Q&A: Jim Carlton, ecologist/biologist 

When Jim Carlton was 14, he found an exotic specimen in San Francisco Bay, and his whole life changed. No, he wasn't an instant celebrity, but he had found his life's passion: ecology.

Now a professor of marine science, Carlton devotes his professional life to studying the relationships between organisms and their environments. And like the other 3,000 ecologists who gathered last week at the Cook Convention Center for the 91st annual Ecological Society of America meeting, Carlton is concerned. He recently took a class to New Orleans to study how Hurricane Katrina affected the nearby bayous, coastal areas, and barrier islands, and said what he saw was sobering. Louisiana is disappearing underwater at the rate of about 18 football fields of land a day due to inadequate levees and to hurricanes fueled by climate change.

The Flyer talked with Carlton to get his prescription for a healthier environment.

-- by Shea O'Rourke

Flyer: How does the Memphis heat make you feel about global warming?

Jim Carlton: (laughs) It's nice and toasty here.

What should we learn from Katrina?

It's a challenge to build on the fragile edge. The land is sinking, and the sea is rising. The most recent study indicates that hurricanes are increasing because of global warming. It's a tricky thing, yet we appreciate and know that this is where people live.

Why should George Bush -- or anyone -- care about the declining habitats of species he's never heard of?

Politicians need to understand the economic links to all this -- that as we mess with the environment, public health is affected. The economy is affected. Quality of life is affected. Even down to the level of the little nematode [worm], these are signals of environmental change. If I see something changing in a little bayou, it's probably a harbinger of things to come.

Environmental awareness seems to be a rising trend: Is green the new black?

Being green is getting greener, so it remains a very popular goal -- especially among industry, because they think if they're greener they'll have more customers. ExxonMobil and Shell want to look green whether they're green or not, so yeah, I think it's certainly part of a much larger environmental movement. No question about it. There are more people today interested and concerned about the environment than ever before, and I don't think it's going to go away.

What can the average person actually do?

I think citizen involvement is incredibly important. If you go on a hiking trip or to a lake, you'll never meet a scientist. The eyes and ears of the public are extremely important in letting us know what's going on. The public thinks that scientists know what's going on, but in fact, the first reports of exotic species are often from a fisherman or a hiker, someone who's lived in the same area all their lives and sees something that they've never seen before. So I encourage the public to be very proactive, beyond just writing a letter to your congressman, which most people will not do. They think it has no effect, but in fact, it does.

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