Environmentalism and Ecology -- What's the Difference?

In a Nutshell: Environmentalists are vital communicators of ecological knowledge to the public and to governments. But they should focus more widely than just amenities of human environments and they must communicate the ecological complexities accurately.

Ecology is a science that deals with the interactions of all living things with all the variables in their environment. It is an ancient science. Environmentalism is a much more recent social movement that focuses more on variables that affect the human environment.

Environmentalism has strong capability in bringing environmental concerns into the public’s focus. Ecologists historically have been poor communicators with the public, and the political process. This is changing but ecology still needs the help of environmentalists. However, as environmentalists prepare their messages to the public, the research results from ecologists must be simplified. Sometimes the scientific results can become distorted in this process. Sometimes, the message to the public can contain errors and sometimes, it may have no scientific support at all. A simple example is the common plea to the public to plant trees because we need the oxygen that they will release from their photosynthesis. Actually, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has not changed significantly since it was first measured by Svante Arrhenius in the early 1900’s. It always has been about one-fifth of our atmosphere. The real problem is that carbon dioxide, historically a tiny, but critical component, has been increased by our activities by about one-third. Carbon dioxide is an effective filter preventing escape by infrared (heat) radiation through our atmosphere to outer space. Along with other, even more effective, molecules such as methane, these filters are heating up our ecosystems.

There also are differences in what is emphasized by ecological scientists and social environmentalists. Scientists study topics favoured by research granting panels; problems that fill critical gaps in the knowledge base are good bets. Environmentalists concentrate on topics that will attract funding from the public; charismatic species and simplified crises in the news are good. The time lag in getting results of research into the hands of ordinary citizens is one basic cause of the disconnect between these two groups. The real complexity of ecological interactions makes many results unattractive in the public funding and political arenas. Someone needs to translate research results for the public and the public needs to accept the need for thoughtful, complex and slow solutions to problems that they have caused over periods of decades or centuries. Ecologists and environmentalists need to talk more.

Top-ranking environmental groups can feel forced to emphasize human-related aspects of an issue even when the science makes clear that the fundamentals lie elsewhere. Because of the human tragedy of the Walkerton water pollution event, drinking water concerns are stressed in public appeals and get the majority of the funding in government water conservation ventures. The scientific knowledge base shows clearly that management of watersheds and particularly of the upstream portions — the water sources – is where we should focus – not at the tap and the well and the water treatment plant. Some time ago, New York city closed this gap of misunderstanding by choosing to invest in protecting the watersheds in the Catskills where they get their water rather than putting the money into an expensive water treatment plant.

1 comment to Environmentalism and Ecology — What’s the Difference?

  • Gail & Doug Cheeseman

    So glad to discover your essays! They are excellent. Look forward to the safari together next month! We depart tomorrow for Tanzania! Mingi salaams, Gail and Doug

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