As a conservation biologist researching biodiversity in the Amazon Rain Forest, Professor of Biology, Miles Silman, has been a de facto part of the sustainability movement since beginning work on his doctorate nearly two decades ago. Yet he admits that he “just didn’t get it” until a confluence of events made him see his research and human impact on the planet in a new light.
“When I came to the university in the fall of 1998, I was working on species distribution and biodiversity in the Amazon, but I never connected it with the wide-scale events that are happening in the world,” he said. “It’s hard for people to connect the things that they work on with these larger processes.”
In 2002, at a 50,000 year-old lake in the Peruvian Amazon, Silman and his colleagues constructed the past climate of the lake through examination of the changing biodiversity as seen in the fossil record. The biodiversity of the lake had changed in synchrony with the climate for millions of years. If species diversity changes were to keep up with projected climate change patterns, species would have to migrate 30 times faster than they had in the past. The results of this research were published in Science and were used to brief Senator John McCain in 2004 for the senate hearings on climate.
Around the same time, Silman and his wife, Alycia, moved to a small farm in Yadkin County, NC where they raised cows, chickens, pigs and goats. Here, they tried to live Silman’s personal take on sustainability: “living in the world, but not using it up.”
It was in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, far from the exotic Amazon rainforest he’d dreamed of exploring as a child, that Silman had the most profound and simple realization, “Animals eat, and that eating has consequences” he said. “And changing anything about an ecosystem – trees, plants, animals, temperature, water – the system changes.”
The realization brought his personal commitment to sustainable farming and his professional career as a leading conservation biologist together in a new way. His research focus shifted to species response to climate change. Together with a group of sustainability-minded faculty, he helped found the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (CEES) last fall. The interdisciplinary center promotes critical thinking and effective action across the fields of renewable energy, biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, environmental policy, human behavior, social influence, enterprise, and environmental markets.
His work as the center’s director has furthered his understanding of the systemic nature of the sustainability movement. “I now see the other facets,” he said. “I’m still dense about parts of it, but the CEES faculty members are all exploring different angles on the same problems. Coming from a science background, I have a natural interest in energy and technology, but we can have all the science and technological solutions possible and it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand people. Realizing that has been the most important thing for me.”
When not conducting research and working with CEES, Silman spends much of his time communicating the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability to his students in the classroom and on field studies to the Andes. Through his courses, he tries to convey a message: “What you do matters. Be engaged; there are many different ways to be engaged. There is not one way to be sustainable,” he said. “But whatever you do, wherever you do it, you have to be mindful.”
By Caitlin Brooks, Wake Forest Fellow