Frank Golley’s international perspective on the need for environmental ethics in tropical rainforest ecosystem research
A central concept in Frank Golley’s perspective of ecology was that of "connectedness". He emphasized that humans are part of the ecosystem and have ethical responsibilities to consider all the components that constitute total value to society as well as to the natural world. Human-centeredness of intrinsic values was insufficient; everything has value, independent of human values. This perspective on the importance of stewardship of biodiversity and cultural diversity led him to organize many research projects and conferences with an international network of colleagues. Several research projects beginning in the late 1960's focused on the importance of understanding how people were functionally, emotionally, and spiritually connected to the remarkable diversity of tropical ecosystems. He worked to provide essential information that led to reconsideration of major projects that were not adequately science-based in their analysis of environmental impacts. One example is the lack of understanding inherent in the proposed sea-level canal that was part of Project Plowshare, an idea that nuclear explosions could be used to excavate a new canal through Darien, Panama. His research and that of others led to rejection of this plan.
The research that changed this decision to build a new sea-level canal through Darien initiated a period of recognition that tropical ecosystems are complex and that indigenous people played essential roles that could not be ignored or under-valued. Today, this recognition is widespread but not yet fully understood. Large projects that never happened can provide timely lessons, especially in trans-disciplinary research. Golley stressed the necessity to learn from each other about previous mistakes and misunderstandings. His writings over several decades on tropical biology, ecosystem science, the history of ecology, development of environmental ethics, and environmental literacy are essential reading. His views influenced many hundreds of students and colleagues. Current concerns over the impacts of a new inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua are one more example of the need for ecologists to work with social scientists to emphasize connectedness in tropical ecosystems. Golley demonstrated the importance of international collaboration and the value of comprehensive, long-term studies prior to undertaking large initiatives that have inter-generational consequences for people and the natural world.