Something Seedy: The Conflicting Roles of Science in Environmentalism

Among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who descended upon our nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington, dozens – hailing from all across the country – stood proudly in lab coats. These women sought to convey the simple message that policy makers must respect scientific findings and enact policy to counteract climate change. They were not alone in their linking of science and environmentalism. The March for Science, similarly, was scheduled on Earth Day, giving its appeal for “the application of science to policy” an implicit environmentalist stance. These protests represent a common assumption that science and environmentalism are natural allies. However, the idea that science can allow us to “save” nature inherently paints humans as nature’s masters, an extension of the capitalist ideology which has driven humans to exploit natural resources. While scientific inquiry has been and will continue to be essential to our understanding of the environment, we must be aware that science may also have capitalist or corporate roots. With this awareness, we must avoid “geo-fix” solutions that treat our environment as a testing ground for scientific experiments.

At the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, 196 countries agreed to curb emissions in an attempt to limit global warming to three degrees above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, however, many scientists believe we must turn to more radical solutions than simply curbing carbon emissions. They recommend large-scale technological interventions, known as “geo-fix” or “geoengineering” solutions, that would include high levels of human intrusion on the environment and involve unprecedented risk. One potential strategy, solar radiation management (SRM), calls for pumping sulfates or other aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect a greater percentage of solar rays in hopes of counteracting the greenhouse effect caused by human emission of carbon. While SRM may seem like a convenient solution, the Washington Post has summed up the overlooked negative side effects: They argue that while spewing particles will reflect sunlight, it also will “thin the ozone layer, change rain patterns, and potentially encourage international conflict.” Because Earth’s atmospheric conditions are so amazingly complex – intertwined with and constantly affected by the activity of living organisms – it would be reckless for humans to expect that we might possibly account for all of the externalities produced by a geoengineered solution.

Other geoengineered solutions are potentially even more dangerous. Carbon capture, an idea which proposes that we suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in geological reservoirs deep underground, risks a massive and potentially deadly expulsion of carbon dioxide in the event that the reservoirs are ever inadvertently exposed. Proponents argue that carbon capture is a natural strategy employed by plants in their photosynthetic processes, but such arguments are a perversion of the biological reality. Although plants do store carbon dioxide underground in their root systems, human-engineered carbon capture would require densely packed, mass storage of carbon dioxide that could cause runaway climate change if released, rather than the small pockets that individual plants store harmlessly.

Even though these carbon storage systems “remain expensive, may leak, and will be impossible to commercialize soon enough to make an impact of carbon emissions before 2050” according to experts, the Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change suggests the adoption of such carbon capture strategies. Almuth Ernsting, co-director of environmental watchdog Biofuelwatch, suggests that there may be a corporate motivation to the recommendations. “Techno-fix fantasies will be welcomed by oil companies because they distract attention from the obvious solution of cutting fossil fuel use.” Rather than banking on wonky, scientifically-engineered solutions to protect against the harmful effects of human-caused environmental degradation, we should simply limit the violence we directly inflict on the planet. However, such a relationship is something humans have historically failed to cultivate.

Manufactured solutions to social and environmental problems are nothing new. As global hunger garnered heightened attention in the 1990’s, the industry of “biotechnology” emerged, claiming that genetic modifications to crops were the key to feeding more people. A Monsanto advertisement argued that slowing the acceptance of biotechnology was “a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.” Yet their solution of genetically modified seeds was hardly an environmentalist’s idea of progress. The 1980 Supreme Court case Diamond v. Chakrabarty held that microorganisms produced by genetic engineering were not excludable from patent laws. Thus, Monsanto was able to scientifically manipulate seeds with full legal ownership of the biological compounds. In 1995, Monsanto defended its ownership rights on the international stage through the WTO’s TRIPs agreement. A subsection of the agreement granted them ownership rights to genetically engineered organisms on the global scale and has allowed Monsanto to control seed supply worldwide. Scholars such as Vandana Shiva blame Monsanto’s seed monopoly, which forces farmers to buy seeds that require expensive pesticides, for bankruptcies in Indian farms which have led to over 300,000 farmer suicides in India throughout the last two decades. Even though the seeds do not actually benefit growers, Monsanto persists in selling them because they serve to make a profit.

Because Earth’s atmospheric conditions are so amazingly complex […] it would be reckless for humans to expect that we might possibly account for all of the externalities produced by a geoengineered solution.

The capitalist incentives at play in Monsanto’s seed patents are rooted in the depths of Western culture itself. Their patents of biological material suggest that the natural world is something that humans can own and exploit in the pursuit of profit and productivity. In virtually all of Western society, private property ownership is a central tenet of societal structure. However, this culture aggravates an exploitive and non-sustainable relationship between humans and the natural world. Drawing on millennia of Western traditions, philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that “animals are not self-conscious and are there only as a means to an end. That end is Man.” Yet it is precisely this perspective of seeing the natural world as the means to an end, as an array of resources meant for human manipulation, that has led us to deforestation and the mass emitting of carbon dioxide. It is what allows scientists to recommend that we blast sulfates into the sky to block the sun’s rays or suck out carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground. Instead of such interventionist, aggressive, lab-made policies, we should look to depart from the frameworks that produced the problem.

To open our minds to restructured relationships with nature, Americans might well look beyond traditional Western culture. For example, while in the United States corporations in some cases enjoy the same legal rights as human beings, New Zealand recently extended such rights not to big business but to its Whanganui River. Members of the local Maori tribe of Whanganui on North Island have fought for the recognition of the river as an ancestor for 140 years. Their belief that humans are deeply entwined in and connected with the natural world spawns respect for nature and an acknowledgment of mutual reliance. Hawaiian culture offers another example of a connection with nature. Cultural historian Kepa Maly summarizes that “Hawaiian culture does not have a clear dividing line of where culture ends and nature begins.” Natural resources are “embodiments of Hawaiian gods and deities.” Though it may be unrealistic to expect any such transitions within American culture or policy, it remains important to highlight potential alternatives so as to demonstrate that philosophies other than our capitalist perspective do exist. Exploitation and manipulation of nature are not inherent to human society, but instead are contingent on the development of Western culture and the spread of capitalism.

Though market solutions such as carbon taxes seem to be the only viable way to effect changes in large-scale climate policy in America, that does not mean that we should let capitalist climate solutions reign. We must question solutions which offer “scientific” ways to “save” the environment without requiring changes to business as usual, which seems to have forgotten that humans are a part of nature. We must treat our environment with respect. Where possible, we should prioritize connection with nature over manipulation and appreciation over-exploitation.