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
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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