Business innovation | Opinion

Sustainable action is undermined by false science

Image polar bear dreamstime s 132574506

A metaphor perhaps less endangered

Continually polarising debate and failing to stick to the actual science on business sustainability issues can lead to a dangerous lack of credibility, and distraction from engaging with the real challenges, argues Mallen Baker

If you want to make the world a better place, there is a modern paradox you have to negotiate. 

We have never had such an abundance of data and analysis highlighting the problems we have to solve. At the same time, we have rarely been so divided in our beliefs about what those problems even are, never mind how they should be tackled.

There is a presumption by many that there are two sides. One side “follows the science” and cares about the facts. The other side serves vested interests and is blinded to those facts at best, malevolent in their face at worst. “We”, of course, are on the right side.

However, the evidence does not support this hypothesis.

Many of the facets of the sustainability agenda have come from, or at least evolved from, the arguments of environmental campaigners. Some such arguments have proved to be robust, some less so. 

Campaigning, as a process, creates its own incentives. Simply by doing what seems right, people of good will end up adopting causes, concepts and symbols that then become part of their belief system. It stops being a discussion of evidence and facts and pragmatic solutions, and instead becomes an orthodoxy. 

Truths ‘that just ain’t so’

There is a growing list of examples. Things that we “know” to be true that – just maybe – aren’t true at all. These include (but are not restricted to) such articles of faith as:

·      polar bears are in imminent danger of extinction because of climate change;

·      we are in the middle of a sixth mass extinction; 

·      eating meat is one of the biggest problems because of methane emissions; and

·      intensive agriculture is the problem and variations on organic farming the solution (supported by the “fact” that there are only 100 harvests before soil erosion wipes out our ability to grow food).

These are all areas where we should be urgently curious to know the truth. Before you can solve problems, you need to understand the reality of what actually needs fixing. Get it wrong and you’ll probably arrive at the wrong solutions.

You can’t get a better example of the perverse incentives created by campaigning than the polar bear.

Climate icon

The polar bear only became a symbol of climate change because a campaign group, the Center for Biological Diversity, decided to try to use the US Endangered Species Act as a “tail-wags-the-dog” measure to push the then US president, George W Bush, to have to deal with climate change. The power of the bear as an emotive symbol soon became evident, and before long you couldn’t touch on the topic of climate change without polar bears popping into view.

However, in recent years bear populations have been stable overall, with certain sub-populations growing, others declining, others stable or unknown. Climate sceptics have jumped on these figures. Others have defended the icon by arguing that these populations will be affected more in the future as sea ice declines. At least one study, however, has suggested that a sub-population already exposed to such decline has been doing just fine. In other words, it’s complicated.

As a result, WWF took the conscious decision to move on – something it has found difficult because of the early success in boosting people’s emotional attachment to the bears and creating the total widespread conviction that they are in imminent threat. WWF spokesperson Leanne Clare told EUObserver: “… all people want to talk about is: when is it going to go extinct? And if it is not going to go extinct, what is the problem?” 

It has become an example of how the symbol became more important than the actual problem it was meant to symbolise – the very real one of the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

Mass extinction?

Similarly, the idea that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction has become an article of faith on the part of some, but at most it is a point of scientific debate. The ancient mass extinctions were the genuinely catastrophic result of a cascade of failures that followed from a major change: a chain reaction effect that was massive and – once it was in train – unstoppable. These were global die-offs from which recovery could only take place over geological timescales. Fortunately, that is not where we are.

Some scientists do advance the case that, because extinctions outpace what has been established as the “normal” background extinction rate, the current situation should qualify as a mass extinction. Others dismiss this position as absurd. 

Right now, the decline in overall biomass is tied predominantly to habitat loss. In areas where we halt or reverse that habitat loss, populations recover. Model-based predictions of extinctions resulting from habitat loss have been shown to be overly pessimistic. 

That is not an argument for complacency. It may be that, in the future, climate change becomes a bigger factor in the die-off of species. We can’t count out that we may be at the beginning of such a process, but international agencies such as IPBES do not claim we are in such an extinction. 

What is the question?

No areas are more hotly debated than those that affect us personally. Food is a prime example. This is not a candidate for easy quick fixes. If our aim is to feed seven billion people sustainably that is a multiple-variable problem. 

You would look at what creates emissions and whether those could be reduced. You would look at what uses land, and whether it is the best use of that land. You would look at quality of nutrition, and you would look at the acceptability to the population of proposed changes.

On that sort of equation, meat has a significant part to play. Much of the land used for livestock is land that cannot be used for crops. Meat provides high quality nutrition. It has played an important role in human development and remains highly prized in most societies. 

For some, however, meat eating is a moral issue. The question that they are answering is a different one to that of “how to feed seven billion most easily”.

So, they focus on methane emissions from beef cows, and how much more powerful a greenhouse gas methane is. They ignore the fact that the limited lifetime of methane in the atmosphere means that a stable livestock population over the course of a decade will result in a stable level of methane, not a growing one. It is not a helpful fact in achieving their objective of eliminating that foodstuff from human consumption.

7bn mouths to feed 

Likewise, if you decide that intensive agriculture is a moral bad, and organic “natural” approaches are inherently good, you risk rendering yourself incapable of reviewing the evidence in a rational way. This is not a trivial matter, since there are now seven billion people whose nourishment depends on rational decision making.

In pure productivity terms, intensive agriculture is the most efficient way to transform inputs into nutrition. It has its problems, but we’ve shown good progress in solving at least some of them. Organic farming, as preferred by some, is significantly less efficient. Which means it takes a lot more land to produce the same amount of food. Worldwide we are now at a point where land is our most limited resource. 

The debate is not made easier by widespread misinformation and myths. Some will tell you that, because of intensive agriculture, “the science says there are only 100 harvests left worldwide due to soil erosion”. Others say that actually we are down to 30 years at most.

Such statements are compelling, alarming and wrong.

Last year, New Scientist reviewed all the articles and campaign statements to trace the original source. The only source found was one 2014 research paper that, when examined, did not actually make the claim at all. The magazine then checked with leading soil scientists and found that none of them supported the contention. 

There are problems to be solved. None of them are helped by misdiagnosing the problem by quoting “science” that someone made up.

The extreme claims problem

At the heart of all of this is the tendency to catastrophise the debate. This comes about from two powerful forces. 

The first is the business model of the mainstream media in a digital age. Extreme claims get more engagement and clicks, and reward advertisers. Consequently, worst-case scenarios always appear in headlines.

The second is the belief by campaigners that extreme messages are more likely to motivate necessary action. The evidence for that belief is mixed at best, but it is one of those notions so intuitive that it survives contrary evidence.

This tendency feeds the polarisation that is so corrosive to current political discourse. It makes it very easy for those who would rather believe that “do nothing” is the right option to highlight the gaping holes in arguments and to mock the failure of extreme short-term predictions (in other words “crying wolf”). 

It leads people to conclude that “environmentalism is the new religion”, that it is a belief system based on faith, not evidence. And what is stated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

If our aim is to actually solve problems, we have to achieve some degree of dispassionate scepticism towards public claims and counter claims. Look at what the data and the evidence actually say, and where the points of disagreement are amongst experts. Honestly evaluate the success or failure of measures taken. And not get distracted by the clickbait.

Mallen Baker is a writer, speaker and YouTuber on evidence-based change-making, sustainability, corporate responsibility, politics and free speech. 

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