Scientists, especially those in academia, have played an enormous role in the modern environmental movement. From Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Margaret Mead, to Barry Commoner, Ursula Franklin, David Schindler, Ransom Myers and E.O. Wilson, reputable scientists have sounded the warnings and become public figures in the quest for a cleaner, healthier planet. Much of the momentum began in 1962 with the publication of Ms. Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring. Remember, when her book was published, no government on the planet had a department or ministry of the environment. This tide of science-driven, environmental advocacy continues today, albeit in small pockets, on campuses across North America and the rest of the world.

Never has there been a more important moment for academics to speak out. U.S. President George Bush’s perversion of science to political ends is outrageous and ought to be openly challenged at every opportunity. The fact that Mr. Bush, as well as some other politicians, continued to deny the seriousness or even reality of global warming until 2007 is an affront to the scientific community. Every leading scientific body from the National Academy of Sciences (US), Royal Society of Canada, Royal Society of London (UK) to those in China, Japan, Germany, Russia, and more, has declared the threat of human-induced global warming to be real and has called for immediate and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not use the best science available to help us formulate policy and strategy to confront the most serious issues facing society, we are in a perilous state.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government’s stance on global warming has not gone unnoticed. This year, the internationally respected British science journal, Nature, published a strongly worded editorial that criticized the federal government’s skepticism on the science of global warming and its retreat from Canada’s Kyoto commitment.

The role of the academic in promoting environmental sustainability is pivotal. On the one hand, the general public trusts scientists. On the other hand, the academic has a reciprocal responsibility to engage the populace; after all, they are bilingual, speaking the arcane language of science as well as the vernacular of society. Just as Ms. Carson did in 1962, scientists have to go beyond their narrow role as experts to become leaders who inform the public with what they know. It is the only way to ensure that the public can make informed interventions and force those with the authority to carry out conservation plans and be accountable for their actions.

Equally, with this responsibility comes a great privilege: the open access to new ideas in an arena that encourages thought and debate. When it comes to the environment, students, scholars and academics, like any other group, have a lot at stake in these issues. It should go without saying then, that the very place they congregate should be as green as possible. However, the most important factor enabling such academic environmental activism has been tenure. Certainly speaking from very personal experience, tenure liberated me from concern about the political and economic consequences of speaking out on issues that involved a clash with corporate or government interests. Tenure was never meant as a sinecure. Instead, tenure is a great privilege wisely conferred to relieve academics of possible consequences of thinking beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Academics have a distinguished history in the role they played in the environmental movement. Sadly, there has been a serious erosion of that seminal role. As universities have sought to supplement their budgets with new sources of revenue, they have entered into an unhealthy partnership with the private sector.

I remember taping a program for The Nature of Things on the Alberta tar sands in 1974. A year earlier, the Arab oil embargo led to spectacular and terrifying rises in oil prices. The instability prompted the Science Council of Canada to assign the task of responding to the challenge to Dr. Ursula Franklin. Her committee’s 1974 report, Canada as a Conserver Society, laid out the framework for what could have led to a fundamental shift to a more efficient, less polluting, sustainable future. In Alberta, then Premier Peter Lougheed proposed rapidly increasing both the number and size of plants in the tar sands. At that time, there was one plant that produced approximately 50 tonnes of sulfur dioxide a year— a lot of acid precipitation. We tried unsuccessfully to interview biologists about the ecological consequences of ramping up tar sands development. The refusal of academics to be interviewed on camera reflected a fear of reprisal or jeopardy of their grants from the oil sector. As biotechnology companies blossomed in universities, serious discussion about the possible hazards or negative consequences was muted as faculty became much more secretive because new insights might be patented. The very reason for tenure was being undermined by the potential for revenue and profit.

Foresight, prescription, and the management of our future

The unique ability of the human brain to conceive of an abstract concept like the future was critical to humans becoming the dominant mammal on the planet. This enabled us to recognize that we could influence that future by what we do in the present. By looking ahead, we could anticipate dangers and opportunities and deliberately choose a path that would avoid the dangers while exploiting the opportunities. Foresight, coupled with a vast memory, curiosity and inventiveness enabled us to assume an unprecedented position of dominance. Today, human numbers, technological prowess and a huge appetite for consumer goods delivered by a global economy, have made our species a new kind of force capable of altering the biological, chemical and physical features of the planet on a geological scale. And in that position, we have never needed the gift of foresight more. The great descriptive power of science must be a primary element to manage our impact on Earth and navigate the uncertain waters of the future. The major credible source of scientific information is academia without a vested interest in the issues being discussed.

We have to raise public awareness about the nature of science itself. The great strength of science is in its description of the features and state of the world around us. The power of description cannot be overstated. Darwin’s observations and inference about evolution have had repercussions throughout society even as we continue to debate the mechanisms underlying the process. Pure description of changing carbon dioxide levels, melting glaciers, migrating animals and plants, has been a powerful indicator that our climate is in fact changing.

When it comes to the environment, students, scholars and academics have a lot at stake. It should go without saying that the very place they congregate should be as green as possible.

But that state of description is in its infancy and we too often mistake our incremental observations with “breakthroughs” in our understanding and ability to control the forces of nature. Take, for example, those who claim to manage fisheries, forests, air, or water. In order to manage anything, whether it is a population of wild animals or a candy store, at a minimum, we need an inventory of everything involved and a blueprint illustrating how the components are interconnected. Well, if we think about Earth, how many species are there? Scientists don’t know. There are estimates, anywhere from two million to a hundred million. Most biologists seem comfortable with the estimate of ten to thirty million. To date, we have identified about 1.5 million species which thus suggests we know between five and fifteen per cent of all biological complexity on the planet. And all “identification” means is that a scientist has given it a taxonomic name. It does not mean we know population size, geographic habitat or interaction with other species. We know detailed information on far less than one per cent of all species that have been identified. How could we possibly manage anything with such a primitive level of knowledge? The global ecocrisis demands action but, in view of our ignorance, we should stay away from such geomanipulations such as pouring iron in oceans to stimulate algal growth or spreading sulfur dioxide to mimic the shading of volcanic eruptions. Human beings are at the centre of the problems and we are the only part of the system that can be managed.

An example of the folly of assuming sufficient knowledge to manage nature is the way we treat Pacific salmon. For thousands of years on the west coast of North America, billions of salmon have made their final dash to spawn in thousands of rivers and streams. We have known for years that the five species of Pacific salmon need the forest because whenever the trees surrounding a watershed are cleared, salmon populations in that watershed plummet and even disappear. The fish need the trees to cling to soil and prevent erosion that clogs spawning reddes, to shade the streams to keep temperatures lower and to provide feed to the baby salmon before they reach the ocean. Biologists have discovered the need is reciprocal, that the forest needs the fish.

It rains a lot along the Pacific coast and that water supports the temperate rainforest that has the highest biomass of any ecosystem on the planet. Trees there are huge. But that heavy rainfall washes matter out of the soil and along the coast, nitrogen is in scarce supply and is the limiting growth factor. Scientists have long wondered how such big trees could grow in such poor soil. The answer turns out to be the salmon. On land, most nitrogen is found in the form of 14N while in the oceans; the heavier isotope of 15N is more abundant and is a useful ‘marker’ for a marine origin. When the salmon go to sea, their growth incorporates a lot of 15N into their bodies. Using the isotopic markers, scientists have demonstrated that when salmon return to their natal streams, they represent by far, the single largest pulse of nitrogen fertilizer the forest receives in a year.

Through vectors like bears, wolves, eagles and insects, 15N from the ocean is spread through the forest. Annual growth rings have been shown to correlate with both the size of salmon runs and amount of 15N present in rings. Carcasses of salmon that sink to the river bottom are soon covered in thick coats of fungus and bacteria that provide feed for the baby salmon when they emerge from the gravel to begin moving. Salmon carried by bears into the forest are soon devoured by fly maggots that then drop to the forest litter and emerge the following spring by the trillions just at the time birds migrating from South America pass through on the way to Arctic nesting grounds.

Ocean and land, northern and southern hemispheres, fish, trees, birds and mammals are all a part of a single integrated entity. Modern society attempts to manage these various components by distributing them to different ministries: fish to Fisheries and Oceans (commercial), Indian Affairs (native food) and Tourism (sports); trees to Forestry; eagles, bears and wolves to Environment; rivers and lakes to Agriculture (irrigation) and Energy; boulders and mountains to Mining. This approach shatters what is a single entity into limited governable pieces thereby ensuring they will never be managed sustainably.

Our great weakness in science is in prescription, which is providing profound solutions to problems. Right now a large part of the problem is that we know so little. But there is another even deeper difficulty. Most of modern science, especially in the life sciences, is based on reductionism, which is focusing on a part of nature. We try to bring that fragment—a subatomic particle, atom, molecule, cell, etc—into the lab where we can control, manipulate and measure it. And this provides powerful insights. We have learned to release energy by splitting atoms, read and synthesize the genetic code, clone molecules, cells and organisms. The hope is that if we can acquire enough information about the pieces, then like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, it can all be put together to provide a coherent whole.

But in the process of focusing on a part, we remove it from the context within which it exists and interacts and so we are blind to the rhythms, patterns and cycles that impinge on it. While we learn a great deal through reductionism, no amount of experimentation can provide the important insights into how it all works in the real world.

As an example, we need look no further than DDT, a complex ring molecule that was first synthesized in the 1800s. When Peter Mueller, working for Geigy in Switzerland, discovered that DDT kills insects, it was hailed as a miracle cure for pestilence that had plagued humankind for millennia. Mueller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948. I vividly remember in the mid 1940s on a farm in southern Ontario, my mother would set out food for dinner then spray DDT above it, a mist then slowly sinking onto our plates. We believed the press, that here was a miracle chemical, killing pests but harmless to people. But by the 1950s, massive use of DDT was found to correlate with declines in bird populations and in tracking down the cause biologists discovered a hitherto unknown phenomenon of biomagnification. No amount of testing in growth chambers or control plots could ever have revealed the concentration of molecules up the food chain, ultimately accumulating in the shell glands of birds and affecting the viability of eggs.

Here is the crux of what I believe is the great challenge for academics. We have to educate people about the reality of the biosphere within which we live and derive a living. We have to show them that we remain animals, as dependent on the quality of air, water, soil and energy and on biodiversity, as any other species. We have to make science an integral part of the way we plan and strategize into the future. And we have to openly acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of both the scientific enterprise and the economic system that shapes so much of our lives. AM

David Suzuki is an internationally respected geneticist, professor emeritus with the University of British Columbia’s Sustainable Development Research Institute, co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation and an award-winning broadcaster