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
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
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
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