Tag Archives: ecology

The Hippocratic Oath and Ecology

“Physician, do no harm” (Hippocrates, Greece, 5th century BC) is one of the classic ethical standards of medicine. Of course as medical science has progressed, treatments that were once considered to be beneficial are now known to cause harm, so one has to apply these standards to the time and place of action. How does all of this apply to ecology and environmental science?
All science is or should be evidence-based and the job of the ecologist is to examine and measure the evidence about how the biological world works, how natural populations, communities, and ecosystems operate and continue to exist. Given that evolution is the background to all these operations, in the long term individual species will come and go and change the dynamics we now describe. At the level of basic or “blue-sky” research, ecologists run into few ethical issues. But at the level of applied ecology, we become the ‘physicians of the world’ because we must assess the problems that arise in the natural world from the actions or inactions of humans. Consequently when ecologists investigate problems caused by mining, logging, aquaculture, or agriculture, and the associated issues caused by population growth, we have an ethical responsibility captured by the Hippocratic Oath.
In many situations ecologists and environmental scientists do well, laying out the issues, the science behind the measured effects, and the best predictions they can make about future changes. Climate change science is the best current example. But in many areas the conclusions of our best ecologists and environmental scientists crash head on into the economic train that drives 95% of decision making at the political and business levels. This is the key point where the Hippocratic Oath must enter if we wish to behave ethically. We cannot allow companies or the government to carry out environmental policies that are harmful to the populations, communities and ecosystems of the Earth without our voices being heard. This does not permit us to fabricate evidence or extrapolate beyond what is known. It does permit us to say what is not known and needs investigation, and that the policy of “what you do not know cannot hurt you” is stupidity squared. None of this endears us to the business community or the government bent on economic growth at all costs.
We can hope that this is changing, albeit slowly. Politicians and oil companies now at least talk about ‘sustainability’ while pushing ahead. But if more wealth is gained at the expense of the Earth we are lost in the long term. A major problem for ecologists is that operational changes are made in forestry, agriculture and mining with little thought to their consequences for biodiversity and ecologists are left to pick up the pieces later. If you wish an immediate example, fracking for oil and gas is more than enough. This is not an intelligent way to operate if we wish to be stewards of the Earth. So in every bit of ecology we do, we need to keep the Hippocratic Oath in mind, and do our best to stop harming the Earth.
And at the political level, we could take the radical step of asking that every Minister of the Environment ought to be trained in environmental science and ecology, and understand the environmental problems of the Earth.

Why The Environmental Sciences Always Lose Out

One of the basic observations of our time in almost all countries is that some sciences are held in high esteem while others are not popular. Science is often confused with technology, so positive marks are typically given for new types of cell phones, tablets and computers, and the sciences that give rise to these technological advances like physics, chemistry, and engineering are viewed as gold stars. Medical advances are also highly regarded out of self-interest and most medical science from basic to applied is given high support in our society. At the other end of the ranking is ecology and in general environmental science. These are viewed poorly by many, so that action on climate-change and biodiversity conservation are supported by a dwindling few. Why are some sciences highly praised and others damned?

Part, but only part, of the explanation lies in religious beliefs. I do not know of any major religious group that condemns Iphones and computers, or medical advances, or even space research. But many people seem to have objections to biological concepts like evolution and question the role of humans in affecting the earth’s ecosystems. Possibly a larger part of this rejection of environmental science is explained by the fact that environmental scientists bring mostly bad news to the social table, while physicists promise infinite free energy and medical scientists promise cures for diseases. We prefer good news to bad.

The most prominent bad news story currently is climate change and the role of humans in causing these changes. Climate change science is easy to deny. The data are always variable, sometimes it still snows in the wrong month of the year or the summer is particularly cool. But most importantly the problem is slow moving, and humans are not very good at assessing slow moving catastrophes. Few of us will be alive when the climate problems get so serious only a fool would deny them, and our penchant for demanding fast solutions to problems will not work when the reversal of the cause (e.g. CO2 enrichment of the air) takes 100-200 years. So it is better to put our head in the sand and deny everything.

The problem with conservation ecology and biodiversity loss is similarly long-term and slow. To solve these problems we have to do something and we are all in favour of doing something if it does not reduce economic growth. So population growth is favoured since exponential growth is the new God pushing economic growth, and biodiversity loss does not seem to impact on most of us living in large cities. Sustainability thus becomes a meaningless word in both politics and business, talk much and do little. If there is an apparent conflict between economics and the environment guess who wins. Convincing people that economics cannot exist without the environment is the challenge of our time. We could start by electing governments that cultivate environmental concerns on an equal basis with economic concerns.

Oreskes, N. and E. M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press, New York. 365 pp.
Washington, H. 2013. Human Dependence on Nature. Routledge.144 pp.