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.

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