The Environment: Social vs Science

A thing I’ve long suspected, but have really only figured out and cemented after having to write some lecture materials on it, is that green chemistry, climatology, sustainability and environmentalism aren’t technological issues or scientific issues – they’re absolutely social issues. I apologise if this seems utterly trivial to people and that I’m a little late to the party – and I did say something similar regarding health issues a while back – but it really does seem like this is 100% social and 0% scientific.GreenChem_green

On one level climate change denial is entirely social – it sure as hell isn’t based on the scientific evidence or a through understanding of climatology. Merely presenting evidence doesn’t change minds, so it cannot be a simple scientific issue. Science can figure it out, science could save us from the ill effects, but it doesn’t convince and it doesn’t convey with relatable rhetoric. Instead of searching for the right evidence for people to believe it, we have to search for the right incentives for people to believe it – and those two things aren’t even in the same ball park when it comes to looking for them. If the climate changes irrevocably, we could survive through technology, that’s certainly true, but… only the ones that can afford the technology will have it, and therefore only the ones who can afford to survive can thrive. That’s a social, not a scientific, issue, and no amount of technological advancement and research will help with that.

We charge 5p for a plastic carrier bag now, even though carrier bags aren’t the biggest use/waste of plastic and aren’t as big a deal as you might think… yet that isn’t really the point. No-one sensible thinks this minor little thing will change the world. If you charge for it, though, it makes people think “maybe I shouldn’t use this material as a disposable commodity… hmmm, perhaps I should re-use an old bag instead”. It makes people think “this thing has a value, I should use it responsibly.. perhaps I could use other things responsibly”. Those are social incentives, independent of any technology – we could implement such a change, and have a real impact, without having to spend a single minute in a lab developing degradable co-polymers or decomposition photocatalysts. If a simple social incentive makes people think more about where it’s come from and where it’s going, and whether it can be reduced, re-used or recycled, then it will do more for the planet than any amount of technological development in biodegradable polymers will.

Decent incentives can make people think, because science can’t do that for them.

Sustainability_greenWe can recycle cow dung into vanilla, recycle water between toilets and sinks, and breed insects for the same amount of protein at a fraction of the environmental cost of cattle – all of which could have staggering benefits for us and the planet. Yet people (well, North America and Europe for the insect thing) may well go “squick” to all of it.

We expend vast amounts of energy to purify and sterilise drinking water and pump it into homes, then use about a quarter of it flushing shit into the sewers – and no one, here in the big, developed, supposedly-civilised first-world seems to think that this is maybe, just maybe, a little bit weird. We can purify waste water to a high standard but people either won’t accept it as drinking water without an emotional buffer in the way.

I can sit through presentations from students returning from work experience in the chemical industry and note that 10% of their efforts are expended in getting a product that works and 90% of their efforts are expended in getting a product that looks and feels like it works. We are quite literally blowing our technological advancement on placating social norms and pandering to conventions. That is absolutely a social issue to be addressed. Can we educate society to accept cloudy washing-up liquid and less-viscous shampoo in exchange for diverting our scientific efforts elsewhere? Can we de-brainwash people about what things should look like providing they still work?

None of these are technological issues. Grey-water toilet systems exist. Half the planet already consumes insects. Flavourings from bio-mass and waste already exist. Bio-derived and biodegradable surfactants already exist. But accepting them as solutions or potential solutions isn’t exactly trivial. They’re new, they’re weird, and sometimes they can be a little yucky. So should we should begin draw the line and say that it’s our responsibility to adapt to the better technology rather than the technology’s responsibility to adapt to our artificial preferences? Or is that solution just too difficult?

Sure, we need the technology to develop better approaches, but without the incentive to use them that’s nothing but a pointless academic exercise.

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