Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#478 - Science & Environment, 24-Jan-1996

SCIENCE magazine is the journal of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, the mainstream of the mainstream in American
science. In recent years, the editors of SCIENCE have been generally
hostile to environmental protection. For example, in editorials, they
have ridiculed the idea that toxic chemicals might be a serious danger
to human and environmental health, saying scientific risk assessment
can show chemicals and radiation to be safe.[1]

But in April, 1993, SCIENCE published a short, meaty article about how
science fails to help solve environmental problems, and in fact often
contributes to making those problems worse.[2] Written by two
biologists and a mathematician (two Canadians and an American), the
article discusses the failures of science in environmental protection.
Here we highlight the main points from that article, and then, inside
square brackets, provide our own interpretation and examples. The
article is about resource exploitation, but it might apply equally well
to all environmental problems, including the use of toxic chemicals.

** Today, many plans for sustainable use or sustainable development
have been put forward, founded upon scientific information and

** Such plans reflect ignorance of the history of resource
exploitation. [By "resource" the authors mean fish, trees, and minerals
such as gold and oil.] Such plans also reflect misunderstanding of the
possibility of achieving scientific consensus concerning resources and
the environment. [In other words, scientific consensus about
sustainable levels of resource exploitation is harder to achieve than
most people think.]

** Despite variation in the details, there is remarkable consistency in
the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably
overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction.

** There are four reasons for this:

** Wealth or the prospect of wealth generates political and social
power that is used to drive overexploitation.

** "Scientific understanding and consensus is [sic] hampered by the
lack of controls and replicates, so that each new problem requires
learning about a new system." [In other words, most natural resources
are unique, so finding a similar system to keep in a natural state for
comparison purposes, is impossible. Similarly, if some understanding is
developed based on a particular system, it is impossible to duplicate
elsewhere because no identical system can be found.]

** The complexity of the underlying biological and physical systems
precludes a reductionist approach to management. Optimum levels of
exploitation must be learned by trial and error. [In other words,
traditional scientific method doesn't work well when studying natural
systems because they are too complicated to simplify and then study,
which is the way most science has traditionally worked. Therefore, the
only way to proceed is blindly, by trial and error--a costly way of

** "Large levels of natural variability mask the effects of
overexploitation. Initial overexploitation is not detectable until it
is severe and often irreversible." [We see this going on in the
Chesapeake Bay right now. The blue crab population --a major "resource"
of the Bay --fluctuates up and down from year to year. Now the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization, and
the Maryland state government are both saying the crab population has
been endangered by too much crabbing. People who want to continue
crabbing in the usual way pooh-pooh any concerns about the crab
population, saying crabs vary in number year to year and the low
population found today is just part of a natural fluctuation.
Scientific consensus on this issue has, so far, been impossible to

** "In such circumstances, assigning causes to past events is
problematical, future events cannot be predicted, and even well-meaning
attempts to exploit responsibly may lead to disastrous consequences."

** It is more appropriate to think of resources as managing humans
rather than the converse: the larger and the more immediate are the
prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to
facilitate unlimited exploitation. Examples: gold rushes, exploitation
of forests.

** "We propose that we shall NEVER attain scientific consensus
concerning the systems that are being exploited... [because] controlled
and replicated experiments are impossible to perform in large-scale
systems. Therefore, there is ample scope for differing
interpretations." [Emphasis added.]

** Problems experienced in exploitation of fisheries (California
sardine; Peruvian anchoveta; Pacific salmon) are compounded when it
comes to predicting phenomena of major concern, such as global warming
and other changes in the atmosphere.

** Time-scales are so great that observational studies are unlikely to
provide timely indications of required actions or the consequences of
failing to take remedial measures.

** "Scientific certainty and consensus in itself would not prevent
overexploitation and destruction of resources. Many practices continue
even in cases where there is abundant scientific evidence that they are
ultimately destructive." [Example: irrigation in California. People
have known since the 19th century that irrigation increases the salt
content of soils, unless those soils can be flushed regularly with
abundant fresh water. Yet in the San Joaquin valley, for example, there
exists no flushing mechanisms to rid the soils of a buildup of salts
and pesticides. Thus, San Joaquin valley soils are being ruined by
current agricultural practice, yet the practice continues.]

** Our lack of understanding, and inability to predict, mandate a much
more cautious approach to resource exploitation than is the norm. Here
are some suggestions for management [provided by Ludwig, Hilborn and

** "Include human motivation and responses as part of the system to be
studied and managed. The shortsightedness and greed of humans underlie
difficulties in management of resources..."

** "Act before scientific consensus is achieved. WE DO NOT REQUIRE ANY
POLLUTION, AND DEPLETION OF FOSSIL FUELS. Calls for additional research
may be mere delaying tactics." [Emphasis added.]

** Rely on scientists to recognize problems, but not to remedy them.
The judgment of scientists is often heavily influenced by their
training in their respective disciplines, but... the most important
issues involving resources and the environment... must involve many

** [Furthermore], "scientists and their judgments are subject to
political pressure."

** "Distrust claims of sustainability.... Recently some of the world's
leading ecologists have claimed that the key to a sustainable biosphere
is research on a long list of standard research topics in ecology."

** "Such a claim... may lead to false complacency: instead of
addressing the problems of population growth and excessive use of
resources, we may avoid such difficult issues by spending money on
basic ecological research."

** "Confront uncertainty. Once we free ourselves from the illusion that
science or technology (if lavishly funded) can provide a solution to
resource or conservation problems, appropriate action becomes
possible." [We will never have complete knowledge about the problems we
face; if we refuse to act while we wait for that knowledge to
accumulate, it will be too late.]

** "Effective policies are possible under conditions of uncertainty,
but they must take uncertainty into account... Most principles of
decisionmaking under uncertainty are simply common sense."

** Nine principles for decision-making:

** 1. Consider a variety of plausible hypotheses about the world;

** 2. Consider a variety of possible strategies;

** 3. Favor actions that are robust to uncertainties;

** 4. Hedge [meaning, avoid irretrievable commitment; assume that what
you're about to do might be a mistake];

** 5. Favor actions that are informative;

** 6. Probe and experiment;

** 7. Monitor results;

** 8. Update assessments and modify policies accordingly;

** 9. Favor actions that are reversible.

** Scientists have been active in pointing out environmental
degradation and consequent hazards to human life, and possibly to life
as we know it. But by and large the scientific community has helped to
perpetuate the illusion of sustainable development through scientific
and technological progress.

** "Resource problems are not really environmental problems: They are
human problems that we have created at many times and in many places,
under a variety of political, social, and economic systems."

[The major environmental problems of our time have only become apparent
to us during the past 20 to 30 years. What new ones we will learn about
in the coming 20 to 30 years we (unfortunately) cannot imagine. But we
can say this: the problems that we face have been brought upon us by
people who ignored the nine management principles listed above. In any
proposed technical project --nuclear power, chlorinated chemicals,
burning of fossil fuels, 'development' that diminishes biodiversity,
incinerators, landfills, and so forth --science cannot tell us what is
safe or good or just. Relying on science instead of common sense and
human values to guide us has led the human species to the precipice.
Can we change our ways? Can we put science into proper perspective and
look elsewhere for guidance in curbing our excesses?]

--Peter Montague


[1] For example July 23, 1993 (Vol. 261, pg. 407), in an editorial
titled "Toxic Terror: Phantom Risks," editor Philip Abelson wrote, "The
public has long been subjected to a one-sided portrayal of risks of
environmental hazards, particularly industrial chemicals. Only a few
individuals have attempted to bring balance into the picture. They have
faced a self-serving, formidable de facto alliance of media, well-
heeled environmental organizations, federal regulators, and the
plaintiffs' bar." On August 26, 1994, (Vol. 265, pg. 1155) Mr. Abelson
referred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "a tool of
Greenpeace." And see Mr. Abelson's editorial July 31, 1987 (Vol. 237,
pg. 473) titled, "Cancer Phobia" and Daniel Koshland's editorial,
"Science and Society," April 9, 1993, (Vol. 260, pg. 143). I know for a
fact that other members of the SCIENCE editorial staff have, for years,
been embarrassed by Mr. Abelson's and Mr. Koshland's extremist views.

[2] Donald Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters, "Uncertainty,
Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History," SCIENCE
Vol. 260 (April 2, 1993), pgs. 17, 36. Ludwig is with the departments
of mathematics and zoology at University of British Columbia (UBC) in
Vancouver, BC; Ray Hilborn is in the School of Fisheries at University
of Washington in Seattle; Carl Walters is with the department of
zoology at UBC.

Descriptor terms: science magazine; science; sustainable use;
sustainability; forestry; logging; fisheries; fishing; mining; toxic
chemicals; chesapeake bay; uncertainty; decision making; resource
management; philip abelson; daniel koshland;