Article first published online: 24 NOV 2009
©2009 Society for Conservation Biology
Volume 23, Issue 6, pages 1343–1345, December 2009
How to Cite
Meffe, G. K. (2009), Changes. Conservation Biology, 23: 1343–1345. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01366.x
- Issue published online: 24 NOV 2009
- Article first published online: 24 NOV 2009
The only real constant in our world is change. Buddhists understand this when they observe that everything is impermanent and that much human suffering comes from trying to hold on to that which inevitably changes, including life itself. Such understanding is also fundamental in classical Western tradition, as exemplified by the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said one cannot step twice into the same river. Change unfolds around us continuously and at all levels, from the atomic to the celestial. Thus, it should come as no surprise that change has come to this journal and changes will continue to challenge the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB).
This issue marks a change in leadership at Conservation Biology, and is in fact the last issue that will appear under my tenure as Editor. For 12 years (more than half the life of this journal to date), I have had the great privilege and honor of editing this publication and of serving SCB at a level I never would have dreamt possible when the first issue appeared in 1987. This has, in fact, been the greatest honor of my career. Some 8000 manuscripts, 72 issues, 22 special sections, and over 21,000 pages later, I am pleased to hand the reins over to the new editorial team headed by Erica Fleishman. More about that later.
First, I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to many. I start with SCB, and especially Presidents Peter Brussard and Dennis Murphy, who had enough confidence in me in 1997 to entrust the journal to my hands. I inherited an outstanding product that had been conceived and nurtured in the early days with great wisdom by David Ehrenfeld and then matured under the dynamic leadership of Reed Noss; my major goal at the outset was to “do no harm” to what these great conservation biologists turned over to me. I hope they feel I at least accomplished that.
I thank the thousands of authors who entrusted their hard-earned research to this journal. Statistically, some 70–80% were disappointed by rejection, but with exceptions that I can count on one hand, they were kind, understanding, civil, and appreciative even when rejected. I have continually been heartened by the splendid and good-natured people who populate this field; they have been and will continue to be a great source of inspiration to me.
I thank the various SCB Boards of Governors, and six different Presidents under whom I have served, for their confidence in and full support of me and this journal. SCB Executive Director Alan Thornhill—whose support has been unwavering—made working for this society a pleasure.
The truly unsung heroes in a good journal are the dedicated professionals who unselfishly serve on the Editorial Board. My Board has been outstanding throughout, and I can never fully express my gratitude for their efforts, wisdom, good cheer, and self-sacrifice, all in the interest of producing the best journal that we could muster. I thank well over 100 individuals who served us over the last 12 years; their friendship and service will not be soon forgotten.
Our publisher, Blackwell Science (now Wiley-Blackwell), has been a staunch supporter of this journal from the outset and has stood by us through thick and thin. Their financial and publication support has been steadfast, and I thank many individuals who were always there for us, especially Robert Harington, Marjorie Spencer, Liz St. Germaine, Rosemary Farmer, and Amanda Martinez.
This journal would, frankly, not exist were it not for the dedicated efforts of those who worked most closely with me through the years. I thank Krista Clements, who was my Editorial Assistant in the early years, and Christina Romagosa, who capably filled in for several months while Krista was on leave. They both were highly professional and served admirably. Margaret Flagg has been the journal's Editorial Assistant for nearly 10 years, and Ellen Main has served as Managing Editor since 1992, long before I held this office. Words cannot express the complete and utter dedication of these two marvelous people. Their professionalism is unmatched, their concern and care for the journal complete, and their willingness to work with and satisfy authors is legendary. Had I kept track of all the accolades from authors that poured in over the years regarding their professionalism and support, I could fill an issue of the journal. They also kept me in line and on schedule despite myself, and always made the job fun and rewarding. They are overworked, underpaid, and, I hope, dearly appreciated. Most fortunately for the journal, they are staying on.
Now for some changes. SCB's Publications Committee and Board of Governors (BOG) mandated two major changes at this juncture. First, the editorial model of the journal will change. Rather than one Editor at the top, there will now be an Editor-in-Chief (Erica Fleishman) and four Associate Editors (Steven Brechin, Michael [Mick] McCarthy, Tim McClanahan, and Javier Simonetti) who will work with her more closely in the initial handling of manuscripts and decision making. It is hoped that this broader topical and geographic distribution of decision making will better represent the great diversity of our society and this field. I have complete confidence in this team to do the job exceptionally well, and especially in Erica Fleishman, who for nearly two decades has consistently demonstrated extraordinary abilities to get any job done as well as total dedication to any task at hand. Her selection was a wise choice.
Second, it was mandated that the journal move toward a web-based manuscript handling system, and such a program is now being phased in. I resisted this because I believed our system of electronic submittal of manuscripts and reviews was a simple, clear, and efficient approach that anyone could easily use (only an email address was needed). The BOG believes a web-based system is needed for better communication among this more-complex editorial structure, and perhaps that is true. They also believe that it will somehow speed up manuscript review and publication times; I disagree. Lest false expectations develop, let me be clear that the time that a manuscript takes to review is limited not one second by technology; email and web-based systems both travel at the speed of light. Time in review is fully and completely a function of human behavior: how long it takes the Editor to read a submittal and make an initial decision, how long it takes the Assigning Editor to read a paper and find reviewers, and especially how long it takes busy volunteer reviewers to provide critical and cogent reviews. Absolutely none of this will be changed by a web-based system (though we will, I fear, lose a bit of the personal touch that was a hallmark of this journal). If papers are to be published more quickly in Conservation Biology, it will not be through technological wizardry, but by greater cooperation and commitment by a chain of busy professionals to serve science through faster reviews. This remains a worsening crisis in our field, and I wish the new editorial team every success in finding ways toward faster publication.
Many changes to the journal occurred during the last 12 years. These include introduction of four new journal sections (“Conservation Forum,”“Conservation Focus,”“Conservation in Practice,” and “Conservation in Context”), an effort to provide a Special Section appropriate to the location or theme of each annual meeting of the society, redesign of “Conservation Education,” revamping of “International News” to “Issues in International Conservation” (and then its elimination), addition (and then elimination when no longer needed) of an Associate Editor for Quantitative Methods, and of course implementation of an electronic submittal and review system (yes, we actually required four hard copies back in the dark ages!). We also introduced several new cover designs including photo insets, multiple images, and original artwork; I hope they were appreciated when they came around. Undoubtedly there will more changes coming under the new team, changes that none of us can predict at this time, but which will be instituted as needed to keep up with a rapidly evolving conservation community and set of global challenges.
And challenged we will be. It is no secret that Earth is in dire straits. As carefully documented by thousands of papers in this and other journals, we are facing a future of dim prospects for biodiversity and human well-being. The future is, however, at least partly, our choice to design, not our fate as victims.
It is easy to fall into despair. Despite reams of scientific information on the subject, warnings for decades about our environmental plight, pleas for change, Earth Day celebrations, demonstrations, political struggles, and so many other sincere efforts, most of the planet's inhabitants in developed nations are marching on with business as usual, and seem more concerned about who will be the next American Idol and what the new strip mall has to offer than the health and security of their food supply, climate change, emerging diseases, or what another three billion people on the planet means to them. Those in developing nations struggle to survive day-to-day and perhaps wonder how so much wealth can be concentrated into the hands of so few who are so unwilling to share or alter their lifestyles. We collectively wear blinders, deny the patently obvious, actively pursue ignorance, and assume the past is the best predictor of the future. This is folly beyond comprehension, and I sometimes wonder if our species should be reclassified from Homo sapiens to Homo imbecilus.
We are facing three great forces that will determine our fate and that must be addressed head on, immediately. First is climate change, the driver for all foreseeable generations of humanity. It will influence everything from where we live, to what we eat, to what diseases we will encounter, to who will live and die, or to which species will remain on the planet or go extinct. It is no longer about tree hugging or saving the whales or polar bears; humans are now in deep trouble along with everything else, and nobody is immune. Ironically, this may, in fact, be our savior and what finally awakens Homo imbecilis to reality; there are signs of that already happening, although for the moment, the forces of status quo remain strong and mostly in control.
Second, is the passing of peak oil (which has now occurred) and the decline of cheap and abundant energy sources (which we are now encountering). Not a moment too soon, this will shut down the energy orgy that the developed world has enjoyed for over a century and force us into other, more-sustainable modes of existing on the planet. It will disrupt economies, change food supplies, alter long-term transportation and housing patterns, change global wealth distributions, and generally wreak havoc until we settle into new and more sensible modes of doing business, perhaps a decade or two hence.
Third, and superimposed on these issues, is continued human population growth, projected to increase another 50% or so until it (perhaps) starts to level off around 2100. I know of no environmental or social problem on the planet that is made better by more people. Like an enzyme catalyzing a chemical reaction, human population growth will exacerbate climate change and energy issues, and habitat loss and extinction, accelerating and magnifying their effects and resulting in massive human suffering. And it will continue to chew up huge expanses of what remains of the still-functioning natural habitats that support life on the planet. Yet, population growth and population policies are taboo subjects in much of the world, most especially in the United States, where every new person has an outsized influence on the world through our gluttonous energy and materials use, and waste production. This is insanity.
When I entered graduate school in the late 1970s I was optimistic about the future, confident that scientific knowledge and progressive value systems presented to the public would carry the day. Open and caring minds who saw our problems surely would respond appropriately, we would learn to control our numbers and energy use, we would be good stewards of the planet, and we would march hand in hand into a better future for all species and all people. How naïve I was. Now I simply hope for less-bad alternatives: “only” 2 or 3 degrees of global temperature rise rather than 5 or 6; 8 or 9 billion people instead of 11 or 12; 20% species extinctions rather than 40 or 50%. As Aldo Leopold noted many years ago, “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” We wounded are not exactly alone, but we are still in the minority.
Despite this pessimism, I do find hope from several sources. First, nature is remarkably resilient. If we can keep many of the pieces (again, Leopold comes to mind) nature will heal, reassemble, and thrive; life is tenacious. The trick is to avoid extinction in the short term so that the long term remains a possibility. Second, we have a remarkable base of knowledge—produced by our authors and readers, among many others for the last century or so—upon which we can base management and recovery efforts. We know what to do and how to do it for the most part; we just need to be empowered to put that knowledge to work. When the world is more receptive we will be there. Third, there are good people in many quarters around the world working hard on ecological and social issues (which are, after all, completely intertwined) who have made good progress toward ecological and social justice. The models and solutions are out there and many people are receptive to and seeking change. Now we need to do a better job of incorporating innovations across the globe. Finally, despite our best efforts to behave irresponsibly as a species, we can indeed be a sensible and inventive lot, and we have repeatedly risen to great heights when challenged; witness our collective defeat of Nazism, placing men on the moon, or reducing or eliminating rampant diseases. When the collective slapping of our foreheads finally occurs (very soon, I believe) we may well make a rapid transition to new heights of wisdom and start to behave like the sapiens we were prematurely and perhaps arrogantly named. This would mark the most positive change we could embrace.
So change continues, at every level. This journal will move on, the field will continue to evolve, we will experience successes and failures, Earth will survive in some form, and life will alter for all. New generations of bright, energetic, and idealistic students will carry the banner forward as elders fade to the rear, and perhaps that is our greatest reason for hope. I wish those generations much wisdom, strength, endurance, and good cheer in the face of the monumental and historic tasks before us. Despite the challenges and gloom, there is only one choice: to continue to produce the best conservation science possible, get it into the public arena, advocate for its use, and be voices for and examples of reason and hope. The future anxiously awaits our actions and our changes.