ECOLOGISTS SHOULD BE LIKE SPORTSWRITERS

by Whit Gibbons

October 27, 2003



The World Series has inspired me to replay an earlier column comparing ecology and sports, in which I pointed out that millions of people check the sports pages of newspapers each day for updates in the world of athletics. How many check the environmental pages for the status of life on Earth? Easy answer. None. Newspapers do not have a daily environmental section.

Why not? Because sportswriters are expert at creating hype about sporting events. Ecologists have not developed comparable techniques for focusing public attention on the environment.

One distinction between sports and wildlife trends is the length of the season. All sports begin and end in less than a year--although sometimes it seems longer--and the highlighted games seldom last more than a few days. The decline of a plant or animal species is measured over years and decades, over generations and lifetimes.

The chains of environmental events are too long for our attention spans. People cannot be expected to keep track of the slow but inexorable loss of thousands of species as tropical rain forests are diminished, oceans are polluted, and wetlands are destroyed. Often we only hear about the final outcome for a species when it's already too late to have a winning season.

In contrast, some sports receive print and broadcast media exposure (or overexposure) on daily and weekly victories and failures throughout a season. And the number of teams involved is small relative to the number of species in the natural world. Continual sports updates presage the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, and Stanley Cup Finals. By the time the culminating event is reached, millions have followed the contests and anxiously await the outcome.

For wildlife, however, we often emphasize only the climactic event, extinction. Severe declines in biodiversity (struggling through the playoffs) and disappearance of a species (losing the final game) are noteworthy to some. But most people are uninformed or uninterested. Minimal attention has been given to the numerous events, and statistics, that led to the showdown.

You can check the win-loss record for any sports team and whom they play next. But you cannot find the change in status of endangered species, even those with the same names we find in sports. Do we have more or fewer timber wolves or panthers than last year? Is the next competitor for each a new highway, a mall, an automobile factory?

Such environmental information, when available, is usually restricted to special newsletters, scientific journals, or wildlife reports. The environmental playoff may warrant a few articles in the newspaper, but the presentation is not a neat package. If the New York Yankees beat the Florida Marlins, we have a score at the end of the game, know how many batters Roger Clemens struck out, and whether Derek Jeter hit another home run. Sportswriters provide statistics with no qualifying disclaimers, and they are available throughout every week.

Ecologists do not post weekly box scores for declining species. Most scientists are cautious about what they present as fact, and determining the population status or basic ecology of a species is an uncertain process. Ecologists can only make estimates that reveal general trends of declines or increases. They cannot provide the clear-cut, concise statistics on a daily basis that sportswriters can. Yet, even though the wildlife scores are not available, the games are still being played.

Perhaps if records of the decline of native species were presented in a consistent fashion, people would be more inclined to follow environmental trends. Being more aware, many would become fans and get involved in influencing the outcome. We may never have environmental pages that rival the sports pages of newspapers, but if we did we might be able to avoid some of the environmental playoffs we are headed toward--with no winners and no chance of the losers ever making a comeback.

A close accounting would show that most wildlife species are being reduced in numbers worldwide. The statistics may not be as exact as for sports, but the circumstantial evidence is clear: more and more species that would have been content to be cellar dwellers are now out of the game forever.



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