Lessons from the Blogosphere: Rewards and Challenges

EUS_screenshotIn my last post, I wrote about why I blog and how I do it. Here are a few observations and reflections on rewards and challenges I’ve experienced in writing my blog, Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles, over the past two and a half years.

Finding My Voice and Reaching My Audience

We live in a political crisis in Mexico. Corruption and conflicts of interest between construction companies and decision-makers are common. Exposés of these practices, even those supported by videos and other documentation, are merely daily scandals that succumb to other scandals. They haven’t produced any structural change or even a legal process for redress.

Consequently, it is impossible to take a neutral approach in talking about ecosystem management within Mexico City, particularly when there is intense economic pressure to urbanize the last natural areas. My experience is that an isolated scientific approach on an issue in which there are many political and economic interests is ignored and misused. It is not possible to generate information and make statements as if scientists were objective analyzers working from the outside. This is why some of the posts published on Ecosistemas Urbanos Sostenibles navigate from solely scientific information to statements about ecological management in cities. This relationship between political statements and academic explanations is dangerous, because it is difficult for the public to separate one focus from the other. I don´t know whether this has affected my credibility as a scientist. But I still think it worth the risk, considering the urban-ecological interaction we are facing now. As a scientist I generate information that can be used for policy making. I have a responsibility to share it with society so that everybody understands the costs and benefits of each action.

Blogging has connected me with different stakeholders in the city and within my university in new ways. It has led to meetings with members of local government, who asked my opinion about management of the city’s wetland, Xochimilco; with conservationists who wanted to discuss strategies for restoring a river; with academics from other fields (including an urbanist, an economist, and an engineer); and with the federal government. The only sector that has not been interested seems to be the construction industry.

Xochimilco

Xochimilco

Observations and Reflections

My blog gets about 1100 hits per month. In tracking its performance, I’ve learned that posts with strong statements about environmental management are read more than those with outstanding scientific information. A mix of science and opinion seems to work in inspiring people from different fields to read about ecology.

Nevertheless, the post with the most hits on my blog — it received close to 10,000 in 15 days — is about police repression of a peaceful demonstration that took place in front of my house. This is not a post about ecology or environmental management, but a post showing how the local government violates human rights of people who disagree with its environmental policy. That post was the only way of responding the local government’s physical aggression toward me, my wife, and our colleagues, and it helped to show the city other views besides the official ones.

After 61 posts in two and a half years it also is clear that a love of writing is the engine of blogging. My blog has given me many academic, social, and political satisfactions, but what I enjoy most about it is writing about complex systems. It naturally fits into my schedule in one way or another, and I don’t mind writing posts on Sunday afternoons (as I am doing this one). Unless I loved it, other activities would always come first, and I would never have time to write a sentence.

Luis Zambrano, a 2008 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor at the Instituto de Biología 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.

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Leopold Leadership 3.0 will be back in early January after a holiday break.

Lessons from the Blogosphere: An Ecologist’s Perspective

Why I Blog 

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Mexico City’s new highway

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.”

Trees felled during construction

The highway obliterated many large trees

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.

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City park condemned for highway construction

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.