Memo to scientists about saving the environment: Keep it simple

Why is doing the right thing for the environment so hard?

I’ve been mulling this question on and off since reading an article by Hannah Ritchie, a scientist who focuses on the communication of research and data to broader audiences.

Her article, which arrived in a newsletter I get from Works in Progress, takes a sceptical look at a lot of the received wisdom about what human beings should do in their efforts to “save the planet”.

Ritchie’s point is contained in these two extracts from the article:

The image we have in our head of the ‘environmentally-friendly meal’ is one that’s sourced from the local market; produced on an organic farm without nasty chemicals; and brought home in a paper bag, not a plastic wrapper. Forget the processed junk: it’s meat and vegetables, as fresh as they come. We set aside time to cook them properly, in the oven.

BUT, Ritchie doesn’t cook like that at all. She says:

I know that my way of eating is low-carbon. I’ve spent years poring over the data. Microwaves are the most efficient way to cook. Local food is often no better than food shipped from continents away. Organic food often has a higher carbon footprint. And packaging is a tiny fraction of a food’s environmental footprint, and often lengthens its shelf-life. Yet it still feels wrong. I know I’m doing the right thing for the environment, but there’s still a part of me that feels like a traitor. I can see the confusion on peoples’ faces when they hear about some of my decisions. I feel embarrassed that people might think that I’m being a ‘bad’ environmentalist. This problem stems from the fact that what is ‘good’ for the environment often doesn’t line up with our intuitions.

It’s all summed up here:

Why, then, do we often get this so wrong? It probably comes back to the ‘natural fallacy’: things that seem more grounded in ‘natural’ properties seem better to us. Or our ‘appeal to nature’, where natural equals good, and unnatural equals bad. We’re skeptical of synthetic stuff that comes out of a factory.

She says that she feels she needs to “convince people of a vision that seems intuitively wrong to them. It’s hard to undo millennia of social programming.”

Yes but

I think she is both right and wrong.

She right that thinking natural things are better is a fallacy. And she’s right that what people do should to be grounded in data, rather than in feelings.

But she’s wrong that people fall back on the natural because that intuitively seems a better way to live. Intuition is indeed part of it, but there’s a much bigger issue at play.

Many people, and I include myself here, return to the “natural” not because we are irrational or wedded to our intuitions. We return to it because science and the way it is often portrayed in media are so dreadfully bad at communicating what we really do need to do.

A recent case in point

An article in South African online publication Daily Maverick points out that items marketed as biodegradable or compostable only decompose under certain very specific conditions, and gives us this everyday example:

For example, say you buy a take-away cup of coffee labelled as 100% compostable. In order to reap the environmental benefits of the cup’s compostability, you would have to know the different elements that make up the cup of coffee. While the paper it’s made of might be compostable since it is made out of organic material, if it has a plastic lid, that would have to be a biodegradable plastic such as PLA (poly lactic acid).

But nowhere – nowhere! – in the 2,300-word article (quoting scientific experts and reports) is there any suggestion of what a consumer is supposed to do about this. Somehow put pressure on the company that sells the coffee not to sell coffee in this badly labelled cup and lid? Do we never buy a takeaway coffee again? Do we take our own mug everywhere?

What, for the love of all that is scientific, is the practical suggestion here?

Susanne Karcher, described as a co-founder of the African Circular Economy Network, and managing member of Envirosense (she is a waste minimisation and pollution prevention specialist), is quoted in the article as having this suggestion: “The way Karcher sees it, the solution is nothing short of a cultural and systemic change, from pushing manufacturers to redesign and rethink packaging, to coming up with new ways of delivering goods and services.”

Indeed – this is the argument that makes sense, putting the responsibility for action with the people who can in fact change things.

But in the meanwhile, faced with articles like these (and there are many, many examples like this, affecting every aspect of our lives), is it any wonder that people try to find simple solutions and easy-to-understand actions that they can take? These actions will probably not be based on the scientific data because there is just so much of it, and it all so confusing and contradictory.

For many rational people, taking action to husband our environmental resources, will in the end come down to doing things “the natural way”. Not because these people are irrational and deluded, but because they have been drowned in an information deluge that offers no consolidated advice on what we can do in our personal capacities to stave off the crisis facing the planet.

My plea then to the scientific community is this: find ways to work with each other and the media to provide information that offers simple and practical suggestions about actions that ordinary people can take. “Natural” or not, I’d do them.

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Main picture: nrd, Unsplash

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