Andreas Späth

The Emotional Environmentalist

2011-11-09 08:10

Andreas Späth

I’m often told that I use language that is too emotive when I write about environmental issues. That I unfairly appeal to the feelings of my unsuspecting readers. That to raise the debate to a higher, more objective level, I should leave out the politics and stick to facts, rational arguments and science.

There’s a considerable amount of irony in these comments, firstly because my supposedly unemotional critics tend to get rather hot under the collar as they spend substantial column inches complaining about me being a whinging tree-hugger, and secondly – as my wife will confirm – because I’m as emotionally retarded as the next middle-aged South African white guy.

I also suspect that my accusers have a rather idealised, if not to say naïve, understanding of how scientific progress works. For one, I doubt they’ve ever set foot in your average university science department, which tends to be inhabited by a disproportionate number of rather sensitive prima donnas with a predilection for public catfights.

Even under the best of circumstances, science doesn’t simply move forward by a process of cool-minded individuals, completely disconnected from the world of emotions, exchanging and evaluating facts and figures on a purely rational basis. While scientific discourse in peer-reviewed journals typically appears quite civil on the surface, there is a long-established protocol and vocabulary – an innocuous-sounding adjective here and a throw-away comment buried in otherwise bland language there – which allows scientists to pour public ridicule on their professional opponents.

At major international scientific conventions and meetings, where researchers share and contest their latest findings with their peers, too, purely rational discourse is not infrequently relinquished for heated and, yes, emotional mud flingery.

The history of science is littered with acrimonious public feuds between some of the world’s greatest scientists, many of them lasting for years. Thomas Alva Edison slandered Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current (AC), in what can only be described as a public smear campaign. Charles Darwin and his disciples engaged in ugly name-calling with prominent scientists like Richard Owen and there was no love lost between Newton and Leibniz.

None of these scientific heavyweights managed to keep a lid on their emotions when it came to their most treasured theories. And that’s completely understandable. The vast majority of people active in scientific fields are enormously passionate about their chosen subject – obsessively so in many instances.

I would argue that this emotional and passionate personal engagement and curiosity has been the major driving force behind the evolution of humanity’s understanding of the world. It’s very difficult to imagine rational science without it.

Every scientist and public commentator, no matter how unbiased and objective they profess themselves to be, comes with baggage that is bound to affect their analysis of scientific questions on an emotional level, including their political convictions, cultural background, religious or moral values, personal life-experiences, class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.

Perhaps most importantly, science and technology, as human activities, need to have a basis in ethics – an understanding of what is good and what is not good for individuals, society and the natural environment. Such ethical evaluations of science necessitate a connection with the most basic human feelings and emotions. Without it, scientific endeavour becomes a much-degraded process of cataloguing facts and observations that may provide some mechanical explanations of the universe, but can add very little meaning to our own place within it.

Of course I’m not suggesting that environmentalists like myself should base their arguments only on emotional appeals. Quite the contrary, we need to stand on solid, verifiable, scientifically-defendable evidence, but why should we not be passionate – excited, angry, happy, outraged – about that evidence if it has very significant potential impacts on our health, our livelihoods and our planet?

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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