ECOLOGISTS SHOULD BE LIKE SPORTSWRITERS

by Whit Gibbons

June 19, 2005


The Michael Jackson trial is finally over (and like many of you, I am sleeping more soundly now that he’s been declared not guilty). Millions of people followed the white-gloved wonder's trial proceedings in newspapers each day for updates. Meanwhile, how many checked the environmental pages each day for the status of life on Earth? Easy answer. None. Newspapers do not have a daily environmental section.
Why not? Celebrity journalists and sportswriters are adept at creating hype. But ecologists have not developed comparable techniques for focusing public attention on the environment. Therefore, Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton will get more press this year than the ivory-billed woodpecker. A-Rod's improvement with the Yankees and whether Barry Bonds really took steroids will generate more ink than congressional deliberations that could weaken the Endangered Species Act.

One distinction between celebrity antics, sports events, and wildlife trends is the length of the season. Celebrities seem to change mates or have brawls with innocent on-lookers almost daily. All sports begin and end in less than a year--although pro basketball 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 do not 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 when it's already too late to have a winning season environmentally.

In contrast, celebrity goings-on and sports events receive wide print and broadcast media coverage. And the number of individuals and teams involved is small relative to the number of species in the natural world. In sports, continual updates presage the Super Bowl, World Series, and NBA Championship. 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 or courting a new sweetheart) and disappearance of a species (losing the final game or dying of a drug overdose) are noteworthy to some. But most people are uninformed and uninterested. Minimal attention has been given to the numerous events and statistics that led to the showdown in environmental matters.

You can check the win-loss record for any sports team and whom they play next. And who doesn't check to find out what Tom and Katie are up to? But you cannot look in the newspaper for the change in status of endangered species, even those with the same names we find in sports. Do we have more or fewer bears or panthers than last year? Is the next competitor for a local wetland a new highway, a mall, an automobile factory?

Ecologists do not post weekly box scores for declining species. Most scientists are cautious about what they present as fact (unlike tabloid accounts of whether Brad will ever again speak to Jennifer), 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 circumstantial evidence is clear: more and more species that would have been content to be bourgeois cellar dwellers are now out of the game forever.



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