Burning down the ecosystem

By now, it should be obvious to everyone that we have a problem with the discourse around facts and science in the United States.

Over the years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve sometimes felt sheepish about picking apart wolverine articles and coverage in the popular press, harping on nuances of language, word choice, and representation of the science. It felt like overkill, sometimes. But it also felt like the conversation around the facts and the science and the narrative was becoming more and more skewed as time went on, and it seemed important to try to counteract that.

Of course, anyone who even remotely dabbled in climate-related research knew that there was a concerted campaign to discredit climate scientists, and anyone who paid attention to politics and the media environment knew that this campaign widened into a broader anti-science stance by the right. But reality-based Americans understood which media sources were factually accurate and which outlets were propaganda-slingers. Correcting inaccurate reporting on wolverines involved assuming that someone from a reputable media outlet had, in good faith, made a mistake, and that the media ecosystem itself would value correction in the interest of its mission to accurately report the news. Still, the inaccuracies and errors seemed to get worse over the years, and that left me more and more perplexed as time went on.

If the span between 2009 and 2015 was spent contemplating the specifics of the wolverine situation, 2016 was like looking up from a single blade of burning grass and discovering that the entire forest was a raging inferno. For seven years I’d been asking, “Why is this piece of grass on fire?” but as it turns out, the whole ecosystem was going up in flames. In the space of a couple of months, my personal fixation on accurate representation of wolverine science became laughably quaint in the face of much larger concerns about facts and bias in the media.

I’d be lying if I claimed that this was anything less than wildly depressing, to the point of being incapacitating; every time I tried to write a post, I’d give up in frustration, because it seemed necessary to situate it within a larger framework of inaccurate messaging, propaganda, and outright self-serving lies that were being perpetuated across media platforms. Doing that seemed impossibly complicated. There have always been intense politics around wildlife conservation, but those politics have been relatively systematic and fairly easy to grasp. 2016 pushed the broader political discourse into the realm of the deranged, revealing a disorder and a breakdown that appeared impossible to make sense of, let alone surmount. It’s very obvious that this problem is not going away any time soon.

The wider media ecosystem is full of would-be firefighters ready to jump in with analysis and advice and off-the-cuff prescriptions for how to remedy the collapse of media sanity. It’s also full of ninja arsonists who gleefully throw fuel on the fire at the least provocation. And to make matters more complicated, sometimes the wannabe firefighters are actually serving the role of accidental ninja arsonists. This made me even more cautious about weighing in. Maybe it’s the anthropological background, but I felt the need to sit and watch for a while, to try to make sense of what I was seeing before becoming another voice claiming some kind of authority that I don’t actually possess.

More than that, though, I needed to answer questions for myself: Is it still worth it to write about wolverines? Is it worth it in light of the fact that the wolverine discussion is deeply embedded in these larger problems? And beyond that, do I still have anything useful to say on a topic I’ve been writing about for nearly ten years? Can an author write usefully from a place that has become, primarily and nearly purely, angry and grief-ridden? At one time this blog was a love letter to the species, to its landscapes. Now it feels like a requiem. And while things written from places of grief, depression, and anger can be cathartic, hand-wringing is seldom of much literary value. So again: Is it worth it to continue?

That question is still under assessment.

In the absence of a decisive answer, I will keep writing for now, but I want to make this more complicated context explicit for whoever is reading this. I’ve always aimed to make this blog clear and upfront about biases and standpoint, in hopes of encouraging the reader to consider their own, and to understand the point at which claims, assertions, and interpretation of the science become subjective and value-laden. I also believe that facts and science are real things, and that truth (with a small t) can be at least agreed upon, even if it can’t established in an absolute sense. The past year has been disruptive to many of my core beliefs – especially to my ever-tenuous but previously-persistent faith in the human capacity for enlightened thinking. (If people aren’t capable of logic and reason, if they do not love the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, then what are we all doing here anyway?) Nevertheless, I’ll keep putting forth my meagre attempts to clarify the wolverine science, because putting out one small fire probably makes some sort of contribution. But I hope the rest of you are out there putting on your fire-fighting gear, because we have a big, big job ahead of us.














4 thoughts on “Burning down the ecosystem

  1. Well spoken…and thank you!

    We need you, Rebecca, to keep being you and keep doing it so well. Thank you for caring about wolverines and humans. I have faith that science continues to be the best way forward. Indeed we have work to do. We may see no reward for our efforts but hopefully others will. Service.

    Your friend,


    Nate Berg Cloudberry Cabin Tok, Alaska


  2. I work in wildlife management and am also frustrated by the lack of facts in the discourse. While we do not have wolverines here, there are a number of other misunderstood and misrepresented species… and not just by the right. I have found in recent years that the media of “the left,” as well as amateur-produced content that they read and “share,” is just as biased and just as ignorant of the facts, only in a different way. I’m glad that there is someone out there, even if you are “just” blogging about it, who is disseminating factual information in an accessible way. Hopefully more of them will stumble across your work!

    • Thanks, AJ. The fuzzing of facts and accuracy on the left is actually the thing that has been most upsetting to me over the past year. I wrote a little about some of this while it was happening, before the crazy stuff around the election, because I found it so distressing. I guess I can reveal my own affiliations here – not that anyone will be surprised by this – and say that I’m very politically liberal, so I always sort of rolled my eyes over right-wing propaganda. I know what to expect from those guys. Seeing that stuff coming from the left, though – that’s worrying in a different way. So this is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that the entire ecosystem is on fire.

      It’s worth pointing out that there’s a strong anti-Enlightenment strain in the academy, which does lean left. And that’s where I think this stuff is coming from as it seeps into the political culture and discourse of the left.

      And as far as the deluge of amateur web-based media….yeah, that’s another issue. I don’t even know where to start. Never mind the Anthropocene; I’d like us to re-dub this era the Opinionocene, because that’s the intellectual matrix within which we are now operating.

  3. Made the ‘mistake’ 🙂 of starting to read the Wolverine blog. I say mistake because I was ‘hooked’ for hours (after reading blog entries, then alt+tab’ing to watch the Rebecca W. /TEDX presentation, the Mongolian project video, and other great resources). All very articulate & inspiring. My one ask when y’all carry on a discussion… careful using “right-wing”, or “the left” stereotypes. Many “righties”, are more (sincerely) supportive than their leftie counterparts. e.g. Teddy Roosevelt (National Parks), Richard Nixon (EPA, Endangered Species Act). Branding usually starts a adversarial conversation as opposed to a productive dialect.

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