Biodiversity and Hollywood: A Fashionable Intersection

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What would your favorite science-fiction movie be without the costumes? Most likely it would not be your favorite movie.

Fashion and costume choices set the stage for some of cinema’s most memorable moments. But what are movie sets made out of? Where was the cotton used to make the leading lady’s pants harvested? These questions can be explained by delving into the science of biodiversity.

Chase Mendenhall is a doctoral candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Stanford University. He explores the trade-offs between the conservation of biodiversity and farming by closely monitoring bird and bat populations that inhabit farmland in Costa Rica.

He is also one of two speakers who will be attending the Science Café at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 17, 2012, at the Koshland Science Museum in Washington, DC.

The Exchange: We are all very excited about the upcoming Science Café on Wednesday night; could you give us a little preview of what you will be speaking about?
Chase Mendenhall: It’s a pretty broad topic that we’ll be tackling here, and it’s also one that we still don’t know a lot about. My main focus of research is to gain a better understanding of what biodiversity really is, what eco systems are, and also a general framework for how we can evaluate them moving forward. That’s sort of my main goal, to get people to understand what biodiversity truly is. 

In a few words, how would you describe the concept of biodiversity?
The term biodiversity was coined by E.O. Wilson and it gives a broad definition of things that we should value in nature. What we have come to a consensus on is that biodiversity is nature. One of the main ways I explain biodiversity is by including humans in the definition and also to move beyond the species concept. So rather than looking at biodiversity specifically as species, we look at it as the interactions of different ecosystems. Biodiversity is a really big, heavy term to express all of the things that we don’t understand about nature.

How does biodiversity affect our daily lives?
If you actually look around you at all of the materials you use, all of the things you use on a daily basis, the things that bring you happiness, in one way or another, they come from a natural eco system. Something to keep in mind is that all of the products around us in one way or another come from the biosphere. It’s hugely important, from what we eat, to the materials we use to build our homes, the fibers in our clothing, and the synthetic materials we derive them from, you can usually trace their origins back to somewhere in the biosphere.

Fashion, and the fibers used to make clothing, play a huge role in the movies and Hollywood, does biodiversity play a role in that industry?
The fashion industry drives our interest, and conversely conservation goals, for charismatic birds for their feathers, and mammals for their pelts. The cotton industry and many other fiber crops depend on wildlife for their success. For example, the cotton industry has recently been made aware of the vital importance bats play in keeping cotton’s major pest at bay; cotton bullworm moths. In fact, recent studies have shown that the Mexican free-tailed bats save U.S. farmers more a billion in U.S. dollars annually by acting as “nature’s pesticide” and keep the fashion industry supplied with natural cotton.

[Learn more about the intersection of fashion and biodiversity, here

The textile industry seems to be very reliant on functioning ecosystems, what can the fashion and textile industries do to make sure these delicates systems are protected? 
The fashion industry is a great model for environmentalists to use because of its ability to communicate and change behavior using positive and aesthetic incentives, rather than inciting apocalyptic incentives to effect change. I think the fashion industry and many of the arts draw huge amounts of inspiration from nature as well as provide raw materials, dyes, and cultural importance for many aesthetics popular in the global fashion industry.

[See what the United Nations is doing to promote fashion and biodiversity, here

Anything else you would like to add? |
I think one of the most important things that I want to bring home tomorrow night is the understanding that an ecosystem and biodiversity isn’t necessarily just Yosemite National Park or the Great Barrier Reef, one of these iconic natural landscapes. The vast majority of ecosystems are the ones that contain humans, cityscapes and seascapes; places where humans are an integral part of nature. I want people to take away the idea that biodiversity and ecosystems are not some mythical and far-removed artifact of a past life, but they are something we live with on a day-to-day basis. 

For more information, or to purchase tickets for the Science Café, please visit the Koshland Science Museum website.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.