Confessions of a cheerleader for science

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Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in developed nations. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If science is the answer, what was the question again?

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THE answer to the challenge of sustainability is NOT science and technology

By David Salt

It should be apparent from previous blogs that I am a believer in science and the scientific process. That said, in and of itself, I don’t believe science is THE answer when it comes to the challenge of sustainability. Yes, it has an important (and central) role to play but anyone who believes that science will save us is deluded. And when political parties tell us that science will be our salvation, there’s enormous potential for perverse outcomes.

The problem with science-as-our-savior has many dimensions including partial solutions and delayed action. And it has more to do with how science is used (and abused) by our political leaders than the science itself. I’ll deal with partial solutions in this blog.

Addressing symptoms

Science is not wrong or bad. Much of its application, however, is usually applied to one part of a complex problem, and our political leaders pick and choose which part that is and then usually ignore the bigger picture. In this way our science is often focused on the immediate issue and not the underlying cause. In many ways we address the symptom but fail to tackle the ‘disease’ that created the symptom.

More often than not, the symptom being addressed is a consequence of development and economic growth (and the way we make decisions around this growth). For example, declining water quality is the symptom but from over extraction of our rivers is the cause; extinction (symptom) from over clearing of habitat (cause), or climate change (symptom) due to carbon pollution (cause). The development generates economic activity and contributes to our quality of life but also comes with impacts on our environment that, at some point or other, come back to bite us.

And when our communities demand that our political representatives fix the problem (be it fish kills, mass coral bleaching or climate-change supercharged storms), our leaders turn to science and ask for quick fixes. And when scientists respond with the best science they can muster, the politicians will seize any skerrick of information they can that suggests they have a solution; that they are on top of the problem.

Silver bullets for dead fish

A small illustration of this: when billions of fish recently died on one of Australia’s major river systems, scientists pointed out the proximate cause of death was a lack of oxygen in the river water. It is possible to artificially aerate small patches of water and maybe keep some fish alive but the bigger problem is over-extraction of water and poor governance of the river system (something pointed out by the scientists).

Politicians seized on the quick fix and deployed manual aerators in a few locations (and maybe saved a few fish) but squibbed the bigger problem of over extraction because that involved changing the way we are managing the whole river.

Of course, this points to the nature of big environmental problems. They are multi-dimensional and complex. They are rarely fixed with single technological solutions, yet when the politicians turn to science that is what they really want – a quick fix, a silver bullet.

The problem with ‘quick fixes’ is that while they might address a symptom, they usually don’t fix the underlying cause. And ignoring the underlying cause usually leads to a worse (and possibly irreversible) situation down the line.

The biggest silver bullet of all

So let’s consider one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time – climate change. The cause is humans pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a byproduct of our economic growth (acknowledging that this has growth has underpinned massive improvements in the quality of life by many people). A symptom of this problem is rising temperatures which has produced a raft of devastating impacts (one of which is mass fish kills).

The ultimate solution to the problem of climate change is to somehow decouple economic development from the environmental impacts it is producing. But that’s hard. It involves massive disruption to our economic system and probably a basic change to human values.

Or we could look for a technological fix that reduces the planet’s temperature (and not worry about the hard stuff relating to economic reform and changing behaviour). If this sounds like a ludicrous suggestion then you haven’t been following the news. The big talk around the planet at the moment is geoengineering, and specifically the injection of sulfide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away sunlight to cool the Earth.

By focusing on the symptom (temperature) and not worrying about the cause (carbon emissions) we are setting up subsequent generations for a gloomy future. Gloomy because we’re blocking sunlight (by deliberately polluting the upper atmosphere). And gloomy because rising temperature is only one of the symptoms of carbon pollution. Another is rising acidity in our oceans (an impact quite separate to temperature effects) leading to the collapse of marine ecosystems. And what happens to crop productions if we miscalculate and block too much sun?

A sting in the tale

This form of geoengineering has yet to be tested in any meaningful way and many scientists are urging caution. Playing with the planetary climate thermostat is not something done lightly. Who wants a technological fix that might wipe out the species?

And yet this story on geoengineering appears to be moving in a sinister direction. A couple of weeks ago, an effort by several countries at the UN environment assembly to better scrutinise climate geoengineering experiments was scuttled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because their petrochemical industries see climate geoengineering as a pathway that might enable further expansion of fossil fuel use.

If that’s the case then this silver bullet is surely more of a Faustian Pact.