Why I Blog
It is impossible to explain in 140 characters the interactions and unexpected results happening in complex urban ecosystems. That’s what I thought when I was deciding whether to open a Twitter account or start a blog (after some months I did both). My initial goal in using social media was to generate discussion about ecology with a public that only thinks about nature when it is watching the Discovery Channel. But the final trigger for starting my blog, Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles, was the construction of a highway that destroyed the last remaining lowland woods in western Mexico City.
Being against a highway was counterintuitive in a society that considers any construction progress. Many friends asked me why I opposed it. Congestion in Mexico City has been getting steadily worse: in only one decade the average speed of cars dropped from 28 km/h to 18 km/h. This is not surprising, given that the number of cars increases by 250,000 every year.
The “driver-class,” which accounts for only 20% of Mexico City’s population but is very powerful, saw the highway as a good solution to the traffic problem. There seemed to be no consideration of its effect on urban ecology – even among those in charge of environment. The local Minister of Environment, upset about our defense of the lowland woods, frequently made statements to the press such as “they [opponents of the project] consider these areas as important as the Amazonian rain forest.”
I used to spend hours explaining how the highway would exacerbate water scarcity (Mexico City’s main water supply is an aquifer that is overexploited 100%, and the highway will expand urbanization on infiltration areas) and flooding (the highway changed the course of two rivers and increased the speed of the water to the lowlands during storms). I also pointed out that it wouldn’t solve the traffic problem, because it creates incentives to use cars (a phenomenon known as “induced traffic”).
In these discussions I found that people from Mexico City did not consider themselves to be part of an ecosystem. As a society we think that the city is isolated from nature. If we think of nature at all, it’s as a frightening force that inundates large lowland areas during big storms. Our response is to fight back with technology and concrete, isolating us further from nature. Conservation must be done only in areas far away from the cities…. and from Mexico, thereby removing us from our responsibility for the environment.
I realized that there needed to be a public conversation to address these assumptions. I decided to start a blog, with the goal of convincing people that we live in a complex, dynamic ecosystem — and that in Mexico City, this ecosystem is a lake.
Blogging for Systemic Change: A Few Simple Rules
In working toward my goal of public engagement, I start from the premise that anyone should be able to read Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles. I avoid technical words and illustrate complex concepts with examples that are easy to understand. Looking to re-connect people with nature, I write about how many rivers there are in the city; how these rivers can be restored; why trees are important for the quality of life; which types of animals (besides dogs, cats and pigeons) live in the city (with an emphasis on the amphibian I work with, the axolotl, which is endemic in the south part of Mexico City); and how ecosystems (including urban ecosystems) work in a nonlinear way. Because ecosystem dynamics are not isolated from human activities, I also explore concepts such as socio-ecosystem. Policymakers play an important role in these systems, since their decisions may change the quality of life of people for decades.
Although I don’t have a strict publication schedule, I adhere to some basic editorial standards designed to maintain readership. For example:
- There are at least 15 days between posts
- Posts are between 700 and 1000 words
- Longer posts are divided in two
- Most posts have at least one image to illustrate a key idea
- I only delete readers’ comments if they are sexist, racist, or particularly aggressive
- After publishing a new post, I promote it over the next few days via Twitter, Facebook, and an email list. Each channel reaches a different audience.
These are a few of the practices I’ve developed as an ecologist who blogs. In my next post, I’ll share what I’ve learned from blogging and reflect on rewards and challenges that may be of interest to other researchers who are thinking about starting a blog.
Luis Zambrano, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor at the Institute of Biology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He now directs the Reserva Ecológica del Pedregal de San Ángel, a volcanic reserve within the main campus of the University. Follow him on Twitter at @ZambranoAxolote.