My lifestyle choices regularly put me in contact with people who have similar environmental goals and values, which is great, but it's also exposed me to a worrying number of quasi-religious, nature-worshipping individuals whose anti-science views directly oppose my own (and indeed much of the scientific community). Why is it that pseudoscientific nonsense has become so hopelessly entangled with environmentalism? More importantly, is it a problem, and if so, is there anything we can do about it?
Like many (and hopefully most) biologists, I'm very concerned about the environment. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that I've spent most of my adult life learning about ecology and environmental science. As a result, it's become increasingly clear that we can't have healthy bodies, healthy ecosystems, or even a functioning economy without a healthy planet to match. Simply put, we need to take care of our Earth so that it can take care of us.
Making the connection between environmentalism and pseudoscience
Plenty of people have arrived at a conclusion similar to the one above by following a very different path. It starts from a position of mistrust - in science, technology, and authority in general - which, unfortunately, has deep roots in our culture (although the pandemic may have given science a much-needed boost). When combined with our innate human ability to ascribe religious or spiritual significance to everything, we end up with what is known as 'spiritual environmentalism'. This article provides an excellent historical account describing the origins of this worldview, but essentially, it is the idea that nature is somehow sacred and that appealing to all things 'natural' is the only sustainable path forward.
This vague and poorly defined notion of what is considered 'natural' is largely responsible for a significant proportion of the pseudoscientific ideas that circulate among environmental groups. From essential oils to paleo diets to the demonization of GMOs, the notion that 'natural is better' is a pervasive one. What many fail to recognize, however, is that the term 'natural' is a completely subjective one. You may feel that it's unnatural to clone a species or to grow tissues and organs in a lab, but you think nothing of wearing clothes or driving a car. What most people fear then, is newness, not artificiality. If you truly believe that anything humans do or create is unnatural, then you'd have to live like our ape ancestors did in order to truly approach a 'natural' lifestyle, which few among us would be willing to do. If, instead, you accept that humans, like all animals, are the result of millions of years of evolution, then our technology should be considered as natural as anything else.
Are pseudoscientific claims a problem?
Once you start rejecting modern science and worshipping a poorly defined concept of nature, things devolve into conspiracy theories and utter bullshit pretty quickly. Perhaps you've heard someone complain about chemtrails, for example, or espouse the benefits of biodynamic agriculture. Although they make for very entertaining reading, neither of these concepts is based on any solid evidence.
It would be easy to write off many of the more extreme claims as fringe quackery that cause no real harm, but you'd be wrong. As with issues of public health, environmental issues affect everyone, and disproportionately so for the most at-risk populations. Even the most benign superstitions have the potential to waste people's time and money, at minimum. Unfortunately, the internet and social media enable misleading information to gain real traction, and while I'm generally optimistic about science's ability to eliminate false information and hone in on the truth, this process takes time - something we are decidedly short on. It is therefore imperative that we are using the best evidence available to us as we navigate the decisions that will inform our collective future.
How can we reduce misinformation?
Building trust in science so that we can better design and support environmental policies has to start with education. That doesn't mean we need to train millions of environmental engineers and ecologists. We just need to make education a priority, and higher education in particular. Studies have shown that educational attainment (years of schooling) can affect pro-environmental attitudes. Income, similarly, is a predictor of environmental activism, presumably because you can afford to be concerned about the environment only after your basic needs are met. Caring about the environment alone isn't good enough, however.
I think it's fair to say that most environmentalists have good intentions when it comes to protecting the Earth, but they need to be properly informed so as not to be led astray by false or pseudoscientific claims. For this reason, it's critical that we actively seek out and eliminate misinformation in all its forms. This has to begin with the media, including social media, but it's also the responsibility of scientists and academic institutions to communicate clearly and directly with the public in a way that people can actually understand.
Once everyone is on the same page when it comes to scientific literacy, environmental knowledge, and motivation, I'm confident that we can do what we need to do as a civilization in order to curb our current climate trajectory. There are already some signs of hope. In 2020, U.S. energy from both coal and nuclear power was surpassed by renewables for the first time. In 2021, after more than 10 years of development, the Keystone XL Pipeline project was abruptly canceled (although the fallout from that decision is still causing problems). Then, In 2022, the billionaire founder of Patagonia gave the company and all its profits to climate organizations and NPOs. What will we accomplish in 2023?
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