Thursday, March 21, 2013

Paul Ehrlich on Avoiding Collapse of Civilisation

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra where  Professor Paul Ehrlich and a panel is addressing the topic "Avoiding a collapse of civilisation. Our chances, prospects and pathways forward".

Professor Ehrlich is making his promised controversial points on climate science on global warming being clear and the business and political leaders failing to act. He has criticized universities for failing to educate university students adequately. He pointed out that about four earths would be needed to bring the global population up to the Australian standard. He worried about the quantity of nonsense on-line compared to accurate scientific information. Professor Ehrlich advocated equal rights for women to reduce population growth.

I teach ICT Sustainability to graduate students at ANU. The basics of how computers and telecommunication cause environmental problems, and can be part of the solution, are not difficult for engineering and science students to grasp. What is difficult is to do is to then put the well researched recommendations into a form which business and political leaders find palatable. I suggest to my students to find a business or political benefit, along with the environmental benefits, to back up their recommendations. There is no point in carrying out months or years of work on the hard science and ignoring the motivations of the decision makers.

My question for Professor Ehrlich was to be "The science on climate change is clear and yet business and political decision makes fail to act. More science is unlikely to change their views. So should the priority be on social science to understand decision making processes, rather than environmental science?". But he anticipated this by telling a story of research by a social scientist that people respond to local peer pressure, be it about reusing towels in a hotel ("A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels", GOLDSTEIN, CIALDINI, GRISKEVICIUS, 2008) or saving power with a smart meter ("Better neighbors and basic knowledge: a field experiment on the role of non-pecuniary incentives on energy consumption", ).  I have seen this effect myself after introducing billing for mainframe CPU use (what now would be called a "cloud server"): use went down even though the billing was notional.

In terms of communicating science to the public, the leaders in Australia are the  Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC), in Adelaide. One of the problems is that those from the physical sciences can be dismissive of the level and amount of work needed to communicate a message. ANU teaches and researches Science Communication as a undergraduate and postgraduate subject. As part of the ANU Course "Unravelling Complexity" I have a group fo students working out what to do about e-waste, with people from various disciplines.

The panel of speakers got on to the topic of how influential scientists are in changing public opinion. Of course, a scientist's obligation to communicate their research results has limits. Scientists should not try to run the world and must communicate their findings to the broader society and leave it to others to make the decisions. Some of humanity's greatest disasters have involved scientist's who thought they knew better than the average person. This came to mind when one of the panelists advocated use of nuclear power, pointing out that no one died as a result of radiation from the exploding nuclear power plants.

One question from the audience brought the topic closer to home, by asking about the environmental sensitivity of the ANU's own financial investments, following public criticism of ANU investment in coal seam gas exaction. Unfortunately I was unable to find any mention of environmental or ethical criteria in the ANU Investments Policy.

No comments: