By Joern Fischer
We’ve recently written something about yield gaps in this blog, and we have criticised the notion of land sparing, and we pondered the pros and cons of assisted colonisation to help species cope with climate change. All of these topics have something in common: they are currently hot topics in the literature, and they have become something of a buzzword.
My hypothesis is that whenever something reaches buzzword status, it probably has flaws which ought to be debated in the literature but are receiving insufficient attention. In other words, once something has buzzword status, it’s hugely popular — and especially the leading journals are interested in promoting new buzzwords rather than publishing more balanced assessments. This may not be a new idea, and I don’t mean to complain (yet again) about leading journals being overly political in what they publish. Instead, my idea is much more pragmatic. Just like the people promoting buzzword concepts make an academic living of promoting them, how about making a living of balancing these concepts?
Perhaps that’s what Dan Simberloff thought in the past — he’s critiqued a whole bunch of ecological theories and concepts, including nested subset theory, corridors, or indicator species (and indeed, also assisted colonisation). Personally, I think perhaps Dan went a bit too far in making a career out of scrutinising other people’s ideas. Perhaps he’s a bit too negative at times… But anyway…
The story goes a bit like this: when a new idea comes up, people get excited and the idea is soon in a rapid growth phase. This is good and natural because without new ideas we’d get nowhere at all. But sometimes, what’s lacking is a critical assessment of those ideas. I don’t mean a black versus white assessment, but rather an approach that works out, critically, what the benefits of a new idea are, and what its limitations are. Most new ideas that become ‘buzzword concepts’ have some good sides to them, or they wouldn’t become buzzword concepts. But also, most have MORE limitations than are typically recognised by those promoting them. And that is where I think we find fertile academic grounds.
So my suggestion is, when you come across buzzword concepts, don’t blindly accept them, nor shoot them down without further thought (that is usually possible with all new ideas, especially with bold ones). Rather ask yourself under which circumstances a certain idea is useful, and what its conceptual and practical limits are. Teasing that apart, in turn, may ultimately lead to a more refined toolkit for conservation and sustainability.
And just for fun, here are some examples of buzzword concepts, from both past and present, each of which are valuable, but each of which have limitations: island biogeography, resilience, connectivity, assisted colonisation, ecosystem services, yield gaps, land sparing, land sharing, deep ecology, traditional ecological knowledge … and so on!