Ecologists as rock stars? Oh how I wish it were so…

The annual meeting of the British Ecology Society last week was unusual in a couple of ways: it was held in France, as a joint meeting with Societé Française d’Écologie; and, for the first time since I started going in the late 1990s, I wasn’t there. Rather than throw an almighty sulk about the injustice of this, I followed #BESSfe on Twitter as best I could, and felt I got a reasonable flavour of the conference - minus the hangovers, as an added bonus. For the most part, the tweets complied to the standard model for an academic meeting, with nuggets of useful information and plugs for new papers interspersed with Christmas jumper selfies and tales of boozing and carousing. All good stuff. But one morning a flurry of missives appeared all claiming some kind of affinity between ecologists and rock stars. I’m not sure of the context of this, and I’m sure it made sense at the time, but from this side of la Manche (and for the purposes of the straw man I wish to construct…) it provided what our glorious leader might call a genuine Lots Of Love moment. Let me tell you something. Over the years I have become reasonably proficient at a number of things, ecology (I hope) being one. But there are only two activities at which I think I might have got close to being exceptional. The first of these - catching a tennis ball rebounded at terrifying velocity off a fiendishly uneven stone wall - has not proved as marketable as I hoped through the 1990s whilst putting in my Gladwellian 10,000 hours (although I occasionally still impress myself, at least, with an astonishing reflex catch when playing with the kids). The second is songwriting. Nothing would please me more than to believe that, despite the lack of recording contract and adoring fan base that I once dreamt of (OK, still do; of course I still do), I had somehow ended up in the rockstar career I craved. But I so haven’t. As one of my undergraduate project students told me the other day, “I found the data collection really repetitive and boring”. Rock’n’roll.

Don’t get me wrong: with the failure of all my early ambitions in sport, music, cowboying, spaceflight, and so on, I’m pretty content to have ended up in the job that I have. And I think it’s important to communicate to kids that scientific research is an acievable, creative, satisfying, and respected career option - a good aspiration, if you will, to rank alongside medicine, teaching, architecture, and so on. But let’s not rush to supplant ambitions of Jedi knighthood, world cup winning, or, you know, rock stardom, too soon.

However, the more I thought about this, the more I realised that the parallels between ecology and the music biz are actually pretty clear. To wit:

  • Incomprehensible veneration for old white dudes who were brilliant in their youth but have done nothing of worth in four decades or more, and who are now more likely to embarrass than entrance;
  • Obsession with scouring early and obscure work for an under-appreciated idea that could profitably be repackaged for a modern audience;
  • Equal opportunity routes to stardom. Except for women. Helps to be white too;
  • Cynical marketing of trivial ephemera frequently trumps genuine originality and talent;
  • Constant fretting over who should pay for the whole enterprise, and how these costs should be fairly divided between talent, administrators, publishers;
  • Purse strings and mainstream media coverage largely in the control of men who grew up in the 1970s and who are deeply suspicious of any innovations to have developed since then;
  • A deep distrust of the ‘mainstream’ from those preferring more obscure work; and vice versa;
  • A tradition of large gatherings once or twice a year, ostensibly to broaden one’s horizons and hear new stuff, but in reality an opportunity for intoxication whilst establishment figures rehash their greatest hits;
  • A very strong likelihood that, rather than basking in adoration from an arena stage, you will spend your career performing to small, largely uninterested audiences in stuffy rooms with bad acoustics;
  • The occasional feeling of something approaching transcendence, encouraging you to forgive the whole sorry business for all its faults and to struggle on for one more year…

Compiling this, it’s a thrill to realise that I have achieved everything I ever dreamed of, and I can put the guitars on ebay in the New Year…

Happy holidays!