I recently met with the regional vice president of one of the major residential developers in Florida. We had some issues to iron out about the neighborhood for which I am an HOA board member. I was wearing my face mask the whole time that has my campaign logo on it, so it came up that I was running for a seat on the Volusia Soil and Water Conservation District. He said, “Oh, it’s good to actually know somebody running for that; I usually just ask my engineer friends who I should vote for for the ‘bugs and bunnies committee’.”
My feelings don’t get hurt too easily now after a lifetime of putting myself out there and being unapologetically honest about my views in nearly any situation. But, this “bugs and bunnies” remark really annoyed me, particularly coming from a guy who has no more imagination for home building than a you’d find in a Monopoly board game. Since my mid-20s when I started studying Plant and Ecosystem Ecology—a branch of Biology—as a graduate student, I have resisted being labeled an “environmentalist” because that term seems to come with a connotation of being a tree-hugger, or worse, a “bugs and bunnies lover.” Don’t get me wrong—I think most insects are pretty cool and essential, and wild rabbits also serve an important role in some ecosystems. But, I always wanted to be viewed first and foremost as a scientist rather than an activist. Activists do really important work to build awareness about their issues, but sometimes their energy is misguided when it isn’t firmly grounded in science.
As I moved through my career as a scientist and educator, and particularly after I became a mom, I eventually expanded my belief about the roles I had to play in society. Scientists need to speak out in general public settings in clear language about the issues they are experts in. While we presumably maintain objectivity in the process of doing our science and in sharing scientific results in peer-reviewed journals, there is no reason why we shouldn’t take positions on environmental or political issues when the scientific consensus is clear. And there is no reason why we shouldn’t run for office to get a seat at the table where decisions are being made that OUGHT to be grounded in science. Thus, I have resolved that tension about being a scientist and an activist. I CAN be both.
I am also half-way through earning an M.B.A. That’s another false dichotomy I want to challenge: that one must choose between what is good for business and what is good for the environment. Protecting the environment is often good for business and for people. This is what we mean when we refer to the triple bottom line (or, 3-Es) of Sustainability: Environmental Protection, Economic Prosperity, and Social Equity. A developer that protects 20% of the land as a conservation area rather than building out every square foot of their lot can attract a higher price for the homes from people who want to live near natural areas, and reduce infrastructure costs and impact fees elsewhere in the development by maintaining natural stormwater capture, treatment and recharge. An HOA that prioritizes Florida Friendly landscaping can support greater biodiversity while saving money on irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide applications. A homeowner who conserves water and energy or who switches to onsite renewable energy appliances can save a substantial amount of money on their monthly utility bill. Sustainability is good business, and more and more people are looking for it and happy to find products, homes, and neighborhoods that offer this as a value-added feature.
So, maybe the Soil and Water Conservation District is viewed as the “bugs and bunnies committee” by some, but the leadership role we have to play across Volusia County can be to promote and support science-based solutions to environmental challenges that are good for the environment, good for people, and good for business. Vote for me, and I will bring that vision, energy, and ethic to our work.