SHOULD BE LIKE SPORTSWRITERS
September 18, 2011
season well under way, many of us regularly go online or check the newspaper
to see where our favorite teams rank and what their prospects are for
next week. How many people are checking environmental sources for the
status of life on Earth? Probably more than a few decades ago but nothing
to rival the millions who check for sports updates daily.
disparity? Why are sportswriters so much better than ecologists at generating
interest in their subject? Why can't ecologists develop comparable techniques
for focusing public attention on the environment? Some groups of animals
(songbirds, tropical frogs, and sea turtles come to mind) generate a bit
of excitement, and their supporters, though few, are passionate. But compared
to any major sport, interest is minimal.
between sports and most nongame wildlife is the length of the season.
Any given sports cycle lasts less than a year (though it may feel longer
if you're not a fan) and highlighted events seldom last more than a few
days. The decline of wildlife species is usually measured over years,
even decades. Who can keep track of the slow losing season experienced
by thousands of species as tropical rain forests are ravaged, oceans polluted,
and wetlands destroyed? Successes and failures in sports receive extensive
of teams and contests in sports is small and tractable relative to the
number of wildlife species in peril. In addition, before-and-after statistics
about the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, and Stanley Cup
Finals abound, whereas for wildlife, attention is generally focused only
on the final event--extinction. Severe declines in biodiversity (struggling
through the playoffs) and the disappearance of species (losing the final
game) are noteworthy. But usually minimal attention is given to the events
that lead to a showdown, and statistics are only gathered for the endgame.
records for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Carolina Panthers are readily
available. But what's the status of their mascots in the real world? Do
we have more or fewer timber wolves or panthers than last year? Exact
numbers are hard to come by. We can easily discover whether the Maryland
Terrapins play the Temple Owls next week. Is the next challenge for real
terrapins a new airport runway near a salt marsh; for real owls, a new
mall in Pennsylvania?
track of the status of wildlife species? When the New York Yankees play
the Detroit Tigers we know the score at the end of the game, how many
batters Justin Verlander struck out, and whether Derek Jeter added to
his 3,000-plus hits. Such detailed environmental information, if available
at all, is usually restricted to specialized websites and newsletters.
A noteworthy comparison of interest in sports versus wildlife can be seen
with a Google search. "Minnesota Timberwolves" generates more
than 4 times as many hits as "timber wolf," the animal itself.
provide statistics with no qualifying disclaimers. Most scientists are
cautious about presenting information. Determining population status of
a species is an uncertain process. Ecologists cannot present clear-cut,
concise statistics on a daily basis like sportswriters can. Wildlife scores
are not available, but the games are still being played.
for increasing interest in environmental trends would be a species status
scoreboard with records of the declines (and occasional increases) of
various species. With greater awareness, people might become fans of actual
timber wolves, owls, or panthers. Box scores would allow people to follow
their favorite species. And unlike in the wide world of sports, people
might influence the outcome for their favorite "teams" so as
to avoid environmental bouts in which there are no winners and no chance
of the losers ever making a comeback.
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 evidence is clear: more and more species that would have been content
to be cellar dwellers will soon be out of the game forever.
you have an environmental question or comment, email