Green With Skepticism: Top 3 Uncritical Pet Peeves
This is my first (of hopefully many!) environmental posts from a skeptics perspective. My education has been entirely in the field of environmental studies and I have blogged on various blogs about environmental topics so hopefully that gives me a little bit of credibility! In this first post I look at three super annoying uncritical assumptions that some environmentalists have: natural being inherently better, local knowledge being better than scientific knowledge and scientific knowledge being colonial and thus useless.
I am an environmentalist. I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I don’t have a license (so I take transit everywhere) and I did my undergraduate degree (and now my masters degree) in environmental studies. I firmly believe that we should be doing the best to preserve the environment for purely anthropocentric reasons (the fact that I a) admit that and b) prefer anthropocentrism over ecocentrism already puts me miles apart from most others in my faculty. People will often refuse to admit that simply by attributing value to the environment they are already performing an act of anthropocentrism! Logic fails them.). Humans are unique and wonderful… sustaining human life means understanding and working with the environment – hence I am environmentalist. It is interesting being an environmentalist in the skeptic’s world because there are so many things automatically attributed to environmentalists that are not always true. However – having been surrounded by avid hippies for the past six years I can see why some skeptics would be a bit turned off from the environmental movement. I plan on writing a few posts about environmentalism in the next few months so for this first one I want to talk about three of the most frustrating themes that come up in my faculty that I constantly have to fight against. (Some of the things I bring up I will discuss more later on [ie: GMO’s])
1. Natural is inherently better
Many people in the faculty like to hold the claim that natural things are inherently better than synthetic things. With this comes a war against GMOs, vaccines, modern medicines and synthetic clothing. It is horrible going to a pot luck at my faculty because you usually need to bring a dish that is vegan, organic and free of wheat extract. In every class you’ll be warned about the dangers of your makeup, taking advil/Tylenol and drinking anything with aspartame. They like to wear hemp clothing (that they make themselves) and hold crocheting circles to teach one another how to make organic socks for their children. While some of their claims hold true (there are a lot of chemicals in makeup and I’m still a bit up in the air about aspartame… but based on the research I’ve done I mostly think it’s fine in moderation) the claims in general and creating a community of misinformation is really dangerous. There is an automatic rejection of things that have any sort of synthetic chemical in them and they usually back this fear up by saying “well there are so many chemicals!”… Ask them what those chemicals do…. “they make you sick! And I have this one friend whose mom’s best friend had a bad chemical reaction to hair dye and it burned her whole scalp!”
The GMO topic is especially scary because they seem to think that the world can be fed 100% on organic foods. This may be the case, but when you’re advocating for starving countries, that are existing within the current food framework not an ideal/fair one, NOT to accept GMO foods it can become pretty harmful. Also there are a lot of parents in the faculty and I have heard some of them (definitely more than 5 that I personally know) say that they will no longer rely on traditional medicine to treat their children because it can actually be more dangerous than the original sickness. So while I support people wanting to wear itchy hemp clothes… I do not support people avoiding modern medicine based on anecdotal evidence.
2. Value of local and “old” knowledge
People in the faculty usually think deferring to old and/or local knowledge is better than scientific or recently developed knowledge. People in the faculty like to use aboriginal methodologies based on circular knowledge (whatever that means) to do their research. They put the knowledge of locals in an area above the knowledge produced by scientists because the scientists don’t live there so they don’t *really* understand the migration path of the caribou… only the local people do (apparently). Additionally there are professors in the faculty that constantly encourage people to talk to “elders” to gain knowledge about the world. They say that current knowledge has been created with too many ideologies and interests in mind and thus to get true wisdom and knowledge about the world you have to talk to elders. Note the words “you have to” in that sentence. So if you want to know when to plant a tomato seed “you have to” speak with someone who has done it for a long time, you can’t just read a book.
The worst part about this topic is how sensitive it is here in Canada. When you start to challenge aboriginal ways of knowing there is an automatic response of “well don’t we at least owe it to them to see things through their eyes?”… Umm, no… not really. We owe it to them to treat them like normal human beings which means challenging their “ways of knowing” and finding a common language that involves modern ways of understanding.
Side note: I had a prof one year who was super into this “elders” thing… but he also believed that space exploration is totally horrible because once humans go into space they are no longer “human” because humans are only human based on the context of living on Earth. So once we leave Earth we are no longer “earthings” or “humans” we are aliens. WEIRD, right!?
3. Science is colonial
The trouble with arguing against all of these things is this argument that you get back: well scientific knowledge is colonial and therefore it isn’t useful in discussions. Because science is a western, imperial form of knowing about the world, they argue that it shouldn’t be use. They say that when you come from a scientific point of view that you are automatically oppressing the local and old knowledge. AND that because science is a western tradition that the knowledge ALWAYS comes with interests and therefore it can’t be trusted to be “real truth”. These two statements make it literally impossible to argue against the first two things I’ve talked about. Scientific knowledge about GMO’s and vaccines are seen are “useless” because the studies have be done with too many interests. People funding science just want to ensure that their products will still be bought and that is why studies end up showing GMOs as being okay or vaccines not causing autism.
It’s really unfortunate because a lot of the people in the faculty are really intelligent, but they take this very harsh stance against the mainstream. This stance includes denying most science and even ridiculing science. Most people are very harsh towards the more scientifically inclined in the faculty saying that it “isn’t fair” that scientists seem to think their knowledge is better than social scientists and that instead of social scientists having to change to meet the rigour of physical scientists that physical scientists need to learn how to use qualitative methodologies in their work in order to represent local/old/traditional knowledge. “But how can physics have different laws based on different traditions?” you might ask…. Who knows….. but apparently some aboriginals have answers that science is oppressing with their laws.
Now, not all environmentalists think this way… these are simply the common sentiments that are shared by students (undergraduate, masters and PhD) within my faculty. I have also found that when I tell people I study environmental studies that sometimes they’ll say “oh so you only eat organic, you know that’s bullshit, right?” or something along those lines. No, I don’t eat organic but I do try to limit my pressure on the earth’s environment through other actions. I also try to challenge these anti-science and anti-skeptical assumptions about the world that appear in the environmentalist studies realm. If you push them hard enough for long enough some will admit that they are simply being ideological and unrealistic about the real state of the world. So when you meet an environmentalist talk to them about these topics and if they believe one or two or all – then challenge them!! Because the environmental movement needs more straight thinkers who understand the importance of science and how it positively informs politics, social issues and education.
Like I said, this is numero unero in an unknown number of posts about the environment. Next week I’ll be talking about climate change denialism. Some other topics I think I’ll likely cover are: vegetarianism, being childfree, ecological economics, systems thinking and post normal science in the ecohealth approach, Chinese health and environment and hopefully urban farming (which I actually know nothing about but would like to know more).