On the first day of his ecology course, Professor John Waldman takes his undergraduate students around Queens College campus in New York, and shows them all the nature they’re oblivious to as they gaze at their cell phones. Though located in New York City, he says, the college’s grounds host lizards, squirrels, hawks, several non-native bird species, poison ivy, and edible and medicinal weeds, and each provides the basis for a lesson of some kind. These nature walks sometimes spark minor epiphanies in students about the ubiquity of such nature, even in an urban setting.

Though he grew up in the borough of the Bronx, within New York City limits, he was drawn to its environmentally-compromised shores which became his playground. He was intrigued by the mysteries of water, and water seemed a world unto him. He took to studying, then conserving and caring for fishes. Even today, he lives with his family at Sea Cliff, New York, not far from the water he loves.

A modern-day Thoreau concerning waters and fishes, Waldman feels children’s early exposure to nature, well before college, is the best way to instill a sense of caring and a commitment to conserve nature. “It needs to be direct—not only secondhand through videos and books. I find that nothing excites urban students of all ages like pulling a beach seine net through the shallows and capturing, identifying, and releasing their own fish catches,” he says. He finds that one extremely important aspect of gaining the attention of children is that it automatically commands the attention of their parents, people who might otherwise not be receptive to these messages.

Waldman’s research interests are ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. His research delves deep into the intersections of systems where interesting possibilities and changes occur in species, and their relationships with and within ecosystems. He also studies the diadromous forms that migrate between fresh and salt water, including the nearby New York Harbour and Hudson River Estuary—a system with its own deep ecology. The dynamics playing out at an array of geographic levels fascinates him, and he is involved in restoration projects ranging from the local (Bronx River fish passage), to the regional (migrations and stock identification of striped bass), to the national and international (conservation and restoration of sturgeons and shads). He has written more than 80 scientific papers and many popular books.

Waldman has never been to India. As an individual, he’s an outsider looking in, dispassionate and discerning, but as a systems thinker and doer, he is very much an insider, concerned and caring. In a conversation via email, he offers insights on ecological devastation wrought by fossil-fuel based economy and what India could do, how changes at different levels are occurring, and how to beat back the loss of memory.

How will the interplay between ecology and the social order play out, given that India’s government is hell bent on manufacturing goods like China does, and polluting land, rivers, seas, and air, in the process. Already, millions of people are developmental refugees. Laws are enacted to evict people from their lands; industrialists are swooned over. The poor die of pollution and disease.

I know little but generalities about India.  I do recognise that the governmental desire to charge into a dramatically more industrialised society in China has had profound ecological consequences, causing problems so severe that China is being forced to take environmental concerns into far greater consideration today compared with even the recent past.  In the US there is frequent coverage of the incredible air pollution, water pollution, and generally almost unfettered abuse of the Chinese environment.  Commensurate with that is coverage of small revolts in which the citizens are taking stands against the government when their actions
(or inactions) are egregious.

To western eyes, India and China have many similarities, the most obvious being huge populations in relative poverty, limited natural resources, and strong commitments to economic growth. It seems though that India, despite its ongoing development, is still behind China on the path towards modernisation and globalisation. From my viewpoint, this is a strategic plus—India has the opportunity to study what is working and not working in China so as not to make at least the avoidable errors.

China’s evolution is highly dynamic with many underlying social (but
environmentally relevant) experiments co-occurring. A dramatic example is the construction of the Three Gorges Dam for hydropower and its
consequent forced relocations of millions of people, and the gross degradation of the
ecology of the Yangtze River. India should be China’s best student, while also reaping and sifting the experiences of others.

Could you explain ‘eco-social anomie’?

Eco-social anomie is a term proposed by my State University of New York colleague Karin Limburg and me to describe how a species’ societal standing slowly declines through time. Anomie is a breakdown in social norms and order.

The term ‘eco-social anomie’ attempts to synthesise two better-established terms. One is the ‘shifting baselines syndrome’, coined by the well-known fish conservationist Daniel Pauly. In an article titled ‘Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries’ published in 1995, Pauly wrote that, ‘Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts is career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at this time that serve as a new baseline.  The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.’

That Pauly had articulated something true and important is shown by how this simple one-page essay has since resonated within the conservation community. I believe the shifting baselines syndrome is a real and ongoing phenomenon. 

However, Dr. Limburg and I also felt that it explicitly spoke to the viewpoint of managers and not to the general public, and that the public aspect reinforced the shifted baselines. The public forgetting what it once had has been called is ‘intergenerational amnesia’—the notion that as a generation eclipses, it takes its earlier memories of past conditions and abundances along with it.

Thus, from our viewpoint, managers experience inexorable slippage of their own baselines (which reflects in their levels of ambition in their restoration targets), while the public forgets what it once had, thereby placing less pressure on managers to truly conserve and restore. The species in question then suffers a diminution in its ‘standing’. We proposed eco-social anomie to link these two concepts in what we see as a feedback loop.

I spent six years writing my book, Running Silver, partly to try and break this feedback loop through exposure of the public to the historical ecology of US Atlantic rivers. Though intended to be informative about this lost legacy of great fish migrations, it also was meant to be inspirational, i.e., to actually help effect real change.

Are there any instances of eco-social anomie in India?

I don’t know enough about India to address this question directly. I wonder, however, if the public in India is forgetting about its once venerated but sharply declining hilsa shad? Hilsa shad—like so many fish species worldwide that migrate between freshwater and the sea—are suffering, mainly from human modifications to rivers and overfishing.  For instance, the Farakka Barrage, built on the Indian side of the border where part of the Ganges flows into Bangladesh, has caused the Padma River in Bangladesh to dry out for parts of the year, and hilsa shad no longer occur in the area. Furthermore, reductions in both the snowmelt from Himalayan glaciers and alterations in monsoon rain patterns from warming will likely affect riverine fish populations on the subcontinent.

Many people in India and other developing countries want lifestyles similar to those in Western countries. What is poverty in the West may not be the poverty in India. For instance, not having a car in the West may show poverty, or at least, low economic status, but here it’s a middle class thing. The West has awakened to the environmental and ecological trends but not India. In many parts of India, people don’t have nutritious food, breathe polluted air, drink contaminated water, cram into tiny places, and somehow life goes on. As a biologist and systems thinker, how do you think can people make a living without destroying the environment and ecology?

Many minds have long struggled with these fundamental questions but, nonetheless, have been unable to provide meaningful solutions, so I feel overwhelmed with the idea that I can provide any new insights. However, as someone viewing this freshly (albeit naïvely), from afar, it seems to me at a time of great global change and transformation within India, a key concern should be the optimisation of the relationship between the rural and the urban.

China has moved untold numbers of people from the countryside into cities, with mixed results. Urbanisation clearly is a strong worldwide trend and cities leave smaller ecological footprints on the landscape. A transfer of human populations to cities also may allow the environment of the countryside to heal somewhat. Yet many of these former farmers are left jobless and uprooted in their new homes.

Further urbanisation is a tool available to India. There are clear pros and cons to such a strategy; India needs to consider and reconsider and then consider again this option and then get it right. A useful empirical approach would be to try simultaneously various models of public incentivisation and population density. The recently announced ‘100 Smart Cities’ initiative reflects the bold vision that is needed, as do notions of model
village clusters.

As climate change worsens, how are individuals and populations of species changing? How do you think  pollution and industrialisation could affect, or already affects, phenologies and food chains in India?

Phenology—the timing of an individual’s or populations’ major life history events—is a previously arcane scientific term that is about to become better known to the lay public because phenologies are changing, and often at worrisome rates. The major effect to date, and yet to come, on the phenologies of species is climate change.  This is being seen unequivocally all over the planet, in conjunction with distributional shifts (losses and gains of range, with most movements poleward or to higher elevations).

The pollution that comes with industrialisation (other than CO2 emissions) is not a main driver of phenological change. But it likely has synergistic effects with climate change.  Pollution can make habitats completely or seasonally uninhabitable, thereby reducing their carrying capacities and therefore also reducing actual population sizes. Smaller populations may shrink their seasonal movements in time and space. The match in timing between the resulting shorter migration ‘windows’ and the appropriate conditions may then become confounded by climate change.

Could you explain the orders of climate change effects and ‘global weirding’? How is this playing out in India and elsewhere?

The notion of ‘orders’ of climate change effects is a taxonomy I proposed to distinguish among several levels of effects.  To me, the simplest or ‘first order’ changes are single-species alterations of distributions or the timing of life history events due to climate change. ‘Second order’ change is then modifications in the relationships between species due to those first-order changes. ‘Third order’ change is then broad-scale alterations within communities that are the summation of the second-order changes.  Understanding even the first-order changes is difficult, higher level changes are far more problematic.

These new ecologies are referred to as ‘global weirding’: a biological, complementary term to accompany global warming. Though nature is dynamic, ‘weird’ suggests change outside norms. The problem isn’t that ecological change is occurring, it’s that it’s becoming unnaturally rapid and uni-directional.

For most people, their daily grind itself drains their energy. How can people be induced to care more about ecosystems?

I feel that this would sound both feeble and impossibly idealistic when told to a person who may be hungry, but I believe that healthy ecosystems are reflective of a higher standard of the stewardship of nature and, that ultimately, this will benefit everyone in as much as we all live on one planet, and it needs to remain ecologically functional. Healthy ecosystems are also more resilient. From a selfish anthropocentric viewpoint, inasmuch as we depend on nature, this is a good thing.

As you said, the younger generation is oblivious to disappearing species and biodiversity. What steps could be taken to rectify this situation?

To stem the loss of species and populations, it is necessary to increase both awareness and a sense of personal responsibility. This means captivating the minds and hearts of young people.  When I taught a recent seminar in marine conservation biology, the graduate students (many of whom were teachers in training) and I arrived at an ‘open their hearts, break their hearts’ strategy.  By this we meant society should
introduce children at impressionable young ages to the marvels of underwater life (or any other compelling aspect of nature).  And years later, at a more developed state of maturity, to expose them to the myriad challenges to the nature they became smitten with.  This pattern emulates what I see as the typical, but unplanned histories of effective environmental advocates.

What else do you think is important?

Naomi Klein’s excellent new book on the societal issues concerning climate change, titled This Changes Everything, is a deeply important investigation into why the political world is reacting so sluggishly to what is either a crisis or an impending crisis. A major message of this book is the protection of the existing capitalist system by the ‘haves’.  A new vision is needed.

Given the changes occurring in India and other developing countries, it seems imperative to not blindly follow the paths of highly developed western countries to merely attempt to catch up, but instead to leapfrog the western world’s uninspiring response to climate change all the way to the new societal structures and economies needed to combat and live with this ultimate challenge. 

However, we must also own up to our individual responsibilities.  The old aphorism, ‘think globally, act locally’, has never been more true, given how each individual on the planet contributes to climate change to at least some degree. And we need to keep in mind that ‘Mother Nature has the last at bat’, which is true for baseball—or cricket.