of the Americas. The general theme of the session was the idea of ecological baselines (my talk was on the conservation implications of the North American megafaunal extinctions), revisiting the long debate about how anthropogenic the Americas were when Europeans arrived (the growing consensus: it depends on where–and when– you look, and what you care about). One thing that struck me was how different conclusions were being drawn by single-site analyses, versus aggregates of multiple site histories. There have been a number of large paleo-database initiatives in recent years, and in the rush to use all that data (each site with its own age model errors, etc.) I wonder if we’re missing real events by averaging across sites, especially if, e.g. Crystal McMichael’s talk, land use by Amerindians was heterogeneous. In the open discussion afterwards, an audience member made an important point: paleo- and neo-ecologists work on very different timescales, and publish (typically) in different journals: how can we do a better job of uniting the two groups? Mark Bush made the point that we haven’t made any new proxy or taxonomic breakthroughs in over a decade. In all, it was useful session, and some interesting projects may develop out of it.

In other highlights, eminent paleoecologist Margaret Davis, one of my academic heroes, won the Cooper Award for her 2005 paper on Evolutionary Responses to Changing Climate. A new award was given for Diversity to Ivette Perfecto, and I got to meet and hang out with @doctorzen! A discussion went ’round the ESA list-serv, inspired by this post, about ESA’s lack of public outreach (though subsequently, some folks from ESA pointed out that press releases typically come out after the meeting has begun due to press embargoes). Also, apparently the ESA press officer quit two days before the meeting, and journalistic chaos ensued. I guess that means it’s up to us bloggers and tweeters to do a little gorilla journalism.

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Jacquelyn Gill

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