A Conversation With Elena Bennett, Professor of Natural Resource Science

The latest installment in our ongoing series of exchanges with experts on the subjects of health, design, food, travel, and sustainability

elena bennett.jpgHow do we make the most efficient and environmentally conscious use of our ecosystems, knowing that demand for natural resources is sure to increase?

In any given ecosystem, there are a multitude of resources that humans may want to exploit -- food, water, energy, recreation space -- and it is a balancing act to ensure that all these resources remain unspoiled. In her research, Elena Bennett, Professor of Natural Resources at McGill University, hopes to create tools for communities and developers to use to better estimate their environmental impact. For instance, one topic she studies is how phosphorous, a key element in fertilizer, unintentionally contaminates water supplies. Here, she talks about what people don't understand about scientific research in general and why she's hopeful about future generations.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I do the science that answers questions about how our landscapes can provide all the things we want them to provide. Landscapes provide ecosystem services -- things like food, freshwater, flood control, regulation of disease, pollination, and opportunities for recreation. Each landscape provides many of these services, and how we manage the landscape determines what mixture of services we get. My science is about understanding how management affects the mixture of services.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

Right now, I think the concept of ecosystem services is really changing how people think about managing ecosystems. It gives us a way to think about both "natural" and human-dominated systems in terms of the things that they provide -- including recreation, carbon storage, and food.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

This isn't particularly about my area of expertise, but I think a lot of people are confused about how science works. Not the facts, but how scientific knowledge is developed through experimentation and observation, how it is communicated in peer-reviewed articles, how the generation of knowledge is really a conversation amongst scientists. Understanding this process would help the average citizen interpret scientific uncertainty about certain details about climate change and put it in a perspective that doesn't mean that scientists disagree about whether or not climate change is happening.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I am not sure about a trend, but where I see a lot of hope is in the students that I teach. They are actively seeking new ways to live lightly on the planet. I'm impressed every day that I see students farming on campus and selling that produce to other students, or teaching other students how to farm, or pushing the university towards a policy that includes far more local foods in the dining halls. I find that I'm continually uplifted by the many sustained positive impacts that students can have on the way the University, and the world, function.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?


What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

That's a tough one. I never consider myself "off track", just on a new track. I am surprised at how winding our paths can be, led first one way and then another, by the things that fascinate us. I rarely ever hear of someone saying that they went into this line of work to do exactly what they are currently doing, or that they knew they'd be here from the age of 10.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Steve Carpenter. Not only is he a brilliant scientist, but he has also been an amazing mentor throughout my career.

Hal Mooney. Hal has this brilliant way of thinking about where the field of ecology could be doing the most useful and interesting science and the ability to subtly push us in that direction.

Walt Reid. Walt was the director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. He had an amazing ability to comment on detailed aspects of all parts of the project while simultaneously keeping in mind the big picture of the whole project. I've never met anyone else who could do that.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I thought about education and did, in fact, teach environmental education to kids for a while. I've also always wanted to be a writer, and may do that, too, someday.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

For me, websites and apps are mainly a pleasant diversion rather than a work tool.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"The Ballad of Love and Hate" by the Avett Brothers and "The Temptation of Adam" by Josh Ritter.