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---January 25, 1996---
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SCIENCE magazine is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the mainstream of the mainstream in American science. In recent years, the editors of SCIENCE have been generally hostile to environmental protection. For example, in editorials, they have ridiculed the idea that toxic chemicals might be a serious danger to human and environmental health, saying scientific risk assessment can show chemicals and radiation to be safe. [1]

But in April, 1993, SCIENCE published a short, meaty article about how science fails to help solve environmental problems, and in fact often contributes to making those problems worse. [2] Written by two biologists and a mathematician (two Canadians and an American), the article discusses the failures of science in environmental protection. Here we highlight the main points from that article, and then, inside square brackets, provide our own interpretation and examples. The article is about resource exploitation, but it might apply equally well to all environmental problems, including the use of toxic chemicals.

** Today, many plans for sustainable use or sustainable development have been put forward, founded upon scientific information and consensus.

** Such plans reflect ignorance of the history of resource exploitation. [By "resource" the authors mean fish, trees, and minerals such as gold and oil.] Such plans also reflect misunderstanding of the possibility of achieving scientific consensus concerning resources and the environment. [In other words, scientific consensus about sustainable levels of resource exploitation is harder to achieve than most people think.]

** Despite variation in the details, there is remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction.

** There are four reasons for this:

** Wealth or the prospect of wealth generates political and social power that is used to drive overexploitation.

** "Scientific understanding and consensus is [sic] hampered by the lack of controls and replicates, so that each new problem requires learning about a new system." [In other words, most natural resources are unique, so finding a similar system to keep in a natural state for comparison purposes, is impossible. Similarly, if some understanding is developed based on a particular system, it is impossible to duplicate elsewhere because no identical system can be found.]

** The complexity of the underlying biological and physical systems precludes a reductionist approach to management. Optimum levels of exploitation must be learned by trial and error. [In other words, traditional scientific method doesn't work well when studying natural systems because they are too complicated to simplify and then study, which is the way most science has traditionally worked. Therefore, the only way to proceed is blindly, by trial and error--a costly way of learning.]

** "Large levels of natural variability mask the effects of overexploitation. Initial overexploitation is not detectable until it is severe and often irreversible." [We see this going on in the Chesapeake Bay right now. The blue crab population --a major "resource" of the Bay --fluctuates up and down from year to year. Now the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization, and the Maryland state government are both saying the crab population has been endangered by too much crabbing. People who want to continue crabbing in the usual way pooh-pooh any concerns about the crab population, saying crabs vary in number year to year and the low population found today is just part of a natural fluctuation. Scientific consensus on this issue has, so far, been impossible to achieve.]

** "In such circumstances, assigning causes to past events is problematical, future events cannot be predicted, and even well-meaning attempts to exploit responsibly may lead to disastrous consequences."

** It is more appropriate to think of resources as managing humans rather than the converse: the larger and the more immediate are the prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation. Examples: gold rushes, exploitation of forests.

** "We propose that we shall NEVER attain scientific consensus concerning the systems that are being exploited... [because] controlled and replicated experiments are impossible to perform in large-scale systems. Therefore, there is ample scope for differing interpretations." [Emphasis added.]

** Problems experienced in exploitation of fisheries (California sardine; Peruvian anchoveta; Pacific salmon) are compounded when it comes to predicting phenomena of major concern, such as global warming and other changes in the atmosphere.

** Time-scales are so great that observational studies are unlikely to provide timely indications of required actions or the consequences of failing to take remedial measures.

** "Scientific certainty and consensus in itself would not prevent overexploitation and destruction of resources. Many practices continue even in cases where there is abundant scientific evidence that they are ultimately destructive." [Example: irrigation in California. People have known since the 19th century that irrigation increases the salt content of soils, unless those soils can be flushed regularly with abundant fresh water. Yet in the San Joaquin valley, for example, there exists no flushing mechanisms to rid the soils of a buildup of salts and pesticides. Thus, San Joaquin valley soils are being ruined by current agricultural practice, yet the practice continues.]

** Our lack of understanding, and inability to predict, mandate a much more cautious approach to resource exploitation than is the norm. Here are some suggestions for management [provided by Ludwig, Hilborn and Walters]:

** "Include human motivation and responses as part of the system to be studied and managed. The shortsightedness and greed of humans underlie difficulties in management of resources..."


** Rely on scientists to recognize problems, but not to remedy them. The judgment of scientists is often heavily influenced by their training in their respective disciplines, but... the most important issues involving resources and the environment... must involve many disciplines.

** [Furthermore], "scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressure."

** "Distrust claims of sustainability.... Recently some of the world's leading ecologists have claimed that the key to a sustainable biosphere is research on a long list of standard research topics in ecology."

** "Such a claim... may lead to false complacency: instead of addressing the problems of population growth and excessive use of resources, we may avoid such difficult issues by spending money on basic ecological research."

** "Confront uncertainty. Once we free ourselves from the illusion that science or technology (if lavishly funded) can provide a solution to resource or conservation problems, appropriate action becomes possible." [We will never have complete knowledge about the problems we face; if we refuse to act while we wait for that knowledge to accumulate, it will be too late.]

** "Effective policies are possible under conditions of uncertainty, but they must take uncertainty into account... Most principles of decisionmaking under uncertainty are simply common sense."

** Nine principles for decision-making:

** 1. Consider a variety of plausible hypotheses about the world;

** 2. Consider a variety of possible strategies;

** 3. Favor actions that are robust to uncertainties;

** 4. Hedge [meaning, avoid irretrievable commitment; assume that what you're about to do might be a mistake];

** 5. Favor actions that are informative;

** 6. Probe and experiment;

** 7. Monitor results;

** 8. Update assessments and modify policies accordingly;

** 9. Favor actions that are reversible.

** Scientists have been active in pointing out environmental degradation and consequent hazards to human life, and possibly to life as we know it. But by and large the scientific community has helped to perpetuate the illusion of sustainable development through scientific and technological progress.

** "Resource problems are not really environmental problems: They are human problems that we have created at many times and in many places, under a variety of political, social, and economic systems."

[The major environmental problems of our time have only become apparent to us during the past 20 to 30 years. What new ones we will learn about in the coming 20 to 30 years we (unfortunately) cannot imagine. But we can say this: the problems that we face have been brought upon us by people who ignored the nine management principles listed above. In any proposed technical project --nuclear power, chlorinated chemicals, burning of fossil fuels, 'development' that diminishes biodiversity, incinerators, landfills, and so forth --science cannot tell us what is safe or good or just. Relying on science instead of common sense and human values to guide us has led the human species to the precipice. Can we change our ways? Can we put science into proper perspective and look elsewhere for guidance in curbing our excesses?]
                                                                         --Peter Montague
[1] For example July 23, 1993 (Vol. 261, pg. 407), in an editorial titled "Toxic Terror: Phantom Risks," editor Philip Abelson wrote, "The public has long been subjected to a one-sided portrayal of risks of environmental hazards, particularly industrial chemicals. Only a few individuals have attempted to bring balance into the picture. They have faced a self-serving, formidable de facto alliance of media, well-heeled environmental organizations, federal regulators, and the plaintiffs' bar." On August 26, 1994, (Vol. 265, pg. 1165) Mr. Abelson referred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "a tool of Greenpeace." And see Mr. Abelson's editorial July 31, 1987 (Vol. 237, pg. 473) titled, "Cancer Phobia" and Daniel Koshland's editorial, "Science and Society," April 9, 1993, (Vol. 260, pg. 143). I know for a fact that other members of the SCIENCE editorial staff have, for years, been embarrassed by Mr. Abelson's and Mr. Koshland's extremist views.

[2] Donald Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters, "Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History," SCIENCE Vol. 260 (April 2, 1993), pgs. 17, 36. Ludwig is with the departments of mathematics and zoology at University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, BC; Ray Hilborn is in the School of Fisheries at University of Washington in Seattle; Carl Walters is with the department of zoology at UBC.

Descriptor terms: science magazine; science; sustainable use; sustainability; forestry; logging; fisheries; fishing; mining; toxic chemicals; chesapeake bay; uncertainty; decision making; resource management; philip abelson; daniel koshland;

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