Director’s Letter – July 2019

Audacity of Hope

The phrase “climate change” evokes a range of responses.  For many, climate change is a defining challenge; will our society be able to maintain the ecosystem services that underlie food, water, and human health?  For others, the words invoke confusion, disagreement, or even weariness.

Oddly, for a subject that is so tied up in complicated discussions involving carbon cycling, chemical reactions, and microbial transport, how people respond is largely driven by identity.  If you tell me what you think about climate change, I have a good chance of guessing where you stand on taxes and the propriety of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.  Furthermore, the more someone knows about the science behind climate change, the more hardened they are in their belief, regardless of what that belief is.  While climate change is fundamentally a science-driven issue, the way people respond is about emotion and identity.

What happens when one of the messiest, most emotion laden topics hits a community of scientists that loves wandering in fields?  One of the defining elements of RMBL research is that “context is king”.  The animals, plants, and microbes that we study don’t exist in isolation.  Our science is so good because scientists embed their research in a rich heritage of knowledge that allows them to see long-term trends and complex interactions that are invisible elsewhere (see adjoining article on pond insect communities and how a changing climate is affecting how critical nutrients flow through ecosystems).   That means that all our field scientists are studying climate change, whether it is a central part of their research or not.  But what is RMBL’s responsibility beyond the science?

Because RMBL is one of the best places to understand the biological responses to a changing world, our role in the larger climate change conversation is to use our rich heritage of knowledge to describe, explain, and predict a changing world. The impact of climate change on marmots has shown up on the cover of Nature, one of the world’s top scientific journals.  The NY Times editorial page has described how climate change is disrupting the relationship between butterflies and wildflowers.  I have explained (or tried to explain), to the Sean Hannity show, why long-term data on plant flowering times in Gothic helps understand agriculture.

In a time when the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the neighborhoods we live in have become political statements about our “identity”, what does it mean to belong to the RMBL “tribe”?  It doesn’t mean that you share the urgency most scientists have around climate change, believe that it is happening, or is driven by humans.  It does mean that you are committed to the power of exploration, discovery, and the pursuit of scientific truth to transform the world and make it better for generations to come.

Evolution has taught us that change does not mean better.  There is no guarantee that tomorrow’s world will better than today’s.  But, to steal a phrase, I have the audacity of hope. We can use place to transform field science, train the next generation of great scientists and leaders, and communicate what we see.  In doing so we will build a community that holds together, despite our differences, to use education and science to make the world a better place, and to honestly follow exploration and discovery wherever it takes us.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL