Interview with Harold Mooney, August 11, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Harold Mooney was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1988-1989 and is a professor at Stanford University. In this interview, he discusses working with Dwight Billings, as well as his involvement with international science and public policy.

Interview notes

In high school, Hal was interested in politics. He went to UC-Berkeley with the idea of majoring in political science, but after a year or so he had to drop out of school for financial reasons. He applied for Naval ROTC as a way to pay for college, his color blindness disqualified him. He was interested in a little adventure and in need of earning money, so he managed to get on a Norwegian freighter as a mess boy, to see some of the world. He went around the tip of South America. The job was a lot of work for little pay, “shuffling a lot of dishes around,” but the trip was inspiring. seeing the Andes, and passing through the Panama Canal.

Hal got on another ship, an American ship, and was paid a lot more. After that trip he went back to school at a small college in California, the College of Morin. He had worked at a nursery for a while, was in the Boy Scouts, and did some camping in the Sierras. He read an article in Readers Digest about a plant hunter, which Hal thought would be fun. He took a botany course at College of Morin, which had a section on ecology, and found it compelling. He got into the UC system and noticed that C. H. Muller taught a course on plant ecology at UC-Santa Barbara, so he went there and became involved with botanists and ecologists. He also took field courses, including a summer at the Rocky Mountain Biological Station in Colorado. Harriett Barkley taught the course in Colorado which was a “fantastic course,” and she took a liking to Hal and encouraged him.  John Marr was there also, and Hal helped John set up some study areas. Alfred Johnson and Bill Osborne were also well-known ecologists there. Muller was a strong personality and took students to national meetings, so Hal got hooked in a big way at UC-Santa Barbara while still an undergraduate.

Hal was drafted during the Korean War. The Army saw that Hal had a chemistry course for biological warfare, but he didn’t pass security for that kind of work, so he went to advanced infantry training. He was ready to ship out from Pittsburgh, but his father became ill and he was given a deferment which he spent at the Presidio. Later he went to Germany, and then finished his degree at UC-Santa Barbara. 

With Muller, he learned about allelopathy and alternative explanations. Muller debunked the “chemical theory” initially, but he turned to supporting allelopathy by the time Hal returned after the Army.

George Sprugel at NSF was promoting graduate student education in ecology. They became acquainted and George encouraged Hal to go to Duke to work with Billings, and Hal did. He became interested in mountain ecology.

Early interests in plan physiological ecology

That happened while working with Billings, who started taking physiological measurements in the field. Paul Kramer told Billings about using gas analyzers in the field. Hal worked on a project “in the mountains,” even though Hal didn’t have much motivation to pursue physiological ecology at that time. He felt Billings and his students were involved with pioneering work.  Courses from Kramer and Aubrey Naylor were very good. “Kramer was inspirational.”

Billings taught a summer course at the University of Wyoming Science Camp in the Medicine Bow Mountains, and Hal went along and did his thesis there. Larry Bliss had just finished before Hal came. Hal studied carbohydrates in alpine plants for his M.S., and then for his Ph.D., he worked with alpine seeds collected from New Mexico to Alaska. He drove his personal car (a Studebaker) from the Rockies in the south up to the Alaskan tundra, traveling on the Alaskan Highway. His dissertation was on carbohydrates in plants collected along this latitudinal gradient.

John Kennedy was inspiring at the time. Hal was ready to get away from segregated North Carolina as soon as possible, but there were great students at Duke with whom he interacted.

Duke and Wisconsin were the only two places to go for plant ecology at the time.

There were no postdocs in those days, but he was offered a job at UCLA. At that time you didn’t go for interviews. It was “an interesting period.”  From UCLA he was close to desert research sites and he did a lot of field work. Early students included Boyd Strain. While at UCLA he did reciprocal transplant experiments at different elevations, and continued to do physiology in the field.

For his first sabbatical, he decided to look back at what Alexander von Humboldt had written about on convergent evolution and this led to comparing chaparral plants in California and Chile. By about that time, the International Biological Program started and Hal became involved. Frank Blair, an evolutionary biologist, was the director of the US program and organized a meeting in Venezuela. Hal was asked to go and the group decided to incorporate convergent evolution into IBP, which was focusing mostly on productivity of the biosphere. Hal mentions international colleagues with whom he worked during this time. They did a lot of research comparing the north and south, and that got him involved in international science. These people became lifelong friends and colleagues. The International Program for Invasive Species grew from that group. Hal helped with programs in Chili, South Africa, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere.

Other international relationships were spinoffs of this. The Cold War was underway, but scientists from opposing nations seemed above that and continued to work together.  The Nuclear Winter issue developed, with scientists from both sides working and communicating on the topic. The group was dedicated to free exchange of science and Hal felt the “power of international science was extraordinary.” He is still attracted to that. Later, after being selected for the National Academy of Science, he promoted the opportunities/power of working on science internationally.

Involvement in ESA and international science

Hal became a member early on and enjoyed going to meetings. He worked with the Western Section, and later he was elected president. At that time there was a big schism between those who wanted to be involved with political (environmental) issues and those who wanted to focus more on pure science. Hal talks about some of the attitudes of the early presidents, including “climate determinism.” That was controversial. For a while he felt that ESA wasn’t doing much when he became more involved, with too little involvement with environmental issues. 

Hal had been fortunate to interact with Bill Robertson of the Mellon Foundation, who Hal thinks is one of the most influential ecologists in the United States. Hal met him while Bill was a staff officer at the National Academy of Sciences. Bill wanted to foster the development of the ecological sciences and he was a “talent scout” for Mellon. He’d go to meetings, looking for extraordinary ecologists. Bill would ask, “What would you like to do?”

Hal told Bill Robertson about ESA's need of a strategic plan and asked if the Mellon Foundation would fund it, and they did. Jane Lubchenco was elected vice president while Hal was president, and Hal asked her to chair the committee that ultimately led to the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative report.  The first draft was rather extreme, so the second draft was more balanced, identifying new science that should be pursued. This led to a more strategic ESA, Hal thinks. The reaction of the ESA membership seemed positive, as it occurred about the same time as the Washington Office was being established.  “The climate was changing” for such things. Hal felt it was fortunate that Jane was the vice president at that time.

Since then, Hal has attended all the meetings. He became more and more involved with international programs, like the IGBP, and later the Global Change Program. Through time, climate became more of a compelling issue. He mentions the Convention on Biological Diversity. Hal talks about this program and others, including SCOPE, the Climate Convention, and others, and who was involved, from Sweden and elsewhere.  Ecosystem functioning and biodiversity was another theme adopted by SCOPE. A Global Biodiversity Assessment report was produced. There was talk about whether biodiversity was a matter of science or values.

During the interview Hal talks more about the Climate Assessment Program, the IPPC, and the International Program on Biodiversity Science and Ecosystem Service. He mentions the role of the French government and summarizes several years of the development of these initiatives. Some governments pay their scientists to be involved and others do not.

“The best scientists in the world coming together to solve world problems.”  That’s been a big motivation for him.

But he wouldn’t say that he should have gone into political science. International science is important, and he gains satisfaction in seeing what people can do together.






Oral History Item Type Metadata


73 minutes


Harold Mooney and Stuart Chapin III, “Interview with Harold Mooney, August 11, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed May 25, 2024,