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The President's Environment

The President's Environment is published 3x/year. Past Issues of the President's Environment can be found in the archives of The Bulletin.

Living in Interesting Times for Environmental Science

By President Emily Bernhardt

February 2017

Emily Bernhardt

Fellow SFSers

I had hoped to write this essay about alternative careers and the many ways in which freshwater scientists can apply our knowledge in the world beyond the academy. Instead, it seems I have no choice but to write about American politics and the impacts of those politics on the morale and the priorities of freshwater scientists. We are living in interesting times. Long brewing political tensions have now unleashed a new era of vigorous public debate, protest and outrage. As scholars and as scientists, it is especially difficult to watch world leaders publicly questioning the basic importance of facts. As environmental scientists committed to the study and conservation of freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems, it is demoralizing to watch political appointees with no scientific training and no respect for science, placed in positions of authority over the use of public lands and the protection of clean air and clean water. I suspect that each of us find ourselves struggling with how to push back against these developments.

What can feel like a very extreme swing in political rhetoric and action, is perhaps only an extreme oscillation from a long-term trajectory through which environmental science (and the environmental regulations informed by science) have become increasingly politicized. I have lived through multiple transitions between progressive and conservative agendas dominating the American government. It seems each transition becomes more extreme in the rhetorical and regulatory shift, as themes of hope and change and becoming a better America (Carter, Clinton, Obama) alternate with themes of tradition and patriotism and making America great again (Reagan, Bush (x2) and Trump). With each transition, environmental science becomes more politicized, and environmental regulations become more and more associated with the change agenda than with the tradition agenda in political elections.

Why? Environmental science is not itself liberal or conservative. Indeed, environmental science recommends conservative environmental management that reverses the direction of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss. Like conservative politicians, environmental scientists quite often use fear about future change to explain and motivate their research. Many of America's most important environmental achievements were accomplished in conservative administrations (e.g., the establishment of National Parks, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency). There ought to be a lot of common ground between conservative politicians and environmental scientists.

I have no doubt that twenty years from now science historians will look back on the year 2017 as a pivot point for environmental science. Will our scientific enterprise react to political events by engaging ever more deeply with the public, as many leading scientists suggest (see Jane Lubchenco's recent essay in FREE) Or, will our dominant response instead be a retreat into the Ivory Tower where we focus most our research on issues the public does not understand? I hope it will be the former.

Following that hopeful vision will require that environmental scientists engage in meaningful connections with a much wider variety of people. We will need to forge partnerships with people who share our environmental concerns while disagreeing violently with us on extremely important social issues. This will be uncomfortable and difficult, in the same way that being part of a politically divided family is difficult. If we want to make the ‘quantum leap towards relevance' that Lubchenco suggests in her recent essay, we need to continue to make the case that environmental science and effective use of that science is good for people, no matter their politics on other issues.

So, my suggestion, make a commitment to do at least one new thing that forces and allows you to interact with a group of people that do not share your personal politics. Find a way to engage with them in substantive conversations. If you teach, enable your students to have fact based conversations about environmental science with less science savvy family members and friends. This slow reconnecting of our social infrastructure may offer less instant gratification than an angry tweet or OpEd, but ultimately forging these connections will be more satisfying and sustainable. We need to keep up the pressure for evidence based decision making and respect for science from our political leaders. I hope we can protest the leadership while simultaneously reaching out to forge common cause with their constituents. Clean, fresh water is an apolitical issue and a cause that any human should fight for.

Emily Bernhardt

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