On Ecological Sustainability: Judith Parrish, Plant Ecologist

HeadshotMy first interview on ecological sustainability is with my sister Judy Damery Parrish,  Chair of the Biology Department at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. She is a passionate teacher who loves the earth with fierceness, reflected in here.

What is your background and how did you come to ecology?

I grew up on a farm and spent many hours of my childhood observing organisms in their environments, often lying facedown in the grass watching tiny insects and other organisms make their living. I majored in both zoology and botany as an undergrad at Eastern Illinois University, where field experiences were strongly valued and included in the program. My professors would take students to a field station each spring, each teaching his or her specialty as we spent the morning watching birds, the afternoon seining for fish in a clear stream or sampling trees, and the evening mucking through a swamp triangulating singing frogs with our flashlights. I came to love studying ecological relationships in natural systems, and earned a PhD in Plant Ecology at the University of Illinois. The many different ways organisms cope with challenges of the environment has always tantalized me to examine adaptations and relationships among organisms.

How do you define and/or measure  sustainability?

I define sustainability in ecological time rather than geological time. Environments change over geological time due to factors such as continental drift and glacial advances and retreats, resulting in different selective factors on the organisms that inhabit them and changes in adaptations. While there are fluctuations in the environment in a shorter, ecological time scale, sustainable systems support organisms that can replace themselves in the environment for generations. There may be changes in relative numbers in the populations composing the system, but their identities should not change. There should be a dynamic balance that prevents any one species from domination.

What ecosystems that you have studied? Which are of particular interest to you? 

Research in tallgrass prairies of the Midwest; interest in South African fynbos and African savannas

Urban ecosystems are of particular interest – I think we can do much better!

What elements are present in those which are “sustainable”?

High diversity both of species and genes within each species. The system should not “leak” resources – there should be very little waste. Some organism will be present to use the resources and keep them within the system.

Are there practices that you have advocated to support sustainability? 

Education – as Baba Dioum states, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.” We need to get students away from remotes and cell phones and help them experience and understand – and therefore value – natural systems. David Suzuki states that “our ancient understanding of the exquisite interconnectivity of all life has been shattered.”

We need to preserve what natural systems we can, and we need to provide corridors between habitat patches to allow movement between them, and use polyculture in agriculture to reduce “mining” of the soil. We also need to switch to renewable energy sources and develop local food supplies.

 What does a healthy ecosystem look like?

A system that has multiple species at each trophic level, and populations of all age classes. I do think it is possible for human dominated systems to be much more healthy and sustainable, using renewable energy and incorporating green spaces on rooftops, drainage areas, and parks.

 What are the forces you see that make ecosystems non-sustainable?

Overuse, overharvesting of any component of the system; removal of top predators, habitat destruction that affects natural reproduction and genetic diversity

 What is your hope?

Our hope for sustainable life not only requires for us to understand the natural healing processes of the earth, but also to rediscover that we are an integral part of them. Wangari Maathai, in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, said “Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system…We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds, and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life.” I am privileged to have a platform in my teaching that gives me a chance to share the importance of discovering our place in nature with my students. I pray that we will learn to value our biological wealth before it is too degraded to heal.