I will be spending two months in the Ecuadorian forest with a bunch of birds. What does this have to do with ethics?
It is impossible for me to describe the importance of nature in my life. It is in nature that I discovered my spiritual and moral beliefs; where I have experienced the deepest of emotions and the clearest mind. I love hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Aside from being a place of challenge and peace and play, I have also always valued plants and animals as part of the special beauty nature offers. The more I learn about the peculiarities and incredible capabilities of different flora and fauna, the more I am fascinated. Every species has its own narrative and worth. The destruction of plant and animal lives in the name of progress or domination of nature has always struck me as shortsighted and, often, just plain wrong.
I never doubted that I wanted to commit my time and talents to protecting our environment. I know that majors other than environmental science could offer me more lucrative careers, but this is what I am passionate about. Upon coming to Duke, I embarked on a scientific route of environmental protection and advocacy. After four semesters, I’ve become increasingly versed in the technical language and the specialized practices of conservation biology. My curiosity and interest has enveloped me slowly in a mini-verse of environmental science. I’ve traded my history and language arts courses for learning the fundamentals of GIS and discovering more about our planet’s shrinking biodiversity. As I delve deeper into the field – sometimes literally – I feel a need to remain connected to the why of what I am doing. The science I am interested in is more than the pursuit of knowledge or theoretical advancement. Environmental science interacts with human, plant, and animal lives. It aims to solve problems involving natural resources, economics, and social justice. The practical implications of environmental science make it an issue of ethics.
This summer I am continuing my research on hummingbirds. It began last summer when I worked under my faculty mentor, Professor Stuart Pimm, in Durham. I came to Duke bright-eyed and eager to fight the environmental cause – in whatever capacity. I met Professor Pimm during the Nicholas School Biodiversity Days festivities and he invited me to work with him on hummingbirds. Together, we are researching within the existing literature for feeding data and other variables of every hummingbird species in the world to discover what factors increase the risk for extinction. Once this research is complete, conservationists will be better equipped to save hummingbirds. When asked why hummingbirds are important, I’ll first tell you how they play an important role in forest ecosystems as pollinators (and occasionally as insect predators and as prey!). Some flowers, like some found in the reserve where I am staying, have co-evolved with certain hummingbird species so that they can only be pollinated by those birds. And if you let me talk long enough, I’ll also tell you how uniquely cool these creatures inherently are. When I arrived at the Jama-Coaque Reserve in Ecuador, the first hummingbird I saw (which I now know to be a long-billed hermit) took my breath away and made my heart race with excitement.
I am stationed at the Jama-Coaque Reserve (JCR) in Ecuador, a very special ecological conservation site and a biodiversity hotspot for hummingbirds. JCR protects more than 1,400 acres of habitat, including tropical moist forest, premontane cloud forest, and the nearly-eradicated Pacific Ecuadorian Forest. The Third Millennium Alliance operates a field station, dubbed “the bamboo house,” where I will be staying. A mixture of international and local volunteers, staff, interns, and researchers work on different environmental questions in JCR. I will be joining them for the duration of the summer to install camera traps to record hummingbird feeding data.
The data I collect from this trip will be added to the scientific literature and contribute to my ongoing research. My aim is do a meta-analysis of feeding observations coupled with information on geographic range, elevation constraints, and other characteristics to determine what factors put specific hummingbird species at a higher risk of extinction. This will be my first time conducting my own research in the field and I hope to gain valuable hands-on experience that isn’t transferable through textbooks. Perhaps more important than learning the process of designing field research, I can use this time to explore the ethical questions of environmental work in a unique setting.
I want to see how local communities feel about conservation efforts. Jama-Coaque is a reserve run by gringos. Is this a good relationship or are they seen as outsiders encroaching on the land-ownership and farming practices of the people of the locals? I also wonder how important my research is in the broader picture. Is it worth it for me to travel to remote places for research experience, or are my efforts better spent earning money and donating to conservation efforts? I also wonder how ethics will play into my hummingbird camera trap research. I will be learning as I go, and I want to make sure I leave minimal impact on the ecosystem as I conduct my research.
As I try to discover the ethics of environmentalism, I expect to find that an answer to one question leads to another. I don’t even know if there is a right answer. What I will try to do is conduct my scientific research in a way that best reflect my beliefs. I will ask myself questions like why do I care about the wellbeing of our planet and what things I should be doing in my own life to reflect these values? I will face challenges both scientifically and in my ethical inquiries, but I am excited to begin! I hope to gain a better grasp on my environmental philosophy during my time in Ecuador. These experiences will shape the way that I approach environmentalism from an ethical standpoint.