Pavel Kovar, the Editor of Ziva, interviewing László Orlóci, Professor Emeritus of Statistical Ecology

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1 Pavel Kovar, the Editor of Ziva, interviewing László Orlóci, Professor Emeritus of Statistical Ecology Porto Alegre March 2002 P. Covar: I came across your quantitative models concerning the vegetation pattern the first time during my studies at Charles University in Prague. At that time a strong political regime came back to power after the Soviet occupation of the Czechoslovakia in and after lectures started unofficially by a young assistant professor, M. Rejmanek, who escaped later to the United states and now teaching at Davis as a professor. At that time you have had the ecological school of another Czeck scientist, Professor Vladimir J. Krajina, living in Vancouver who earlier escaped from the communist regime. You had your Ph.D. with Professor Krajina. What have you learnt from him? L. Orlóci: I feel very fortunate with having had Professor Vladimir J. Krajina as my graduate supervisor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I have learnt much from him in class, but he commanded my highest respect for his sense of freedom and courage, outspoken nature, fairness to others, liberality of mind, and of course, good humour. All who new him well would, I am sure, want me to mention his deep love for home land and the Czech nation, and important to his character, the exemplary citizenship in his adopted country, for which he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. P. Kovar: Today you are interested in the keystone principles of dynamic phenomena in nature. From what concept in ecology do you take inspiration for your approach to this topic? 1

2 L. Orlóci: During my youth, we lived among the sand dunes and reed swamps of the Kunság in Hungary. The idea that nature is very changeable came to me early from experience. This view of nature was reinforced in high school where I was first taught elements of a succession theory. As a university student in Forest Engineering at Sopron and in graduate school at the University of British Columbia, I had the good fortune to have professors like Ferenc Tuskó and Vladimir J. Krajina who kept my interests high in the subject. A critical moment came when my graduate co supervisor, Wilfred Schofield, a young professor at that time, suggested to me that my English writing would benefit from a graduate reading course, which he was willing to direct. He wrote down titles in chronological order. I had to read one or two each week and write a critique, which Wilf corrected. He worked so hard with me. I cannot thank him enough for it. The titles on his list were heavily from the area of dynamic ecology, starting with Kerner von Marilaun's "Das Pflanzen Leben der Donaulander" (1863) in H. S. Conard's marvellous translation (1951). We progressed to the American classics, highlighted by F. E. Clements and H. A. Gleason, and went on to A. S. Watt's "Pattern and Process in plant communities" (1947). The list also included R. Margalef's "Information theory in ecology" (1958), and very consequentially for my career, P. Greig-Smith's "Quantitative ecology" (1957). I went on to study with Peter Greig- Smith in Bangor, North Wales, in He became my postdoctoral mentor and also an instigator for broader interest in the conceptual 2

3 tools of understanding natural communities. I returned to dynamic ecology years later, a decade or so ago, when I could not find anything in the literature about the determination of transition probabilities in time series of the type such as survey type vegetation data, the kind of which mountains are available stashed away on selves and in electronic files. I had to design my own technique. Thereafter, my involvement in the subject snowballed, not the least by the necessity of having had to keep up with my graduate students. P. Kovar: Modern ecology in various periods accented such themes in the relation among organisms as competition, predation, and so forth. Recently, a very frequently used term is facilitation. By your opinion, what kinds of relations prevail in nature and in what extent do they affect the process of speciation? L. Orlóci: If we associate modern ecology with the concept of "facilitation", then clearly we are dating modern dynamic ecology from the publication of Kerner von Merilaun's "Das Pflanzenleben der Donauländer". It was in this work that Kerner outlines the theory of connectedness between successive communities in a site. Kerner's method would be called now as a "space-for-time substitution". I believe, Kerner is the first to connect space with time and to come up with the doctrine of plant community development. Kerner's causes reappear under disguise in Clements' list of causes, most notably as action/reaction, and in Connel and Slatyer's list, most notable as facilitation. 3

4 What is the effect of specific mechanisms such as facilitation, competition, and predation on speciation? It has to be seen in the broader context of the isolating mechanisms, environmental stress, and chance-driven events that are capable of altering the genetic structure in populations. It has to be remembered that environmental stress can lead to the rise of new species and also to the extinction of species. These are processes on different time scales. Furthermore, during times of high environmental stress, such as now, the balance is tipped toward extinctions. The extinction rate now may exceed thousands of times Wilson's background extinction rate. It is true that the biota has always bounced back from the brink through geological times. But knowing this offers little comfort to the human race "in the now". I chance suggesting that the general readership of Ziva may find Thomas Berry's "The Dream of the Earth" informative and also fascinating reading on the topic. P. Kovar: Recently a theoretical article appeared in the journal Ecology by R. V. O Neil under the title Is it time to burry the ecosystem concept? (Ecology 82/ , pp ). It caused discussions about the development of ecological paradigms. Do you feel also the need to substitute the concept of ecosystem by another one? L. Orlóci: What is being suggested is not to discard a concept, only to think, a little more. As is usually the case with ecological concepts, on closer examination one discovers two things about them: they are usually not completely consistent with reality, yet they are applied as if they were. Somebody is bound to come along who feels badly 4

5 about the confusion and suggests renovation. This is exactly what is happening now with the ecosystem concept. But surely, there is nothing terribly new in what is being proposed. All agree that the observer's scale affects what the observer sees. All agree also that incorporation of the notion of scale in theories and observations about Nature, and particularly, in designs of interventions such as conservation, and reconstruction, is the prudent thing to do. Notwithstanding the objections expressed in the abstract, I do not feel too badly about the continued use of the term "ecosystem" in ecological parlance. This term is well established in colloquial language. It encapsulates a mode in which one looks at Nature. I agree with my colleague Bill Fyfe, a foremost earth scientist in Canada, when he explains that after a century of wonders, we as scientists realise that it is time to move from knowledge to wisdom. It is now time for holistic science, a mode of thinking so much attuned with an ecosystem view of the world around us. P. Kovar: In my country, twelve years after the political change from communism to democracy, ecology is still having problems in being accepted as science by the political leaders, mostly technocrats who perceive only green movements, and consider ecological thought as a restrictive factor of the market economy. Very similar discrediting phrases we heard from the communist regime. I think Canada observes high ecological ethical standards in everyday life. L. Orlóci: I am familiar with the attitude. Political leaders tend to take comfort in industry's views about ecological matters. Take for example the issue surrounding the Kyoto protocol. Industry is 5

6 opposed to it, reasoning that if global warming is already an ongoing process, as most now believe it is, it cannot be stopped, and the limited positive effect with Kyoto is out of proportion with the costs to industry. Industry believes that it will be cheaper to pay after the damage is done, then to pay for prevention. Countries, including also Canada, who have to date refused to ratify Kyoto, have found comfort in B. Lonborg's suggestion ("The Economist", Agust 4, 2001, p. 63; "Time" April 9, 2001, page 32) that CO 2 does not need to be stabilised. He thinks the process will right itself without an intervention. Of course it will. But no one has shown that it will actually happen that way at a level and in time not to be overly disruptive to the functioning of modern society. In fact, there is no assurance that the process will not be enormously destructive. As regards the payment for the damage after the fact, it does not strike me as a particularly feasible option. There is a distinct possibility of no economy will have been left standing by that time in a good enough shape to pick up the tab. How to combat misguided political attitudes under a democratic system of government? through voting and education. The Canadian story of the last 4 or so decades is a good example of this. Since I landed on these shores in 1957, a new generation grew up, well informed about ecological issues and active politically. Their rumbling about Kyoto did not stop. As a result, the government's stance on Kyoto is likely to be modified in the near future. 6

7 P. Kovar: You have experience in the tropical areas of the world you have spent much time in Hawaii and elsewhere. This February you participated in the IAVS Symposium in Brasil. Do you have special reasons? L. Orlóci: Hawaii has been a second home to Márta and me. My involvement in cooperative research and graduate teaching at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is long standing. I am somewhat familiar with the tropics in East Africa and more so with those in South America. I have strong ties to the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre where you met me at the IAVS Symposium. P. Kovar: What role do you think such journals as Ziva have in the perception of biology, or science in general, among the people? L. Orlóci: Journals of popular science, like Ziva, have an important educational role. Paraphrasing Bill Fyfe, literacy, numeracy and sciency, equally, for every male and female of all ages are indispensable, now. Science education is not something you do later. In fact, the public's understanding of science is considered so important that at Oxford they have an endowed chair for it. It is held by Richard Dawkins, the author of such classics as the Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden and other very fine books. Dawkins' understanding of science is so complete and his writing so clear that he makes the lay reader feel "like an accomplished scientist". 7