Getting out the science message? Custer’s scouts had it right at the Little Bighorn

Roger Caiazza provided a thoughtful comment to the last post. Roger first asks:

“In your first paragraph you state that environmental scientists see, and document: “growing urban air pollution” among the reasons that it is necessary to get the science message out. While admittedly it depends on which urban areas you are talking about, do you think this is a problem in the United States?

The only way I can think of where you get a trend of growing air pollution is if you compare exceedances of the standards over time. That is only because the limits have been lowered. There have been significant emission reductions across the board in the US and marked improvement in air quality. Unfortunately we have reached a point where additional emission reductions are more difficult, costly and don’t produce as much bang for the buck so it is getting harder to meet the new air quality standards but that does not mean the pollution trends are going up.”

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Thank you, Roger! I could have indeed found a better phrasing, or made some different choices in enumerating a list of scientists’ concerns. Of course, urban air pollution was just one element of a list trying to establish a starting point: scientists are apprehensive because there’s a lot to be worried about.

What happens is that in short, (relatively) frequent posts, attempting to be crisp, you’re always making compromises[1]. Some readers would like yet more brevity. Others would prefer more backup information. Some are sticklers for accuracy in every detail. Some are looking for the big picture. So, first, a comment on air pollution per se, and then to today’s (and yesterday’s) main point.

If you mean air pollution in the limited sense that had the United States worried in the previous century…oxides of nitrogen, ozone, etc… the Clean Air Act and other measures had the effect of cleaning things up. Certainly we have less smog than we would be experiencing if we’d stayed on the trajectory of the mid-20th century. In the United States, concerns have shifted to particulates, to mercury, to other specifics. These are also being addressed. However, the problem has to be looked at globally as well as regionally. We see a lot in the media about our balance of trade with other countries, especially China. What we don’t see is our net export of environmental degradation and risk. In the U.S., much of our environmental cleanup has been accomplished by essentially relocating the dirty business of resource extraction and manufacture overseas, where we don’t have to look at the attendant effects. Then we pat ourselves on the back for the fact that things seem cleaner around here.

And China, India, and other countries have accomplished much of their economic development through the use of fossil fuels. Indonesian wildfires and burning of peat have produced horrible air quality episodes across the whole of southeast Asia. Many of the world’s megacities are essentially job shops competing for the world’s business. To compete requires keeping costs and wages low. That tends to drive these cities toward fragile infrastructure, endemic poverty, vulnerability to hazards, and environmental degradation.

The second part of Roger’s comment was probably his main point:

“Maybe the messages are falling on deaf ears because the public is tired of the scientists always [italics added] claiming yet another catastrophe (such as urban pollution is geting [sic] worse) is right around the corner and those forecasts are not verifying.”

Again, a good comment. [For openers, I’m not so sure about the word “always.” That doesn’t seem right. Maybe you meant to say “often,” or “sometimes?” I’m prone to overstatement too!] But back to your big idea.

There’s a possible parallel here to Custer’s last stand, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In June of 1876, General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry Regiment had been pursuing the Lakota, Arapahoe, and Northern Cheyenne. In the historic battle on June 25-26 Custer and nearly 270 men out of his 700-strong force were killed. The battle and its context have been extensively researched and recounted. There were no winners here. Though the Sioux carried the day, they only postponed the larger U.S. objectives.

One small aspect of events is particularly unsettling. Custer’s Cree scouts repeatedly warned of the danger…that the tribes were massed in far larger numbers than Custer believed, that they were close, that they were standing their ground, preparing to attack.

For some reason, Custer was having none of this. Was he tired of scouts always seeing danger that wasn’t there and their forecasts not verifying? Did he hold the scouts in low regard? Was he listening, or was he instead preoccupied with the opportunity which he thought was finally at hand for him to receive the glory he had long felt was his due? Was he distracted by squabbles and political infighting among his officers and men? Did he lack respect for the Sioux nation as warriors; did he expect them to run?  In the event, could he and his men have been saved if others of his force had made different choices and decisions as the conflict began? Historians have suggested all these and other possible explanations.

The reality? Probably some blend of all these factors. We’ll never know. All we’re told is that the Cree scouts, having failed to get the message through, ceremonially prepared themselves to die, and then fought alongside the doomed soldiers.

Like those Cree scouts, today’s environmental scientists are specifically trained, and funded, to do precisely what they’re doing: look for problems, ferret them out early, help in the search for solutions. From my ringside seat, it looks as if they’re taking their responsibilities seriously. Furthermore, they see their job as going beyond the documentation of human failure – and helping to change and improve future outcomes. So they’re getting the science message out  — and not stopping there.

But the message is falling on deaf ears. Many policy makers think the problems are real enough, but are less pressing than the need to create jobs, jump-start the economy, disengage from the Middle East, provide health care, and the rest. Some are more worried about personal ambitions and political enemies; they find it easier or more expedient to impugn scientists’ motives, stereotype them as “ivory-tower,” hammer them for “overwarning, etc.” than to take action.

Over the years, I’ve been particularly close to natural and social scientists who study disasters – “catastrophe” in Roger’s language. They see a lot of problems coming. One concern for decades was New Orleans and the flooding threat (from heavy rain, from hurricane storm surge, from Mississippi flooding). They have been warning of this. But when Katrina hit, these scientists weren’t high-fiving each other, saying “we told them so.” Far from it. The time since has been a time of grieving and soul-searching… “what more could we have done to get people to take action? How could we have framed or articulated our message differently?”

So, my hope is that Roger and others (for there are many who share his views), will allow for the possibility that just maybe the worried scientists are as high minded as everyone else. Just maybe they see themselves not just scientists, but as scientist-citizens, as taxpayers and voters and parents and neighbors. Just maybe they are correctly seeing major calamity massing ahead.

When word of the Battle of the Little Bighorn reached the country back on the East coast, there was a lot of clucking of tongues of those who were (really, when you think about it) unaffected, and they went on with their same old business-as-usual agenda. Only belatedly have we all come to realize that our displacement and treatment of indigenous peoples wasn’t the country’s finest hour or wisest policy.

By contrast, with regard to today’s suite of environmental problems, we’re all on the front lines; we’re all in this together. There is no enemy. Nor is there an unaffected “back East.”


[1] There’s an old adage: price, quality, speed? Choose any two.

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