What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?
Two interrelated terms or concepts critical to my area are the devil to grasp. Even experts in our field sometimes get them wrong. The first is "biodiversity," which is almost always thought of as a collection of wondrous beasts and beautiful flowers. The second is "ecosystem," which is generally thought of as a wild place like a forest or prairie. In fact, biodiversity refers to all the elements of diversity of life on Earth, whether it is genetic, taxonomic, functional, structural, spatial, or temporal diversity, and it includes all living things, including the microbes, not just the plants and animals. Similarly, an ecosystem is also a complex term, referring to a system that produces and consumes biofuels (plants or algae) while cycling inorganic matter, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water, to organic matter, such as carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids like DNA, and back again. To make things worse, since you can never have biodiversity outside an ecosystem and an ecosystem always has biodiversity in it, each term doesn't make sense without reference to the other. I have an easier time explaining quantum mechanics and multivariate statistics than explaining what biodiversity and ecosystems are. Yet, to understand the fundamentals of living sustainably, one has to have a firm grasp of both biodiversity and ecosystems.
What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?
An increasing trend encourages us to restructure environmental thinking around the idea of ecosystem services, a trend that I'm not entirely comfortable with. One reason our current way of living is unsustainable is that our economies are only tied to goods and services that we value and market. Most of our income, for example, no matter who we are, is used to pay for goods, like food, wood, and fresh water, and services such as electricity, telephone, banking, education, government, religion, and health, to name just a few. We do not recognize, however, that breathable air, potable water, equitable climate, fertile soil, productive fisheries, pollination, and many other services provided by ecosystems are critical to our well-being, yet they are simply not part of our economies. Economists and ecologists around the world are trying to change this by building ecosystem services into our economies. To illustrate the issue, I often ask that we imagine sorting through our mail at the end of the day and seeing that, in addition to bills for Internet services, gas and electric utilities, magazine subscriptions, and tax forms, there is, for the first time, a bunch of bills for air, climate regulation, pest control, and a dozen others that add up to tens of thousands of dollars per month, all sent by the fungi, bacteria, plants, and animals who somehow incorporated themselves and started charging us for their services. That would really shape how we spend our money and what we do in life and start us on a path of sustainable use of the natural resources that provide us the goods and services we depend on. My reservation about this trend is that it tends to view the whole world as a system designed only to serve one species -- us. I have a gut feeling this is not a good idea.