Science communication and mycorrhizae fungi:
More alike than we thought

Wait, what am I reading? So, science communication and fungi are similar? The internet indeed has become a strange place. 

 

Well, it wasn’t until I read through Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running that I realized science communication is the mycelium of scientists.  

 

But it’s not just any fungi. I’m talking about mycorrhizae fungi. These fungi live in the soil and many of us don’t even know that they exist. But in an ecosystem, they play a crucial role.

 

They help supply nutrients to where they are needed. They have the potential to help ecosystems form more resilient communities, inform about potential risks or opportunities, and form unthought partnerships that create win-win situations. Like between a tree and a rock, but let’s get to that later.

 

But this is exactly what the field of environmental communication is doing. So, when I talk of environmental communication, I mean science communication focused on environmental aspects. This article gives you an idea of why environmental communication is increasingly important and explains it by using the allegory of mycorrhizae fungi.

 

So, unless you are an environmental communications expert who specializes in mycorrhizal fungi, read on. You’ll get a chance to learn 5 new aspects of either science communication or why mycorrhizal fungi are important. 

Drawing of communication and fungi: A connection between a mushroom, a tree and a megaphone to symbolise the information flow.

Environmental communication and fungi: science is still exploring their potential

The first thing that comes to my mind about the relationship is that environmental communication and fungi (not only mycorrhizae) are not yet fully explored by scientists. 

 

 

Although mycorrhizal fungi have an immense potential to contribute to resolving environmental crises, they are not the priority when it comes to research. There’s a great number of fungi that have not yet been described by science. 

 

 

Similarly, the field of environmental communication is only now becoming a pioneering activity of scientists. Especially in the context of covid-19, many people realize now how important good science communication is. Because people want and need to know what is going on so that they can make their own well-informed decisions.

 

 

This of course also applies to the field of environmental sciences. What can we do about climate change? Or how can we stop the 6th mass extinction?

 

 

The in-depth scientific scrutiny of mycorrhizal fungi can bring benefits to the planet in forms that were previously not even thought of. The fungi form vast networks that connect multiple organisms in vast areas underground. These networks then establish relationships that benefit the whole ecosystem.

 

 

Similarly, environmental communication strives to facilitate environmental change. But like mycorrhizal fungi, it doesn’t receive enough attention from scientific institutes.

 

Researchers work day in, day out on their complex research agendas but their results often don’t reach the areas, where they can have the most impact. Our scientific ecosystem lacks mycorrhizal fungi so to say.

Unthought partnerships and systems thinking

That is why mycorrhizae and environmental communication tap into unthought, yet beneficial partnerships. 

 

 

Take the mycorrhizal network for example. Mycorrhizae can mine minerals out of rocks and bring them to the plants that benefit from this extraction.

 

Minerals then fuel other vital processes like enriching the soil or photosynthesis in plants. By establishing these unthought partnerships, plants can for instance benefit from the minerals stuck in rocks.

 

Ink drawing of untought partnerships for communication and fungi: mycorrhiza attached to rocks and roots.

Similarly, scientists can benefit from environmental communicators. Although the analogy of rocks is rather ‘hard’, scientific knowledge is more than often too.

 

Environmental communicators can ‘extract’ the information from the scientists and help tailor it in such ways that it reaches the intended audience and enables it to act upon it. 

EXAMPLE BOX:

Don’t get confused here, our allegory meets practice but it draws a nice example

Say a scientist would find a clever, natural solution for filtration of agricultural runoff water using mycorrhizal fungi. Unless communicated well to the people that can directly employ these solutions, people will not tap into mycology to improve their farming practices. 

Reach unchartered territories

When it comes to evolution, most likely if it wasn’t for mycorrhizal fungi, plants would not adapt to life on land. Fungi attaching to the roots of plants have enabled this step. 

 

About 500 million years ago, when plants were able to move from water to land, fungi assisted them with obtaining essential nutrients that are not as prevalent on land as they are in the water. If it wasn’t for this partnership, life would probably have remained restricted to water. 

 

Likewise, the field of environmental communication offers an exploration of new unchartered territories. Environmental communication can spark discussions about solutions for distant areas that suffer from human activity elsewhere. 

 

Take for instance the thawing permafrost in the tundra. Through communicating climate change, scientists eager to find the cause identified large amounts of methane escaping from lands that are supposed to be preserved in ice holding this greenhouse gas in.

 

Furthermore, there are scientists or even ecological activists that explore this unchartered territory and try to find solutions to the climate crises.

 

Some say we need to rewild the world, some advocate for introducing policies that change the behavior of people across the planet. Wouldn’t improving environmental communication help us accelerate explorations of these issues? 

Opportunities and threats

Both environmental communication and mycorrhizal fungi promote an exchange of information. They both warn of opportunities and threats to the environment. 

 

 

Mycorrhizal fungi inform trees and plants about dangers coming from afar or initiate a call for help. Trees, for example, use fungi to trigger chemical defense mechanism that alerts predators for pests threatening a forest. 

 

 

Similarly, environmental communication can motivate people to respond to certain environmental dangers. By receiving environmental information people can adapt their habits or push policies as a response to an environmental threat. 

Greenwashing and efficiency

But honest environmental communication as well mycorrhizal fungi are both under the attack of greed for more on the account of the environment. 

 

Fungi and environmental communication both struggle with the humans’ call for more. Increasing efficiency through fertilizers puts fungi out of the game the same way dishonest marketing threatens environmental communication.

 

 

Drawing of communication and fungi representing fertilised land, which kills fungi and communication.

As companies hopped on the train of environmental communication promoting more consumption, they embark on a dangerous path that is just a means of an end. Promoting the environment to sell more often borders with greenwashing practices. 

 

Over-fertilizing or greenwashing – both means of obtaining more for less on the account of the environment threatens both, environmental communication and mycorrhizal fungi. 

5 things you learned about environmental communication and mycorrhizal fungi

Since you managed to read all the way here you must be intrigued about how anything we do is similar to nature.

 

 

But to sum up:

1) environmental communication and the fungi kingdom need more attention from science because…

2) Both can massively benefit society and our environment.

Moreover, 3) both have the potential to tap into previously unexplored fields and bring about change from exploring new ideas.

4) Environmental communication and mycorrhizal fungi enable an exchange of information that benefits the environment.

5) But if replaced by greed both may suffer from short-sighted alternatives.