Freshening the air…in environmental debate

Sometime back in the day (late 1960’s, early ‘70’s) I happened to pick up an issue of Consumer Reports. I forget what buying decision I was trying to make at the time. Why? Because I was stunned by what I happened to read, quite by chance, idly thumbing through the same issue – an article on room air fresheners.

CR was doing a comparative rating of a number of these products. The article began by giving some background on how they worked. The authors described three techniques. Air fresheners in the first and smallest group actually broke down the chemicals in the air responsible for the bad odor in question. Those in a second and larger group masked the bad odor with another strong fragrance – some smell or other we rather prefer. Those in the third category, said the article, anesthetized the sensory organs in your nose.


[More current material on the web adds a fourth method to this list…coating your nasal passages with an undetectable oily film. Bet that one makes you feel a whole lot better.]

Today, however, I’ve been thinking. We see those same three approaches at work in our conversations about contentious issues.

We could apply this insight broadly – to debates on health care policy, on poverty, education, the two-party system of government. But since this blog focuses on dealing with the real world, as resource, victim, and threat, let’s zoom in. Let’s confine our attention to environmental issues – climate change, or air and water quality, or discussions about endangered species, or water resources, or use of fossil fuels.

Here goes.

A small fraction of the material we read or watch actually tries to take such complicated, controversial subjects, and break them down into more digestible bits. Maybe an article about glaciers and how they melt, and why they’re melting at a faster rate than we’d expected just a decade ago. Or the relation between ocean acidification and the fate of critters with calcium-based exoskeletons. A recent analysis of the effects of climate on grain productivity and commodity prices comes to mind. Or the effects of carbon-dioxide enriched air on plant growth. Or the fracking used to release natural gas from deep shales. Or the removal of the grey wolf from the endangered species list. Maybe the recent analysis showing the rising incidence of malaria among bird species. Seen any of these articles? Sure you have.

Then there are all those place-based studies looking at local aspects of air and water quality, ecosystem behavior, and the like. All pieces of a larger picture of our interaction with the Earth and its ecosystems. You and I read them. When we do, we add a bit to our understanding. At some level we integrate the newest bit with everything else we’ve been learning and absorbing. The aggregate of all this informs our views and decision making.

Organizations are springing up whose main goal is to make such knowledge and understanding available on the web, or in print, or on cable TV. Think of Climate Central, or blogs like RealClimate, or Climate Progress. Then there are individuals, spanning a wide range – think of Andy Revkin, Judith Curry, Roger Pielke, Jr., and many, many others – who are pushing material out there. People who hold diverse views, who find fresh ways to juxtapose thoughts and make us think.

Brilliant! More power to everyone taking this approach. Given the complexity and rapid evolution of the Earth sciences, we can use more such voices.

Next, there’s a large group who are spinning the message. “Here’s the latest finding on [insert your favorite piece of science], and this once again means we need [fill in the blank: more domestic sources of energy, more nuclear, more biofuels, more habitat set-asides, more stringent regulation of…]. All sorts of advocacy groups fit here. Again, there’s a social purpose, isn’t there? At a minimum, we’re energized by some aspirational goal.  Or we’re reminded that traditional approaches to resource acquisition, or environmental protection, or national security, however they may be coming under attack, still have some positive, redeeming features. We ought to think twice before giving them up. In all these cases, we’re given a reasonable invitation: “Say, have you ever thought how environmental challenges would look when viewed through this (or that) lens?” Advocates are taking the basic information and adding an overlay…whether or not it’s a scent we prefer depends upon our individual taste. Whatever the slant, these groups and individuals make a contribution as well.

[In fact, the compartmentalization here may be a bit too easy. Might be that most of us fall into a category that’s a blend of these first two groups. Try as we might, we struggle to remain totally objective. Roger Pielke, Jr., tackles this topic among others in his book The Honest Broker.]

But there’s a third group of voices out there as well, isn’t there? Shrill. Ranting. Vindictive. Engaging in character assassination. Fomenting hate mail and worse. Gleefully pursuing, and calling us to, a race to the bottom. Considering truth, if at all, as something to be ignored or abused. And for most of us, exposure to this material is a turnoff, isn’t it? Absolutely stomach-churning. So instead of spending time and thought on issues that matter, you and I, and millions like us, tune out, don’t we? We turn our minds to other topics.

That’s the moral equivalent of anesthetizing the nerve endings in our nostrils.

What to do? Perhaps we should reflect on the Consumer Reports modus operandi. They’re not a regulatory body…far from it. All they offer is facts, comparisons. Their readers then bring market forces into play. The best products (those which are most reliable, offer the most value for the money, provide the greatest customer satisfaction) rise to the top, increase market share, command the higher prices. The hapless folks at the bottom in these categories? The CR scrutiny hastens their demise.

The same forces work in the marketplace of ideas. Where we direct our eyeballs, how we spend our time and energy, matters. Do we devote ourselves to problem-solving, moving the ball forward? Or do we allow ourselves to be distracted, feel called to defend ideas and reputations against mindless drivel, and thus keep those attacks alive?

The choice is ours.

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