by Whit Gibbons

March 25, 2002

"Do u think its ok to wear fur not animals (LOL) BTW, I have a fur should Iware it. Need 2 know asap its cold hear." This was the text of an email I received recently. The signature was a colon/dash/parenthesis that made a frowny face. Since we presumably will be hearing less on Monday Night Football from Dennis Miller, world's champion of "going off on a rant," I think I will do a little ranting of my own.

The field of ecology is often associated with the passions of environmentalism; options are nearly endless for expressing annoyance, giving an opinion, or just plain ecoranting and raving. Consider the issue of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has been proposed by a conservative government whose energy policy does not start with being more conservative but, instead, starts by trying to use more energy than we have. Or I could speak my mind about our having no overriding public policies to stop rampant development that abandons one paved over area to make another, with the resultant loss of our forests and the dubious gain of strip malls.

Possibilities for expressing environmental opinions abound. For example, how did we end up with a Supreme Court that would rule in 2001 that small wetlands are not protected under the Clean Water Act, thus leading to the rampant destruction of environmentally vital wetlands across the continent?

Anyone can take a stand on environmental topics, and many people do. Some weigh the pros and cons of an issue before deciding what position to support; others simply choose a position and then defend it against all odds. Some people want answers to environmental questions; some merely want to express their opinions. Which brings me to the issue at hand, an issue I have not seen addressed elsewhere. The coin of the realm in communication among individuals has become email. I think it's time for schools (and parents) to begin teaching email etiquette. Such etiquette includes identifying yourself to the recipient and expressing your questions or comments politely. In particular, we should teach people how to send proper emails when asking for information. I now begin my rant.

I receive and answer a steady stream of messages arriving at ecoviews@srel.edu. Sometimes I am not able to check this email account every day, but I eventually try to respond to all queries. Of course, if your question is like one I received last fall "What should I do about the copperhead coiled up on my front porch? Should I let the dog and children play in the yard?" my answer may be too late to help you. Sorry. But the timeliness of my responses isn't the issue. The issue is the basic elements of any email: who are you, where are you from, and will you be taking a course in grammar and spelling some day?

Given the choice, I like to be responsive to the people who write me. But how much time should I invest in an email that says, in its entirety, "I would like to know how to raise catfish. Please respond as soon as possible." I did send the anonymous writer from an anonymous place the URL for a Web site on catfish. Should I have done even that?

Another one that is more frequent than I care to remember runs something like this: "I am doing a report for class and would like for you to send everything you can about ecology and the environment. My report is due tomorrow." These are the kinds of emails I like to get a day late.

How should I respond to "I saw a black snake crossing the street. What is it?" No herpetologist could give a definitive answer without knowing at the very least where you are from. The list of problematic emails I've received could go on and on. But it's time to bring this rant to a close and offer some simple guidelines for composing an email in which you are asking someone for information or advice.

1. Give your name and, if appropriate, your affiliation with a school or organization.
2. Indicate where you are writing from. Remember that with email no one can even tell on what continent you live, an important clue for identifying some plants and animals. If you are requesting information about a topic for an academic project, identify the course you are taking and where you go to school.
3. Plan for the possibility that you may have to wait a few days for a response.
4. Please take time to proofread your message, if u R sending it 2 me.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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