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A ‘Big Picture’ Ecologist: Hal Mooney

Stanford ecologist Hal Mooney was 18-years-old and taking a break from working as a “mess boy” aboard a Norwegian cargo ship when inspiration struck.

Hal Mooney

“I came across an article called ‘I was a plant hunter for the USDA,’ and thought ‘gee whiz, I’d like to be a plant biologist for the USDA,’” he recalls. “So I wrote that guy and asked what do I do? That’s what changed my life.”

Mooney, now considered one of the world’s preeminent experts on environmental sciences, had considered working in politics before that 1950 trip through the Panama Canal. But the natural world held more appeal for the Santa Rosa, Calif., native, who recently was honored with an Ecological Society of America seminar about the myriad ways he has advanced the science, practice and policy of ecology.

“Mooney is one of the pioneers in plant physiological ecology and has also focused on global change phenomena, such as ecological invasions, the loss of diversity and the degradation of ecosystems,” writes seminar organizer Richard J. Hobbs, an ecologist with the the University of Western Australia. Hobbs asked scholars to develop talks for the event that would  “collectively provide both inspiration and vision for a new generation of ecologists to follow in Hal Mooney’s footsteps.”

A reflection on one of the world’s preeminent environmental science experts.

Read Abstracts from Advances in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science: Building on the Work of Harold A. Mooney

The session brought together a global array of Mooney’s colleagues to examine the current “state of the science” and discuss ways scientists can build on the Stanford biology professor’s work over the past six decades.

“Dr. Mooney’s work has inspired generations of researchers and has transformed the way we view links between nature and society,” says Heather Tallis, Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation at The Nature Conservancy, one of the seminar speakers.

That transformation has hinged on the ability to observe, ask questions and see the natural world around us as one large, interconnected system. “That’s what I think ecology is about – seeing the bigger picture by looking at interactions of individual organisms, and how they create a healthy, functioning ecosystem,” says Mooney.

Mooney and his peers’ study of that dynamic has deepened understanding of biodiversity – the variety of life natural systems require to survive and thrive – and informed public policy around the world. Conservation and stewardship approaches have similarly been shaped by Mooney’s work on topics ranging from invasive species to ecosystem services – the benefits nature provides to society.

“Ecosystem services has gone from a largely unknown term to a widely influential concept with far reaching impact,” says U.C. Santa Cruz Professor Erika Zavaleta, one of Mooney’s former students and collaborators. “Dr. Harold Mooney has played a leading role in this transition, driving major analytical advances in relevant fields and connecting them to policy.”

Mooney’s research ranges from measuring how plants adapt to changing conditions to examining how human activities impact the Earth as a whole. He has led international research initiatives on global climate change, the effects of invasive species and methods for recognizing and assessing large-scale environmental problems on the horizon. His ability to facilitate collaboration and build consensus has been instrumental to the success of those efforts, colleagues say.

“Hal has been a major force in understanding the relationship of humans and the environment for almost 60 years now,” says another former student, Chris Field, a Stanford Earth professor who now serves as Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “His genuine talent is in bringing people together around big, important problems and having an output that’s bigger than any of the individuals thought was possible. He has really played a fundamental role in saying ‘look folks, this is something that will really make a difference and if we can organize our work to illustrate why it’s important it will open decades of study and policy and progress.’”

Mooney continues to collaborate with his peers and generate essential new resources, such as the comprehensive guide to California ecosystems he produced with co-editor Zavaleta and chapter submissions from 162 co-authors. Published in 2016, Ecosystems of California provides a definitive guide to the state’s diverse natural systems, and has a companion guide that provides policy recommendations for managing issues ranging from climate change to wildfire to forest health to water quality.

The book wouldn’t have happened without the support and contributions of Zavaleta and their peers, Mooney said.  “What’s wonderful about ecology is it’s not a competitive science. It’s more collaborative. Some science you can’t go into a lab because something is going on and the researchers don’t want you to know what’s happening. Ecology’s not like that at all. You may be working on a huge problem, but you can work together to do more and solve those problems.”

That collaborative, solutions focus is central to the education of young ecologists today, Mooney reflects.  “We’re training students not only to do great science but to actually think about the kind of science they do, and how it can help meet society’s needs.”

Mooney earned his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1960 and started as an assistant professor at UCLA that same year. In 1968 he was recruited to Stanford University, where he was later appointed the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology in the School of Humanities and Science’s Department of Biology. A senior fellow with the Stanford Woods Institute as well as the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Mooney has led a wide range of national and international scientific activities related to environment and conservation.  Notable roles included coordinating the 1995 Global Biodiversity Assessment, co-chairing the Assessment Panel of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, establishing and leading the Global Invasive Species Program and serving as lead review editor for the ongoing global assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. His many accolades and awards include the 1990 ECI Prize in terrestrial ecology, the 1992 Max Planck Research Award in biosciences, the 1996 Eminent Ecologist Award from the Ecological Society of America, the 2000 Nevada Medal, the 2002 Blue Planet Prize, the 2007 Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology, the 2008 Tyler Prize, the 2008 BBVA Foundation Award for Biodiversity Conservation, and the 2010 Volvo Environment Prize. 

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