It’s been a few years since particular articles on any of the array of environmental disasters currently in train have genuinely startled me. Just about every morning I encounter a few such articles, and though they pain me just as the constant horror show of the Bush Administration’s words and deeds do, they never surprise me. This morning, for instance, I read an article by James Randerson in the Guardian reporting that 60 leading primatologists from the world conservation union, the International Primatological Society and Conservation International, has released a report that twenty-five primate species are close to extinction. “You could fit all the surviving members of these 25 species in a single football stadium; that’s how few of them remain on Earth today,” said Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International.”
Though this article saddened me, it did not surprise me. Similarly, Richard A. Kerr’s article in the October 5 issue of Science (the weekly magazine published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) titled “Battered Arctic Sea Ice Down for the Count?” took note of the “quantum leap downward” in the quantity of Arctic sea ice this last summer. I hadn’t previously seen the graph that makes the immense shift in a single year from the pattern of decades dramatic and scary, and I hadn’t read the comment by polar researcher John Walsh that although abrupt changes can occur in models, “this is the first time we may have seen it in the real word,” but I had read articles in which scientists warned that projections for the pace of global warning were constantly being revealed as overly optimistic. So I found nothing surprising there.
I was, however, stunned when I turned the page and saw the title of the next story, “Greening the Meeting” The heading for “Greening the Meeting” declares: “Scientific travel pours huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Some [professional science] societies are changing the way they run their annual meetings—and a few scientists are proposing even more drastic changes”. The opening paragraphs offer the usual dismaying figures about the environmental costs of conferences and meetings and notes that a scientific conferences service provider lists in its online directory nearly 4000 events scheduled for the next two years. Although some of these conferences are small, some draw thousands of attendees. (The AAAS’s own annual meeting, for instance, drew 8000 this year.) It’s a difficult problem, as the article notes. An inset offers the magazine’s readers eight travel tips for reducing the environmental footprint of professional travel.
The following article, “This Man Wants to Green Your Lab,” focuses on the efforts of Allen Doyle to “spread the gospel of sustainability from lab to lab,” but has a similar inset, this one titled “Lab tips” (that are all easy no-brainer practices that shouldn’t be as hard a sell as the article suggests they in fact are). David Grimm, the article’s author, notes: “Yet in Doyle’s experience, scientists are blasé about reducing their environmental footprint while at work. ‘There’s a bit of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” culture out there,’ he says. Many researchers chastise the government for not doing more for sustainability, says Doyle, ‘but we’re ignoring the same issues in our own labs.’”
Grimm’s article doesn’t surprise me: it tells a familiar story of an activist meeting the ingrained resistance to responsible behavior that constantly, in our world, triumphs over logic. It’s the fact that some science societies are struggling with the environmental costs of professional travel that impresses me. Why? Because it means that the state of the environment has become so precarious that the very people who are researching climate change have realized (as most non-scientists have not, pace Greenpeace, Al Gore, & the host of environmental activists who have been struggling for years to bring both the political class and the general public to their senses) that significant behavioral change is essential now.