Scientist, activist or advocate?

Ahead of the launch of our Planetary Emergency Committee, Linnean Future, Professor Andy Purvis FLS writes about how he recalibrated the idea of his role as a natural scientist, about the importance of taking on 'deniers' and starting conversations

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And slowly, I realised what should have been blindingly obvious to me all along: this is not a drill. This world is the only one we have, and if people like me aren’t going to stand up for it, then why would anyone else?

I used to think that, as a scientist, my responsibility to the natural world was to try to understand it and make that understanding public. As I saw it, I had no business being an advocate for the planet, a lobbyist for nature or an activist for the living world. My job was simply to discover and report new information to anyone who was interested.

I was wrong.

What changed my mind was working on the IPBES Global Assessment. I was privileged to spend three years as part of an amazing team, documenting the sheer scale and extent of biodiversity’s decline, identifying the main threats it faces, and analysing the consequences for human wellbeing. And slowly, I realised what should have been blindingly obvious to me all along: this is not a drill. This world is the only one we have, and if people like me aren’t going to stand up for it, then why would anyone else?

So, when the Global Assessment concluded that only transformative change could lead to a sustainable future, and “extinction deniers” with vested interests in the status quo tried to attack the evidence, I decided to take them on. Sticking my head above the parapet was very stressful – deniers can be really aggressive, and their bluff confidence brought out my impostor syndrome something rotten – but the support I received from other scientists really helped.

Each one of us can make a difference. Each of us has expertise on particular aspects of the natural world – all the authority we need to speak and act on its behalf during the planetary emergency. In this UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, natural history is going to be arguably more important than ever before. That’s because successful restoration will require knowledge of what species are already living in the ecosystem, what ‘should’ be living there, how best to bring in those that are missing, whether invasive aliens need removing (and if so how), which species should be monitored to track progress, and so on.

Sticking my head above the parapet was very stressful – deniers can be really aggressive, and their bluff confidence brought out my impostor syndrome something rotten – but the support I received from other scientists really helped.

For decades it has seemed like natural history – like the natural world itself – has been in retreat, fighting a rearguard action; but that is changing at last. The recent Dasgupta Review of the Economics of Biodiversity highlighted how vital it is that people connect with nature: we value what we care about, and sustainability requires that we value the natural world more highly than we have done up to now. This too is a change where each of us can play an important role. For example, this evening I’ll be talking to a scout troop about nature and sustainability, trying to start a bunch of conversations in a bunch of families.

And of course the Linnean Society can amplify our voices. This new committee – Linnean Future – will be developing the Society’s response to the planetary emergency: presenting the science behind the crisis, educating and inspiring everyone around us. I’m really looking forward to the launch event on 3rd March: please do join us.

So, sorry I’m late to the party – but much better late than never!