Don’t shoot the scientific messenger

(October 9, 2018)

Since ancient times, shooting the messenger has been a favourite way to deal with the arrival of bad news.

Of course, it doesn’t change the news — and it makes it hard to recruit the next messenger.

While I agree with Scott Forbes’ defence of science (“Why does science get no respect?” Sept. 29), his dismissal of the “secular prophets” such as David Suzuki involves shooting the messenger, not dealing with the news they bring.

Granted, trying to figure out the difference between “real” and “fake” science is as fraught with difficulties these days as figuring out the difference between “real” and “fake” news. On any issue, there are experts on at least three sides, some of whom are funded to promote confusion.

But while the “prophets of doom” grab bold headlines, there are many smaller headlines generated by those intent on maximizing the “profits of doom” for themselves.

Plan for retirement! Freedom 55! Ads featuring laughing seniors, usually white and always wealthy, sitting by the pool or cruising the oceans in luxury. All this creates a picture of a “don’t worry, be happy” future that disrespects the findings of science much more than jokes about nerds. Their fantasy will become our nightmare.

An alarmist is someone who yells, “Fire!” before his own barn actually starts to burn. The numbers tell us we are in trouble — the fires of a warming planet are on the way. What’s in dispute is exactly when the flames will arrive.

Compare this to medicine — after all the tests and examinations are done, one of the hardest things for any doctor is delivering a terminal diagnosis. Even harder is answering the inevitable question, “How long do I have?”

If a doctor tells a patient they have six months to live and they survive for a year or two, no one dismisses doctors (and medicine in general) as a waste of time. Nor do people ridicule that doctor as a “prophet of doom” if the patient happens to live another 20 or 30 years.

You get my point. Our biosphere’s diagnosis is terminal because of how humans have chosen to live in the Anthropocene. The fact that the final act is taking longer than predicted is good news for those of us who still have hope for ourselves and for our children. It means we still have time to do something, rather than just watch the world burn and choke.

This is what science tells us — what is going on, and why. If the timeline of scientific climate prognosis is inaccurate, that’s because the systems it tries to interpret are too complex for easy answers, and the data we have to work with is inadequate and incomplete.

In the same way, a doctor can tell you how big the tumour is and how fast it is growing or spreading, but it’s much harder to know when the body’s systems will fail. That depends on the patient’s determination and a host of other things that vary from person to person; the outcome, however, will still be the same.

To be fair, if we can’t accurately predict the weather on the Prairies — even a day ahead — why would any “real” science even try to predict global conditions 20 years out?

Scientists try, for the same reason the doctor tries to give an answer — because we ask them to tell us how much longer we have.

It’s our problem, therefore, not theirs. The headlines are bold, because we are not listening to common sense any more than we are heeding “real” science. We are trying to avoid doing anything that requires changing our lifestyle, waiting for someone to tell us things will magically improve. We will listen to the fake science as readily as we believe the fake news, if it means we can keep golfing.

David Suzuki recently described his work to me as a failure; other environmentalists have expressed the same sentiment about their work. For despite all of their warnings, the laws and regulations they have inspired, as well as promoting recycling and whatever else they have done, we are increasing our speed toward a future in which no sane person wants to live.

I’m not a scientist — I am one of those “artsies” who just as often gets dismissed by scientists, as happens in reverse. I do study science and technology — their history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and whatever else is needed to understand the whole picture of what “real” science presents. It’s never only “just the facts,” but also what they mean.

After all, sustainability is not a scientific or technological issue. It is a social and cultural problem, requiring practical answers from all of us, if we want to avoid the catastrophes that otherwise certainly lie ahead.

We need to listen carefully to what the messengers of science are saying — and not shoot them.

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Major coverage of a minor story

(July 18, 2018)

The world’s attention was riveted by the plight of the Wild Boars soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand, and the effort to bring them out.

The cave rescue even came close to moving the World Cup off the front page of the news, as hour-by-hour reports from the huge media team flooded in faster than themonsoon rains.

Like the World Cup, everyone was playing for a win. The time was short, the intensity had a deadline, and there was no prize for second place.

It was an event custom-made for media coverage, able to be captured in tweets by the moment that updated everyone on the plight of the boys and their coach, complete with pictures from inside the cave where they were trapped.

In a world beset by difficult problems, this one would not drag on for long. One way or another, it would soon be over. Accustomed to watching soccer players take dives on the World Cup pitch, these cave dives were for real— and dangerously so. The Thai diver who ran out of oxygen himself was instantly immortalized as a hero, and we will no doubt learn of other heroes after the fact.

It was all over before there could be competition from the final games of the World Cup. Hailed as a successful example of global co-operation, it was an international effort that transcended the differences that separate us.

And so on. You might detect a tinge of sarcasm here. While the rescue truly was heroic and amazing, the commentary tended to be overdone and rather self-serving. Most countries contributed media teams, not divers. While the “thoughts and prayers” were no doubt sincere, we will need to see whether that international partnership extends to paying the enormous cost of the rescue operation.

No doubt the media spotlight helped, but I was left reflecting on how many much-larger problems lack that special attention because they can’t be resolved so quickly. If there is no quick “win,” just a long and painful story, it gets pushed to the side — ignored, or soon forgotten, if new ways aren’t continually found to bring the issue back into the news.

So at the same time, the worldwas focused on soccer and cave diving, eight million people in Yemen moved closer to death from starvation, with far less fanfare.

We were concerned with 12 boys in a Thai cave, and several thousand children separated from their parents and kept in cages in the United States for being “illegal” migrants, but conservative estimates conclude that at least 50,000 children died from malnutrition and disease last year in Yemen alone.

With a military offensive underway by Saudi Arabia and allies against the Houthi militia, those horrible numbers will skyrocket if taking the port of Hodeidah remains the objective of their assault.

Local players might find a solution to the war in Yemen if they were not backed by outside agents (Saudi Arabia and Iran) that are essentially fighting the war by proxy. The recent escalation has apparently been endorsed by the American administration, making it complicit in this unfolding tragedy.

Whether his actions are deliberate or merely the result of impulsive early-morning tweets, U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been marked by acrimony, both at home and abroad.

Allies are poised to become antagonists, while supposed antagonists seem to have become friends.
In Trump’s decisions, however, there also seems to be a consistent curve toward encouraging conflict. Under moderate leadership, Iran could be a force for stability in an area where— looking at Iraq, Syria and Libya — there has been nothing but devastation for more than 25 years.

From moving the American embassy to Jerusalem to cancelling the Iranian nuclear deal, to cutting off the oil exports on which Iran’s economic recovery from decades of sanctions depends, Trump seems to be taking every possible step, short of declaring war, to ensure instability will continue in the Middle East.
Those eight million people at risk of death in Yemen seem about to become anonymous casualties of the politics of governments — or presidents — that don’t care.

Clearly, looking at the overwhelming public response to boys trapped in caves or children kept in cages, however, it seems ordinary people do care, once they know what is really going on.

We all have a responsibility to make sure the Yemen story continues to be told until something changes for the better.

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Learning to live without plastic

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 2, 2018)

#BeatPollution was the hashtag for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early December. The theme was “Toward a pollution-free planet,” which all the UN member states were supposed to address in resolutions, side events and presentations at the global headquarters for the United Nations environment program.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. While governments agreed on some ambitious proposals in Nairobi, what happens when everyone gets home is the real test.

Pollution most concerns us when it is obvious, local and personal — when you can’t breathe because of poor air quality, when the water is contaminated to the point you can’t drink it, when the ground makes you and your children sick just to walk on it — then, people get upset about pollution.

What is most frightening, however, is when the effects are just as serious, but the pollution itself is not so immediate or obvious.

Take lead, for example. One resolution moved to ban lead in all paints, globally. Too many countries in the world still allow it — and Canada only banned lead in paint in 1990. Leaded gasoline is still for sale, though almost all of it is lead-free these days. Out of curiosity, I took a free blood test to check my own lead levels… and despite living in what I thought was a relatively lead-free environment, my level was 5.9/10. In an adult, apparently it needs to be more than 10 to be cause for concern, but any level of lead in children can cause serious and lifelong cognitive disabilities.

Industrial pollutants can be like this — persistent in the environment, persistent in our bodies, causing (in combination) health problems later in life. The only way to stop this from happening is to stop the pollution at the source.

Plastic is perhaps the worst example. Most of the plastic ever made is still around us — it can take thousands of years to decompose. Yet most of it is for convenience, unnecessary, used to save us time and effort. If we factored in the cost of this long-term plastic contamination of the planet, those throw-away, single-use plastics from fast-food operations (apparently the single biggest source) would cost more than stainless steel.

There is so much plastic in the oceans already that there is no longer such a thing as plastic-free wild fish anymore — and by 2050, there will be (by weight) as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It’s not just the big chunks, either — micro-plastics, such as microfibres from polyester clothing, or micro-beads of plastic in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste to who knows what, are already in the water we drink and the food we eat. The byproducts of plastics are certainly circulating through our bloodstreams, in ever-increasing amounts.

Despite this, the piles of plastic waste grow. One resolution started to tackle the issue of marine plastics pollution and to identify the land-based sources and the barriers to cleaning up the oceans. It may be hard for Winnipeggers to get concerned about the subject, at least until the next time you eat fish, but there are roughly a billion people worldwide who depend on the sea for the food they need to survive.

It’s a huge job — how does one clean up an ocean? — but it’s clearly easier to stop the plastic from getting into the water in the first place. We just have to start, and to stop making excuses for continuing to foul our collective nest with plastics we don’t need.

For example — plastic straws. Ban them. Period. Plastic knuckles for coffee cream? Don’t eat at restaurants that continue to serve them, because they can’t be bothered finding another way. Carry your own cutlery for takeout food — and make sure the containers are made of paper or compostable materials.

And those plastic bags, the ones we can’t seem to do without? The ones we tried to encourage people not to use, and then gave up?

For the first time ever, I had to be very careful not to pack anything (like shoes) in a plastic bag in my luggage. Kenya has joined a growing list of countries in Africa to ban single-use plastic bags. Some, like Uganda, have had limited success.

Not Kenya — enforcement is strict and the penalties are severe. With fines of US$400 and/or four years in jail, the government means business.

In the Nairobi airport on my way home, I ran into Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources, and told her how wonderful it was that the Kenyan government was doing something about the problem of plastics pollution.

She said they were serious about cleaning up the problem, and the strict enforcement would continue. She was glad to hear me report that driving through the countryside, this time, past dozens of outdoor markets, plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

Government regulations can work, if they are applied to everyone. In Nairobi, people walk into the upscale Two Rivers Mall carrying their own shopping bags — because they have no other choice except to put mushrooms in their pockets.

A ban on single-use plastics of all kinds — starting with bags — could be part of a Manitoba climate and green plan.

It only took Kenya six months.

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