Don’t Take Your Ecosystem to a Doctor

By Alexandra Soderlund

When not interning at EPA, Alexandra Soderlund studies at the University of New South Wales.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Glenn Suter II, who’s been an EPA scientist since 1998. Recently, his paper “A Critique of Ecosystem Health Concepts and Indexes” was listed in the all time top 100 papers of the scientific journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The whole idea of the paper is that the metaphor of ecosystem health doesn’t make a lot of sense, because ecosystems are not organisms and therefore they don’t have health. I’m currently completing a Bachelor of Science/Arts degree, and at first I thought “metaphors? That belongs in the Arts part of that one English class I took, not in Science.”

But science actually abounds in metaphors; ecosystem health is just one of them. Often they are so ingrained in the way we speak about a subject that we don’t notice when we use them.

That’s where people like Dr. Suter come in.

Frustrated by the aimless use of the phrase ‘ecosystem health,’ he set pen to paper in 1993 and wrote this article, which is still making waves today. Last year Dr. Suter witnessed a disagreement about this 20-year-old paper between members of a review panel. When he wrote it, he wanted people to think rigorously about the supposed “health” of an ecosystem, and consequently the debate shifted (though it still rages on).

For someone like me, who sees a future career in science communication, this makes a lot of sense. We need to evaluate the language and tools we use to explain concepts and engage with others to make sure they’re the best and most appropriate. This may mean using different terms for different audiences. As a scientific tool, the metaphor of ecosystem health isn’t all that useful because it doesn’t give us measurable goals and results. However, it is still useful for communicating with the public.

Amusingly, Dr. Suter actually considered a career in the health field.  Having “always been interested in living things,” he contemplated becoming a doctor, he says. But the growing environmental movement swept him up (like it does many of us) into an illustrious career in toxicology, ecological epidemiology and risk assessment.

Dr. Suter still enjoys writing conceptual papers, and once a week can be found discussing the finer points of assessment theory with a colleague after hours over a glass of wine. “Writing is the way I think through a problem,” he says. “I often don’t know how it’s going to end up; it’s a bit like writing a novel.”

About the Author: When not interning at the EPA, Alexandra Soderlund studies at the University of New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney, Australia. She is majoring in media/ technology and genetics, and is also the online coordinator for the NSW branch of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

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