Environmental journalism, by and large, reflects not just news of the day (and an underlying theme) but also the zeitgeist. For example, when I made ecology my beat in the late 1990s, stories about the biodiversity crisis were prevalent in mainstream media and in environmental magazines–one of which I worked at through most of the 2000s.
In my current feature story on the divide in the conservation community, I have a historical section on the roots of environmental conservation. There, I talk about a progression in ecology–evolving primary concerns over a 100-year period, from wilderness preservation and endangered species to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Of course, ecology is a huge field with many sub-disciplines. What I’m referring to are issues that were picked up in the media and frequently covered, which helped them gain traction as popular causes. This does not happen in a vacuum. Influential thought leaders and vocal scientists play an instrumental role.
For instance, if you want to understand how biodiversity became a huge story in the 1980s and 1990s, read “The Idea of Biodiversity,” by David Takacs. This 1996 book is also mentioned in a recent paper published in the journal Ethics, Policy, and the Environment. The authors argue:
We suggest that biodiversity is only the most recent in a long line of scientific “proxies” promoted to the public as a basis for conservation values. Such proxies gain widespread popularity due to their veneer of empirical objectivity, which encourages the public and policy makers to believe that decisions made on the their basis are value-neutral and free from any ideological commitments.
Be sure to read the whole paper, for the authors do not aim to de-legitimize the concept of biodiversity. Indeed, towards the end, they write: Read More
In a brilliant essay (PDF), the American geographer D. W. Meinig writes: “Any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.”
Meinig’s piece is in a classic 1979 book of essays called, “The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes.” This collection features scholars whose work touches on the human/environment relationship. The academic field is known as Human Geography.
When I write about ecological matters, I have to understand the science of ecology. But the people who advance ecology (and ecological issues) have a worldview, a philosophy that informs how they think about nature. It is in this context that science and culture are commingled.
In recent years, I have watched a contentious debate unfold between highly respected, influential ecologists. Read More
In 2014, as in years past, I used this space to offer observations on a wide range of stories and subjects. I critiqued faux journalism that went viral, called attention to the creepy antics of an alternative health advocate, discussed the Science Guy’s blind spot on GMOs, revisited a few touchy archaeological issues, and discovered perhaps the most insufferable egomaniac on Twitter.
I continued to track the winding Anthropocene narrative and kept current with familiar and tenuous climate change storylines. I also marveled at the durable popularity of an influential environmental speaker.
Last summer I was at a party where the guests included a bunch of successful heart surgeons. I spoke at length with one of them (I’ll refer to him as Dr. X) who has known and sometimes worked with Dr. Oz at New York-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan. Dr. X is in his 40s. He told me Oz had been a mentor to him.
I mentioned Oz’s popular TV show and how Oz, an accomplished, highly respected surgeon, had become increasingly known (and criticized) for promoting unscientific ideas and unproven health remedies. Dr. X nodded his head in lament. He agreed with Oz’s critics but he said that on balance, he thought Oz was a force for good because he got many people to care about their health.
It’s an interesting calculation. The next time I see Dr. X I might ask him if he still believes that Oz is a net plus, given this recent finding. Read More
The Vani Hari success story is remarkable. Here’s a synopsis from a recently syndicated article published in the Chicago Tribune:
Less than four years ago, Hari didn’t even have a Twitter or Facebook account. She was afraid of social media, worried a slip of the thumb could jeopardize her consulting contracts implementing technology and strategy at Bank of America and other financial institutions. Now, photos on Hari’s website and blog flaunt her perfectly applied cosmetics, shiny black hair and petite frame. She has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America and Inside Edition.
Hari’s appeal stems in part from her use of Web video. One opens with her doing a back-bend in a low-cut exercise top. She greets the viewer, saying how much she loves yoga and how hungry it makes her. Then she bites off a corner of her yoga mat. “Umm,” she says. “Wake up people. Take a look at the ingredients in Subway’s nine-grain bread. Did you know that one of them is the same ingredients found in yoga mats?
In case you’re not making the connection, Hari is famously known as the Food Babe, a nickname her husband gave her when she switched careers and morphed virtually overnight into a crusading food activist. Today, she is a force to be reckoned with, someone who has spearheaded several successful campaigns against major food companies. The ridiculous yoga mat chemical scare was her breakout moment.
In September, Bloomberg Businessweek took note of her meteoric rise:
Food Babe, the nom de blog for Vani Hari, a 35-year-old banking consultant turned food activist, has built an online audience by calling out companies from Starbucks (SBUX) to Chick-fil-A for using ingredients she deems harmful. She belongs to an emerging tribe of Web activists who use attention-grabbing—some say outlandish—methods to pressure companies to change their ways.
If you missed the recent Intelligence Squared debate on GMOs, it’s worth watching. Or if you prefer, read the transcript. Like Nathanael Johnson, I was initially dubious about the event, then pleasantly surprised at how it turned out.
I was also a kinda surprised to see Bill Nye (The Science Guy) piggyback on it:
They’re debating genetically modified food- what the GMF? @IQ2US My opinion is in my new book: Undeniable, The Science of Creation
— Bill Nye (@TheScienceGuy) December 3, 2014
His opinion, alas, is not very Science Guy-like, as we learned several weeks ago. Some of you might recall the open letter from Kevin Folta, a University of Florida plant scientist, inviting Nye to participate in “a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology.”
The Science Guy never responded.
This tweet caught my eye:
— Damian Carrington (@dpcarrington) November 28, 2014
A greater elaboration on this statement by Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, can be read here. It starts out this way:
Two great challenges define the 21st century–the threat of catastrophic climate change and the maddening gap between global rich and poor. These biggest challenges to worldwide peace are closely interlinked.
No question that climate change looms large, but is economic inequality–“the maddening gap between the global rich and poor”–really entwined in the manner suggested here? Please understand: I’m not questioning the inequality gap. It is distressingly real. Rather, it’s the premise of the statement that I’m questioning. For I thought that the big challenge coupled with climate change is increasing access to energy for the world’s 1.3 billion people that don’t have it–without dangerously heating up the planet.
A few sentences later, Shellnhuber says: Read More
Those of you familiar with Black Swan author Nassim Taleb know he has a formidable mind and an abrasive public persona. It is necessary to separate the two when analyzing his logic, which is what economist/writer Noah Smith does admirably in his Bloomberg column on Taleb’s controversial GMO paper. (More on Smith’s take in a minute.)
To quickly review, Taleb and his coauthors argue that the ecological and public health risks of GMOs are not adequately known, and because of the unique nature of these concerns they cumulatively pose a “risk of global harm.” Here is Taleb et al’s definition of the precautionary principle, and why they think it should apply to GMOs:
We believe that the PP should be evoked only in extreme situations: when the potential harm is systemic (rather than localized) and the consequences can involve total irreversible ruin, such as the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.”
Taleb and his coauthors argue that GMOs “fall squarely under the precautionary principle because of their systemic risk.”
Smith takes a hard look at the case laid out in the paper and identifies its fatal flaw: Read More
UPDATE: Additional news stories and responses at bottom.
The campaign by Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups to abolish the position of the European Union’s chief science advisor appears to have succeeded. James Wilsdon, a professor of science and democracy at the UK’s University of Sussex, laments this news in the Guardian, including the odd timing of the announcement:
Borrowing a trick from the Jo Moore school of media management, the European Commission chose the evening before the Rosetta landing to quietly confirm that its most senior scientific role, that of chief scientific adviser (CSA) to its president, is being scrapped.
Below is an open letter from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, Gainsville. In recent years, Folta has taken a leading role as an educator on the subject of agricultural biotechnology. He often engages with GMO critics and foes. Folta is a professor in a public institution and his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.
Dear Bill Nye:
I’ve always appreciated your ability to communicate science to the public. Your television shows taught us about our biological world and physical universe in an accessible, engaging manner. In recent years you have become an outstanding ambassador for science. You have helped many people understand that good science starts with a plausible hypothesis that is tested with careful design and statistical rigor, resulting in data that could be interpreted within the framework of the scholarly literature toward building or augmenting a scientific consensus.
You have applied this approach to teach the scientific evidence for evolution and anthropogenic climate change. You also have publicly and robustly rebutted the pseudoscientific positions underlying creationism and global warming denial. In doing so, you have shown that evidence-based conclusions trump personal beliefs.
Last week you published a new book, Undeniable, again covering the harm of science denial with regard to evolution. But then in the same text, and in later comments on Reddit, you expressed a belief-based criticism of agricultural biotechnology, or “GMO” technology. No evidence, just “here’s what I think” coupled to arguments from ignorance, and positions that lay perpendicular to the scientific consensus. Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize. Read More