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Science and the scientist in a changing climate

Is sustainability an idea, a science, a philosophy or a way of life? The premise of this article is that sustainability is all of these and more. Furthermore, science and technology of both today and the future must be re-visioned to understand and enable sustainability, writes Radha Gopalan of the Coordination Council, Food Sovereignty Alliance, India.

Radha Gopal, Economic & Political Weekly

The idea of sustainability is not new if we understand it as coexistence of humans and nature rather than domination of nature by the human species. Without going back to hunter-gatherer days of the human species, sustainability is evident even in the industrial and post-industrial era. Practices by local and indigenous communities such as: protecting specific areas as sacred spaces since they were sources of water and biodiverse forests; practising shifting cultivation in hilly areas, with long periods of fallow (between 10 and 20 years); raising multiple crops agro-ecologically; restoration and recovery of ecosystems through seasonal fishing and grazing animals in different locations at different times of the year; accommodations between settled agriculturists and pastoralists which allowed animals to graze on crop residues while they deposited their manure on the fields, etc, are all ways of living sustainably.

Built into this understanding of sustainability, are two important precepts: (i) interdependence of the resilience of human life with the resilience and stability of natural ecosystems; and (ii) the understanding of time—time for the natural ecosystem to recover, to restore, and to stabilise after use and depletion. This recovery and restoration is necessary if the resources are to be available for human needs for a long time, possibly across generations. Such a practice of sustainability is built on experiential knowledge and inherited skills of living rather than merely a theoretical understanding of one’s environment.

In the late 1980s, the definition of sustainability began to be articulated as “sustainable development” by policymakers, international development agencies, development economists and practitioners. The focus was on human well-being. Subsequently these two terms began to be used interchangeably, even in academic discourses. This focus on human development alone has diluted the idea of sustainability. Human society must recognise that achieving sustainability and human well-being is impossible if our understanding does not encompass all life forms, human and non-human. This is increasingly becoming clear as we see and experience the effects of complex phenomena like human–animal conflict (for example, conflict between communities living near national parks and sanctuaries and wildlife when the food and territory of both are threatened by unplanned development), water wars, increasing temperatures and global warming-induced climate change: phenomena that are pushing human society to revisit and redraw the rules of human–nature engagement.

The need to understand sustainability in all its dimensions is pivotal to the current discussion because (i) science is the foundation on which human society has shaped its relationship with nature, and (ii) finding ways to mitigate and/or adapt to many of the consequences of this relationship extend beyond science. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

This article has therefore been structured to first try and frame sustainability and then discuss the role of science and technology in the context of sustainability. The position taken in this article is drawn from the author’s own understanding of sustainability, shaped by a trajectory that includes academic training in environmental science and engineering, almost two decades as an environmental consultant to industry, government and multilateral agencies and the last eight years as a high school teacher. Critical to this understanding has been several years of experiential learning with small farmer, pastoralist and Adivasi communities about a world view of human–nature coexistence through the framework of food sovereignty.

Defining and Framing Sustainability

Sustainability is defined in multiple ways and the emphasis provided in the definition is usually a function of the subject discipline from where the definition originates. An example of this is the prefix often used in defining sustainability: ecological sustainability, environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, social sustainability, sustainability science, etc (Morelli 2011). In most scientific literature the definition of sustainability is embedded in ecology. This is because its usage emerged from the environmental movement. Sustainability has been described through various terms, including conservation, renewable, eco-efficiency, environmentally sound, ecological footprint, ecosystem services, etc. In the mid to late 1980s, sustainability entered the global political agenda when it was defined as sustainable development with the formal definition being put forth by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). This definition has a strong economic focus with human well-being and equity at the centre: equity for both the present and future generations.1 From here forward, the usage and definition had a strong economics and development focus. Governments, policymakers, civil society organisations, and academics use sustainable development extensively and interchangeably with sustainability.

Human society is at a critical juncture in its history where it is becoming pivotal to its existence to understand that the idea of sustainability extends beyond sustainable development. With the focus on development, sustainability has come to mean economic sustainability as defined by an industrial, market economy encompassing industrial/post-industrial societies. It must therefore be recognised that sustainability has cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions and the ideas of justice, equity and fairness must encompass all societies on the planet along with non-human living species. Understanding sustainability means recognising the fragility of the social-ecological interlinkages. Human life is inextricably bound to other life forms and taking action without understanding these linkages can cause profound disturbances for human society and other living species. Some would also argue for a moral imperative in this context: the “anatomically modern human species” have existed only for close to 2,00,000 years and through our activities (particularly over the last 250 years) we are profoundly affecting life forms and a planet which has existed for billions of years (Harari 2015). Do we have the moral right to do this?

Sustainability is thus a complex and textured idea that is multidimensional and elusive to define. The issues we face today, for example, the impact of human activity-induced climate change and ways to mitigate/adapt to the changes cannot be understood only through the lens of ecology or the natural sciences. The spatial and temporal scales of the phenomena are global, interlinked, long-term and unpredictable. The impacts are often due to political and economic decisions that are taken not based on scientific understanding. The negative effects of these actions are often not immediate or obvious but when they occur they can cause irreversible damage. To illustrate: the rise in sea levels threatening existence of island nations and populations in coastal areas. Fossil fuel-powered economic growth of industrial nations over the last 60 years has contributed to global warming. One of the manifestations of it is the rise in sea levels, affecting lives and livelihoods of human societies and integrity of natural ecosystems in distant island nations; an effect that is now irreversible. The geopolitical nature of these challenges is becomingly increasingly evident. The same fossil fuel-based economic growth has also led to the wars over oil that in turn are impacting national and global security as evident from the extreme violence and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Southwest Asia.

The complexity of the idea of sustainability, therefore, requires an interdisciplinary and systemic view. It requires collaboration by crossing boundaries within the natural sciences as well as across natural and social sciences. It also means recognising that there are multiple ways of knowing: conventional or orthodox science needs to recognise and draw from commonsense knowledge, based on lived experience and “inherited skills of living and making” (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). The challenges of the present and future thus demand a transformation in the way we understand and take action.

Given this context, the next few sections will explore the role of science and technology; of scientists, and how there is a need for re-imagination of the idea of sustainability.

Science and Technology

Science seeks to explore nature using well-established, clearly defined methods. It seeks to replace dogma with observation and reason. In the context of sustainability, science explains natural phenomena and the effects on natural systems as a result of the transformations caused by human action. It does this by providing an understanding of the cause(s), effect(s), as well as the nature and magnitude of the impacts of these phenomena and transformations. Science also provides data and knowledge that can be used to develop appropriate, timely and relevant responses to various phenomena. Technology, drawing from science, allows human society to use nature and natural resources to sustain, support and transform human life in myriad ways. It has been used by human society to survive in and adapt to a range of physical conditions, experience well-being and where necessary to mitigate the impacts of various changes that take place in the environment. In doing this, technology has created a profound impact on the environment.

Science, and as a result technology, has been constantly evolving and responding to challenges as they change through history: whether it is a cure for every new disease; new materials to meet human needs; new sources of energy; new ways to maximise food production, access water or ways to treat contaminated water/soil. Science has enabled the human mind and, in turn, human society to steadily advance in the certainty of its knowledge and its control of the natural world.

The approach used by science in its study of the complex natural world is reductionist: trying to understand the complexity by breaking each system down to its constituent elements and studying them. This in turn led to the creation of multiple disciplines and extensive specialisation which in its purest form expands human understanding.

The science that guides the dominant world view today has its roots in early 17th century Europe, in the movement spearheaded by Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes: a movement that strongly propounded a view of natural science leading humans to be “lords and possessors of nature.”2 It accorded reason and logic a superior status compared to other faculties such as creativity and imagination. The global, industrial system which is the dominant world view at present is sustained by a belief in the omnipotency of technology: a belief and practice that has transformed the environment, and continues to transform well into the future, at a pace that has exceeded any transformation process in the geological past.

Modern science and technology has led to improved health, increased longevity of humans, and innovative ways of maximising human comforts from natural resources. However, some people and societies have benefited more from this than others and more importantly at the cost of others. Take for instance the impact of increased access to private transport. As more and more people are able to afford multiple cars and/or motorcycles, the air quality of a lot of cities has deteriorated significantly: the deteriorating air quality in Beijing and New Delhi are cases in point. While the more affluent can protect themselves in air-conditioned cars/homes/offices there are large sections of the population who are facing irreversible damage to their health because they cannot afford this form of “insulation” or protection. Similarly, regional events such as the atmospheric haze over the whole of South-East Asia due to forest fires in Indonesia are often caused by the clearing of forests by industry for red palm oil plantations. These plantations are established by large corporations to meet the worldwide demand for this cheap source of fat. The impact, however, of this worldwide demand is being felt largely by the population of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore: more significantly by sections of society who are economically marginalised. At the global level, phenomena such as depletion of the ozone layer, ecological and human health implications due to release of genetically modified food and human activity-induced climate change are creating debilitating impacts in places far removed from the source of the actions that caused them. While science can explain the cause and effect of a number of these phenomena, information on their potential long-term impact and risk is typically based on predictions. To the layperson and even to policymakers this “uncertainty” is difficult to comprehend as it seems intangible and too far into the future to make a decision about. However, what needs to be understood that there is enough evidence to indicate that there are long-term risks to human life and the planet.

Another significant aspect of modern science (or scientism), in the context of sustainability, is its domination over all other world views and ways of knowing: knowledge and skills based on and inherited from lived experience and co-existence with the surrounding environment while deriving food, shelter and all other human essentials. In doing so, it has led to significant erosion of a knowledge and skill base that not only allowed human society to adapt to erratic and uncertain environmental conditions but also use resources with an appreciation of the needs of future generations.

What is increasingly being questioned therefore is whether modern science and the scientific approach alone is the best way to approach our present and future? How can science, technology and the scientist be part of an egalitarian, democratic and inclusive approach to developing a sustainable future?

Science and the Scientist

Science and technology have a pivotal role in helping society understand both the problems it faces and identify appropriate solutions. A lot of the phenomena that we see unfolding around us today, be it air pollution, water and soil contamination, depleting groundwater, industrial accidents, ozone layer depletion or climate change, were first identified by scientists. Science provided us with robust data and rigorous proof of many of the above occurrences. Finding ways of resolving them also requires a robust scientific understanding. Technology, as discussed earlier, has been used in many cases to find multiple ways of addressing many of these problems effectively at a given time and location. At this point it is important to recognise that technology is critically dependent on the natural ecosystem for its effectiveness: uninterrupted supply of fresh raw materials, energy, water and other resources for technology to manifest, require that the natural ecosystem be sustained. Hence, perturbations of the ecosystem in which it is embedded pose a risk to technology itself.

The scientist’s role in society has been to share data and information emerging from research. This is in the form of scientific publications, providing advice, counsel/expertise to governments to examine the implications of various policy options, communicating findings to citizens at large through all forms of media and participating in advocacy with civil society organisations. Scientists are typically expected to provide credibility, independence and objectivity in a discussion. In trying to protect this image, most scientists, barring a few, have stayed away from advocating specific actions that could contribute to sustainability.

In the new environment where we are faced with novel, intense, complex phenomena, uncertainty and risk, the scientist is being called upon to engage more extensively with a broad range of people and take on a more public role. For example, in the 1990s the fact that a crop could be genetically modified to make it more resistant to pests and thereby improve its yield was considered a statement with a scientific basis but today it has significant policy implications. Scientists are called upon to take a public position on the issue of genetically modified foods, advocate specific options given the risk of long-term impact, or weigh in on a precautionary approach since it has ethical and moral implications.

Communication of scientific information in a timely, easily accessible and relevant manner is becoming critical. While discussing the urgency of science communication in the context of climate change, Naomi Oreskes, History of Science at Harvard University says:

Scientists have systematically underestimated the threat of climate change. We suggest that they have done so for normative reasons: The scientific values of rationality, dispassion, and self-restraint lead them to demand greater levels of evidence in support of surprising, dramatic, or alarming conclusions than in support of less alarming conclusions. We call this tendency erring on the side of least drama (Oreskes 2013).

What is therefore clear is that the scientific approach does not necessarily lead automatically to sustainable ways of addressing the various environmental phenomena unfolding around us. Science needs to move away from the conventional reductionist and fragmented approach of an expert giving advice to others. Science, the scientist and the technologist need to be an integral part of a systemic and humanistic approach. They need to work together with and learn from communities that have adapted to face major shifts in their environment. Any “solution” or way of understanding and resolving an issue must be done collectively with the affected communities.

Lens of Climate Change

Climate change is not ‘a problem’ waiting for ‘a solution.’ It is an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon that is reshaping the way we think about ourselves, about our societies and about humanity’s place on Earth….

—Michael Hulme, International climate change scientist and public commentator.

Today, all discussions around sustainability—political, cultural, scientific, social—are subsumed within the frame of climate change. This article would not be doing justice to this discussion if it did not view the challenges to science and scientists through the lens of climate change.

Climate change started as an environmental issue based on research data on greenhouse gases and global warming in the 1980s. It was observed, quantified and measured purely as a physical phenomenon by scientists. For most people, including policymakers, it was a phenomenon whose impact would be felt far into the future, there was a lot of uncertainty on the scientific understanding of the phenomenon itself and the contribution of human activity in accelerating the phenomenon.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) witnessed the first international response to climate change, recognising it as a phenomenon that needed immediate attention. From here on climate change became a development issue but the discussion and discourse was restricted to global forums, scientific meetings and academic discussions. One of the most definitive steps to reduce carbon emissions and global warming as an approach to address climate change was taken in the form of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.3 However, the United States (US), the largest contributor to global warming at that time, refused to support and ratify the Protocol even though James Hansen, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) top climate scientist had first warned the US Congress about climate change in 1988. More recently, another top contributor to global warming, Canada rejected the Protocol.

By the early 2000s, climate change began to be recognised as an economic and geopolitical issue of national and global security with the “oil wars,” the search for alternative sources of energy including renewables on the one hand and shale oil and gas on the other. More recently in 2015 the ethical, moral, and social justice dimensions of climate change have received significant attention by religious institutions like the Catholic Church. The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change and the Environment is calling upon humanity “to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this [global] warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”4

The science around climate change and its linkage to global warming is clear. There is also strong scientific consensus about the increase in global surface temperature in recent times being caused by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. This was clearly articulated in the Climate Conference in Paris in December 2016. However, in popular media and political platforms there continue to be disputes over the causes of global warming and their long-term impacts. Scientific debates around the sensitivity of climate systems to specific levels of greenhouse gases and the spatial and temporal consequences of global warming are often reflected in public disputes and used strategically for politically and/or economically motivated reasons. This creates confusion in the minds of the public leading to disengagement with the issue, often leading to inaction. The question therefore is: Is there a moral imperative/responsibility for scientists to enable more people to actively engage and participate in a process that will reduce the damage to the ecosystem, as well as create equity and enable social and ecological justice? If there is then what should be done and how?

The challenge of climate change that it is not a discreet problem for which a direct scientific or technological solution can be provided and solved for example, replacement of a toxic pesticide with a less toxic substituent or natural pesticide can over a period of time solve the contamination problem and the contaminated area can be decontaminated using technology. The residual carbon dioxide in the atmosphere accumulated over hundreds of years will impact generations to come. It requires draconian measures to be taken assiduously to ensure negative carbon emissions which means transforming the way we live and see our present as well as future. As discussed in Section 3.0 of this article, the impact of climate change like all other natural or anthropogenic events, is strongest on the economically vulnerable. There is a geographic, political, economic separation between those causing the problem and the affected.

Science and the scientist therefore need to be part of a larger, inclusive and collective effort. They need to draw on their skills of analysis and reasoning to form peer-communities where scientific expertise and local communities directly affected by the changing conditions sit at the same table. This will lead to a shared understanding of the situation and development of locally relevant adaptation strategies. In the author’s own experience, this kind of an approach leads to creative and innovative adaptation strategies emerging from the local experiential knowledge of the communities. The learnings from such effort can then be used by scientists in dialogues with policymakers, social scientists and the general public. This creates communities of practice and knowledge bases which are critical in enabling strategies of resilience for the future.

At this point it is important to briefly, juxtapose this discussion with the formal outcome of the Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) 21 held in Paris in December 2016. All participating governments agreed that all possible measures must be taken to keep the average temperature on the Earth’s surface from exceeding 2˚C above pre-industrial temperatures. However, the dominant solutions proposed were once again industrial technological solutions to achieve this objective. There was no serious commitment to making economies fossil-free. This led James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist (who first warned about climate change in 1988) to declare that the way forward was wrong and that draconian elimination of fossil fuels was the only way to prevent catastrophic global warming. Social movements and representatives of indigenous communities from all over the world who had wanted to share their efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change impacts were not accorded any place in the deliberations.

In this conflicting situation science and scientists thus have an even greater responsibility to advocate and work towards the collaborative and inclusive approach that this article has been urging.


In this period of, what some researchers term, “post-normal science” (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993), science and scientists must (i) continue to provide rigorous empirical evidence, (ii) step out of discipline boundaries to actively collaborate in a democratic process of learning and collective exploration of solutions to problems, and (iii) be advocates for specific actions in education and decision-making that will enable sustainability.

The first step in any collaborative engagement is to know and understand the partners/collaborators. Scientists have to engage with a range of people: professionals in interdisciplinary teams (natural and social scientists, technologists, architects, planners, lawyers, artists, writers, etc), policymakers (politicians, technocrats and administrators), judiciary, civil society organisations, religious leaders, the general citizenry and increasingly, the media (print, television and social media). The traditional approach of scientific communication has been a one-way delivery of information. Interpretation is, by and large, done with deep caution with scientists typically being wary and circumspect about recommending particular actions as possible solutions to a problem.

In the context of sustainability, scientists are increasingly being required to recommend actions, particularly in the policy realm, because they are well positioned to do so. They can use science to lay out the potential impacts of various policy options which will enable a more informed decision-making. It is all the more significant in a country like India with diverse cultures, livelihood systems and the existence of experiential knowledge systems that do not find a place in the mainstream education or scientific discourse. The ongoing agrarian crisis in India and the long-term food security of the country is one such complex situation where scientists need to engage actively with diverse viewpoints and experiences to contribute to a sustainable long-term policy for the country. Dominant, technology-driven food production needs to be viewed in the context of land, water and seed politics. Scientists need to collaborate with peasants and build on the latter’s experiential knowledge of agroecological practice-based resilient food systems. This has been done through collective learning and close collaboration between scientists and peasants in Cuba to build a robust, sustainable food system that is not fossil fuel based. The learnings from this collaboration are being shared across Latin America (Altieri 2016). Such collaborations become even more of an imperative now when the fossil fuel dependent modern food systems are threatened by the manifestations of climate change.

The public is also seeking clarity in the face of uncertainty and seemingly conflicting scientific statements regarding health impacts of various foods and more recently that of climate change that are put out in the media from various sources. This can only be resolved through dialogue between scientists and citizens.

Present and future challenges demand that strategies and actions be arrived at in context and this is where dialogue is critical. More often than not, policymakers and state-run programmes adopt a one-size-fits-all approach using technology as the solution to a problem. Politically and administratively it appears to be more effective: technological solutions are quicker to implement unilaterally, they give an impression of decisiveness and accomplishment compared to a more relevant and sustainable solution arrived at through dialogue with the affected community. The latter is more time-consuming. What is increasingly being understood is that technology is only part of the solution. An integrated and complete solution requires an understanding of the local social, economic, ecological and political context of the problem and has to be arrived at in context. For this the affected population and the scientist have to sit at the same table, learn from each other and arrive at a solution through a democratic process.

Another issue that a lot of scientists have been grappling with is their role in advocacy. Does advocating a specific action compromise the credibility of a scientist? Many in the scientific community feel very strongly that scientists must take on an advocacy role, particularly when there are ethical conflicts. In India, we have seen reputed, leading senior scientists, for example, molecular biologist Pushpa Bhargava, ecologist Madhav Gadgil and nuclear scientist and engineer A Gopalakrishnan take strong and public positions on issues such as moratorium on genetically modified foods, community-led conservation in ecologically fragile areas, and India’s civilian nuclear programme, respectively. In December 2000, when Nobel laureate chemists Mario Molina and Sherwood Roland were questioned about their move from the laboratory to advocacy in the context of the ozone layer depletion this was their response:

Molina said,

Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?

Rowland concluded the lecture by:

If not us, who? If not now, when?

An advocacy role for science has also been urged in the editorial to the journal, Conservation Biology, in 1989.

Science must take on an advocacy role with respect to environment. If science does not, we deserve and can expect the future censure of society, for indeed it is our responsibility as those who understand best what is happening and what alternatives exist, to sound the tocsin about environmental deterioration and conservation problems in all their variety.

History of science researchers like Naomi Oreskes are critical of the belief held by many scientists that in being rational they cannot advocate a solution or approach in a credible and rational manner. Oreskes (2013) urges scientists not to link rationality to dispassion; instead to be “the sentinel,” particularly in the context of climate change.

Science and scientists also have a public role in education. The mainstream education system is based on the reductionist approach to problem-solving. The challenges of the present and future demand a re-visioning of this education and learning process. Science must be demystified and become inclusive and integrative of all ways of knowing and learning if it is to enable a sustainable world view.


1 “Development that meets the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987).

2 Rene Descartes’s words in Discourse on Method. Originally published in 1637.

3 The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which commits its parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets. Recognising that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The detailed rules for the implementation of the Protocol were adopted at COP 7 in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2001, and are referred to as the “Marrakesh Accords.” Its first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. (Source: http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/ 2830.php).

4 Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change and the Environment, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-fra….


Altieri, M (2016): “Cuba’s Sustainable Agriculture at Risk in US Thaw,” The Conversation, 25 March, https://theconversation.com/cubas-sustainable-agriculture-at-risk-in-u-s-thaw-56773, acce ssed on 28 March 2016.

Funtowicz, S O and J R Ravetz (1993): “Science for the Post-normal Age,” FUTURES, September.

Harari, Y N (2015): Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper Collins.

Hulme, M (2009): Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Morelli, J (2011): “Environmental Sustainability: A Definition for Environmental Professionals,” Journal of Environmental Sustainability, Vol 1, Issue 1.

Oreskes, N (2013): The Scientist as Sentinel, Limn, Issue No 3, June.

World Council for Environment and Development (1987): Our Common Future.

– See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/28/insight/science-and-scientist-changing-climate.html#sthash.tbS5iW2E.dpuf

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