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Science Chronicles July 2014: Working


Editor's Note

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a
Monday through Friday sort of dying.” — Studs Terkel.
The current debate over conservation is sometimes presented as a debate over its
very soul. The merits of the various sides, and there are many more than two, will not be further explored here. But there is one area of agreement so fundamental that hardly anyone on either side ever mentions it, because it seems almost banal: conservation is a uniquely human endeavor, to be grandiose, but for many of us it is also both far simpler and far more powerful. It is a chosen career, a passion, a life’s ambition, and a daily slog of the most mundane sort. We bear the costs of that labor (construing costs in narrow terms) and reap its rewards in the same way as any of the laborers whose stories the writer Studs Terkel captured in his oral history, Working. It is in that spirit that this issue of Science Chronicles focuses even more explicitly than usual on some of the people carrying out conservation, at its highest levels and as close to the ground as can be imagined.
The articles in this issue offer, I hope, a range of insights into how conservation works, including some from people who would never consider themselves conservationists. Consider, for example, the village headman in Jeff Opperman’s article about dams on the Mekong River. His daily concerns do not explicitly include conservation, yet he will unquestionably reap the benefits and suffer the consequences of either its failure or its success. The scene in the headman’s home, an encounter between two markedly different visions of conservation, is drama of the highest sort.
Matt Miller offers an example of a far different though perhaps more familiar drama, the drama that conservationists in the field see and feel every day. The unnerving contrast between routine problem-solving and often profound physical challenges and the highest stakes
— the fate, perhaps, of an entire species — is rarely a part of public debates but it is the daily reality of conservation science.
The confrontation of the mundane and the exalted, so common in conservation careers and unusual elsewhere, is clear and compelling in Sally Palmer’s moving appreciation of Dr. Elise Quarterman, a pioneer in both science and conservation. It is clear as well in the two profiles on offer here, of Walt Reid and TNC’s Brian Richter. All these practitioners represent a spectrum of experience and perspective that I trust will be recognizable and hence useful in carrying out the work of conservation. As ever, your perspectives are most welcome as well.

Jonathan Adams ( is a science writer and editor based in Maryland. Visit or follow him

Table of Contents: Working

3   Opperman: Shoot Out the Lights
7   Miller: Every Cat Counts
11  Profile: Walt Reid
14  Author Interview: Brian Richter
20  In Memoriam: Dr. Elise Quaterman
21  Drinking from the Fire Hose
23  Announcements
24  New Conservancy-Authored Publications