I often ponder why, when we have so much scientific information about how our natural environment is deteriorating and more importantly what we can do to reverse it, does so little change? In fact it’s rapidly getting worse.
Perhaps it’s not just about what we (including scientists) know but just as importantly what we value, and how do we increase and improve the connection between information, values and actions?
Deakin University PhD candidate and guest contributor Belinda Christie offers some interesting thoughts.
Recently, I attended a public forum in Melbourne. After the forum ended, the queues forming behind the food stalls grew quickly. As I waited for my cuppa, I noticed one of the forum’s guest speakers placing his lunch order. He was a marine biologist, who just a few minutes earlier, had presented evidence for the need to increase the number of Australia’s marine national parks. I was surprised, perhaps naïvely, when I heard him order a tuna roll. Was I now more, or less, convinced by the evidence he had presented? I wasn’t sure.
Our daily experience provides many examples of this disconnection between the professional and the personal: the smattering of nurses standing outside the hospital smoking, the personal trainer welcoming clients at the gym while snacking on a bag of potato chips, the academic writing an article about sustainability while sitting with the heater blasting in her very draughty office. There is often a disconnection between working and living the lessons of our professions. This disconnection is of particular importance in environmental science.
There is a common, but misleading, assumption made by both academics and the public that environmental sustainability ‘belongs’ to the sciences, and so, the belief follows, that students of the environmental sciences already learn much about environmental sustainability. We assume that environmental science students learn about the social and economic aspects of their field. We assume they learn about carbon footprints and sustainable lifestyles. We also assume that all ecologists, environmental managers and conservation biologists received such an education.
Research suggests otherwise. Recent research has shown that of all the disciplines, academics from the sciences are the least supportive of environment and sustainability education for all university students, rarely teach these issues in their own classes and have the most difficulty articulating the meaning of sustainability. While environmental science academics might spend time teaching their students about environmental policy and management, few actively educate their students for sustainability by cultivating the knowledge, skills and values to contribute to a more sustainable society.
But what would be the effect if all those studying environmental science courses were intentionally, and explicitly, educated for sustainability? Would this influence the success of future conservation outcomes? Would this effect be positive, negative or somewhere in between?
The answers to these questions probably hinge on your view of the purpose of science itself. You may fear that conservation recommendations will not be taken seriously unless they come from a seemingly neutral, detached and passionless scientist. You may feel that those recommendations should be, as much as possible, removed from politics, public sentiment and cultural context, so they can be seen as ‘objective’ and beyond influence.
Conversely, you may feel that perhaps the public, industry and politicians would be more likely to support a scientist’s recommendations if they are seen to follow their own advice and are a passionate advocate for change. You may feel that conservation recommendations should be aligned with the current political, economic, social and cultural landscape of the community, so that the recommendations are more likely to be accepted.
You may feel, like many others, including some of our best known and most influential scientists, that it is wise to occupy the ground between the two extremes.
Some years ago I was involved in a program which intended to decrease the occurrence of wildlife poaching in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. While it was informed by conservation recommendations from biologists and ecologists, the program was largely unsuccessful. The recommendations had failed to cater for the entrenched economic and cultural practices of the local community – the use, and trade, of traditional medicines harvested, often fatally, from wildlife.
While considering the social and economic context of conservation recommendations is already well practiced by many, it wasn’t until the biologists, ecologists and volunteers who had designed the program, publically pledged to adopt the recommended sustainable behaviours personally, and stopped using medicines derived from wildlife, that poaching in the area started to decrease. Without this element of ‘social diffusion’, or peer influence, the program may never have been successful. Had those biologists and ecologists learnt about sustainable living practices within the context of their own culture during their undergraduate education, perhaps the program would have been more influential earlier on.
Educating environmental science students for sustainability however, should be evidence-based, rigorous and preserve the integrity of research. It should take heed of the concerns of those who warn educating for a purpose is akin to indoctrinating students. It can do this by encouraging deep critical reflection so students can learn to assess the concept of the sustainability itself. Doing so can, and should, move an environmental science degree beyond merely providing a professional qualification, to inspiring students to lead by example and to make a measurable difference in their world.
I like to think that if the marine biologist at the forum received such an education, perhaps he would have skipped the tuna roll, and I wouldn’t have been left questioning his conservation recommendations.