scientist pointing out important evidence

When the science is precise, but nothing happens

Certain types of scientists get to stand next to the politicians—objectivity supplied by the majority is ignored

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, everyone listened intently to the science. 

The presence of chief medical officers has accompanied each public announcement. Everyone has read and mostly heeded advice from health experts on protecting themselves and their loved ones.

Some of the same scientists, especially epidemiologists and public health experts, have been warning for decades that a pandemic of this extent was coming, and we needed to be better prepared.

Health is immediate, you see. 

More strictly, the prospect of illness is immediate and everyone will listen to the advice if they believe it will help them stay healthy. 

Health applies to the present, not some distant future. There is nothing like the immediate threat of a virus to get people to listen to science.

doctor wearing PPE and holding a COVID vaccine
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

What about the health of the environment?

Politicians don’t talk about the environment much. 

It is challenging for them because it would mean that human actions that deliver economic growth also impact nature. No one who relies on the public for their power can push anything other than dominion over nature.

Sometimes our political brethren benefit from association with conservationists with their passion for endangered species. There is cuteness in the forward-facing eyes of the panda and the koala, so why not announce that the latter joins the former in being officially endangered. 

The waft of feel-good votes comes across on the breeze.

But politicians have little to gain from standing next to an ecologist because they will say something like this:

“The science is clear: climate, biodiversity and human health are fully interdependent.” 

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president who heads the European Green Deal; Achim Steiner, of the UN Development Programme; and Sandrine Dixson-Declève, of the Club of Rome.

Clean air, freshwater, and nutritious food are essential for a healthy human. It is impossible to remain healthy if any fundamentals are contaminated or in short supply. 

No politician would risk standing next to a scientist saying the science is clear on the interdependence of human health because that would mean admitting that the environment matters. It is not there just to provide resources and a dumping ground for waste.

unmanged rubbish dump
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Human adaptation

The politicians are lucky because humans are adaptive creatures. We can tolerate a lot before we fall over. 

For example, Delhi, India, home to 32 million people, is a heavily polluted city. Large power plants and refineries, vehicles, and stubble burning put the particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) levels in the air way above national and World Health Organization guidelines and are the primary cause of the city’s high cardiovascular disease rate. The air in the city also contains high levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide, increasing the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and high blood pressure and exacerbating COVID-19 respiratory issues.

People still live in heavily polluted cities like Dehli, Hotan in China or Kanpur in India. Indeed they still choose to move to these places. Delhi is expected to add 7 million more by 2030.

Human adaptation and resilience to poor conditions are part of the problem. Human flexibility allows the politicians more leeway with risks to public health, especially the chronic diseases that come from poor air, dirty water or food that promotes obesity.

COVID-19 is acute and forces the hand of leaders everywhere. The science is clear on the environment too, but the consequences are masked by human adaptation and economic necessity.

This stretches the implications beyond the politician’s frame of reference and as long as he keeps clear of the ecologists, it is out of voters’ reach.


What sustainably FED suggests.

As scientists, we have advised on evidence-based policy, and it truly is a tough gig. 

Technocrats and their politician masters are content poor, more likely a lawyer than a labourer, with an aversion to anything that refuses to spin. They don’t need to know the truth and have no reason to seek it. After all, it hurts, right? 

After a few glasses of chardonnay, they might admit that they don’t even drink beer anymore, that evidence is not their thing. Knowing that the environment is in trouble or that the planning policy contradicts the biodiversity act and neither has any connection to agriculture that doesn’t even have a policy, well, that is just annoying. Anyway, that is not what they mean by evidence.

Go anywhere near the facts we highlight on this website on the environmental impact of resource use, population, diet, food security, ecological time, and the intimacy of humanity with nature. Even a bottle or two of South Australia’s finest will not be enough. Such evidence means admitting we are all part of nature. 

Agree to that, and the whole house of cards tumbles.


Hero image from photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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