Psychologist, green building manager, religious leader urge ecologists to move beyond their own scientific community

The Ecological Society of America’s 96th Annual Meeting is taking place in Austin, Texas and kicked off on Sunday, August 7 with an Opening Plenary Panel featuring Richard Morgan, Austin Energy’s Green Building and Sustainability Manager, social psychologist, Susan Clayton of the College of Wooster, and the Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Matthew Anderson-Stembridge.  Joining the trio, was ecologist Laura Huenneke, ESA Vice President for Public Affairs, who moderated the discussion.  The group explored the management, psychological, and religious and moral aspects of ensuring that Earth’s life support systems remain resilient in the face of human demands.

In her opening remarks, Huennke said that the ecological community understands it has much to learn from other communities and that advancing the goal of stewardship of the planet will require multiple efforts by many different communities.  She said that ecologists should “listen very deeply” and work collaboratively with others.

Richard Morgan explained that because Austin Energy is a city-owned electric utility, it must be responsive to its citizens, who want to see the utility take environmentally responsible actions.  Increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste are a key part of Earth stewardship, said Morgan.  The old fashioned way in which building permits are still issued, he said, are holding back the degree of progress that would be possible if these were updated.  The same prescriptive codes used in the 1980s are still in effect; if the real impact of a building in a community were taken fully into account, said Morgan, it would dramatically reduce energy consumption using already-existing technology.

Matthew Anderson-Stembridge expressed his gratitude to ESA in inviting him to the Plenary and said that the open letter members of the scientific community send to religious leaders in 1990, set a course for many communities of faith to embrace care for the environment as part of their charge.  He said the term ‘steward’ is particularly meaningful to communities of faith and helps define our relationship to each other and to the environment.  Anderson-Stembridge encouraged ecologists to use the “universal human venue” of storytelling and then provide the facts.

Susan Clayton recommended that ecological scientists be mindful of language choices in speaking about environmental issues.  She reminded the audience that because many people react negatively to well-known but politically affiliated people such as Al Gore, one should avoid associating such people with an issue because doing so can prevent an audience hostile to someone such as Gore from hearing your message.  It’s important to learn something about your audience and find a way to connect with their values, said Clayton; find language that resonates with where they are at.  Anderson-Stembridge echoed her comments by noting that scientists can be just as likely as others to have personal biases—for example, sometimes in their view of people of faith, and that keeping such biases in check can help improve productive interactions with other communities.

Clayton said that ecologists and others should recognize that it can be okay for someone not to accept that climate change is happening, for example, but to still embrace energy saving steps; changing behavior not attitude can be a much more effective goal.

All three speakers agreed on the critical nature of the Earth Stewardship challenge.  In their final comments, Morgan encouraged ecologists to take time to share their information with communities outside of ecology and to demonstrate the relevance of their work in accessible ways.   Clayton said that sometimes ecologists and other scientists focus so single-mindedly on their “one thing” that they neglect to see other issues that are important to people.  As a result they can be perceived by others as impatient or other negative characteristics that can impede good communication.  Anderson-Stembridge echoed their remarks by also encouraging ecologists to make themselves available to other communities, to take the initiative, for example, to have lunch with their local pastor, begin to build a relationship and open a dialogue.  “That would be a tremendous boon,” he said.