When I grow up, I'm probably not going to be a scientist

This guest blog post was written by our colleague Louise Boatwright Vaughn  and as such, the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any member of Resolve Conservation.  We are always looking for guest writers and if you are interested in contributing, please send an email to contact@resolveconservation.com

When I grow up, I'm probably not going to be a scientst

It was never my intention to be a scientist, but for years I pretended. When pressed, I described myself as a “qualitative researcher” but even that felt like a stretch. I was told the feeling of inadequacy was common; people called it the “imposter” syndrome. Yet in the mental aftermath of reading peer-reviewed journal articles, my imposter syndrome felt more severe than a common malady. I attended talks, conferences, webinars, and meetings. I gave talks at conferences, webinars, and meetings. I facilitated stakeholder groups. I was abreast of the latest research. I even spent a month in Australia working with Bayesian statisticians (they were lovely and very sympathetic to my un-Bayesian self). But the questions always fevered in my mind. How did my long days and all my attention contribute to building stronger and more resilient communities? Had I ever helped local economies benefit from their green capital? Did I ever convince anyone, who did not already believe, that there is merit in sustainable landscapes and that the rewards are worth the efforts? I think the answer is no. Or, at least, not yet.

I have contributed a small, infinitesimal, dust-mote-floating-in-a-sunbeam bit to the field of conservation science and I am very proud of that. Yet reading Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, I resonated with the sentence, “I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose…, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks.” What a beautifully written reason to explain why some colleagues, few friends, and none of my family ever read any of my journal publications. And I did not encourage them to do so.

A better question is what should I do to create landscapes capable of sustaining natural resources, strong economies, and a sense of place. That’s a question I find more interesting and one where I think the answer involves not just scientists looking to other scientists. Maybe scientists need to speak less in the language of the few and start to seek roles within wider efforts that also include artists, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, farmers, architects, realtors, planners, educators, politicians, writers, business owners, knowledge workers, and technologists (to name a few).

Consider the desire to reduce the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are an integral part of the American energy portfolio and our infrastructure is tailored around this fact. The vast majority of cars on our roads require gas and gas is relatively cheap. Yet fossil fuels are fickle and finite with a pricing structure subject to global influences. They are also not very clean. Eventually, as a country, we will need to rely on alternative energy sources like wind power. But wind energy has a bit of a reputation in the world of conservation. She’s the sustainable source we love to hate because wind turbines are placed in windy areas, often coinciding with major bird flyways. Enter acrimony, division, and head butting to the alternative energy solution.

A common turbine design is a horizontal axis turbine with blades topping a tall tower and facing into the wind. For birds, traversing the routes their biology demands they take, it’s like flying into a blender. This is not a viable solution for the people who spend their careers trying to help fish and wildlife populations. But neither is drilling, fracking, or building miles of pipelines through sensitive areas. So, what’s the solution?

Well, perhaps it doesn’t have to be a binary choice, meaning one way or the other. Instead, consider the 2016 Land Art Generator Initiative, which challenged designers to create new forms of sustainable energy off the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, CA while also giving a nod to public art. Entries included technologies vastly different from the traditional wind turbine such as aerostatic flutter wind harvesting, wave energy converters, and buoy wave energy converters. In appearance, the submissions ranged from looking like cityscapes in a Star Wars movie to fleets of luminescent sailboats. They were culminations of artists, designers, engineers, architects, and scientists working together to present the local community solutions for energy and alternatives to acrimony.

I’m sure the 2016 Land Art Generator Initiative submissions have a cost (financial, social, and environmental) that I am unaware of. But, what if? What if a nearby energy plant didn’t detract from a community but added to it? What if there was a strong public interest in building places not only around opportunities to shop and eat, but also for the quality of wildlife habitat and functional natural processes? How can we move the needle from here to there?

I’ve given up on trying to be a scientist and was probably never mistaken for one. I enjoy translating conservation science to the wider world, but don’t want to keep talking to the same people, with the same expertise, and the same broad views. That’s never going to make my vision of sustainable landscapes happen, especially if the people who actually live in those places are not involved or interested. Our future landscapes have the potential to be both inspiring and beneficial. Or we could continue arguing our choices away with what we see as our only options. If we select the later, I don’t see how the future will work out for any of us. We’ll still be arguing when it comes.