Science At the Wheel: Driving into the Future of the Environmental Movement
Jessika Luth

Science has been able to approximate that the human race has existed for only 400,000 years on this 4.56 billion year old planet. Yet in its brief history humanity has had a far greater impact than any other species. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the rate and complexity of this impact has only increased. With such profound influence on our environment must come greater responsibility. Scientists, as the leading explorers in this new age of technology, share an important part of this responsibility. Their innovations have shaped the world to be what it is today, and it is their research that will be the foundation for tomorrow. Science provides the vehicle that will drive society into the future. Science explores, observes, and explains the world around us. It both finds and attempts to solve problems with the ultimate goal of benefiting society. The health of the environment is increasingly associated with the well-being of society. Therefore, the problems of industrial and agricultural pollution have to be a priority for the scientist. Science has played a major role in creating this modern problem and therefore must now take the lead in solving it.

Having identified the pollution problem initially, scientists more fully understand the extent and severity of this problem. The correlation between cancer and pesticides was identified and continues to be studied by biologists and physicians. It is chemists who have been called to classify the 20,000 Superfund sites and to report on toxic chemicals seeping into homes, schools, and drinking water. Scientists, in general, have studied and stressed the importance of ecosystem diversity. Pollution is affecting this diversity as well as human health, the economy, social justice, and national security.1 As scientists hold the key to this wealth of information, we need to act upon it in an ethical manner, communicate it to the public so that they can do the same, and search for practical solutions.

Scientists can respond to the challenges of preserving and restoring the environment like no other group can. Scientists have the knowledge to interpret the facts. It is this convincing hard data that other environmental advocates lack. Grassroots groups are a good example. Some community-organized groups, like the one led by Lois Gibbs in Love Canal, have been successful in making the government and industry respond to their specific needs.2 The most successful groups have been the ones that gathered the scientific reports and raised money for more research. With thousands of small groups seeking attention across the country, it is those which have evidence to support their arguments that are winning the attention of politicians and forcing industry to take action. Science can lend credibility to their struggles and the environmental movement as a whole. Without scientific support grassroots groups run the risk of being portrayed as selfish NIMBYS (Not In My Back Yard) protesting against something they know they don't want, but do not understand why. Grassroot movements supported by science are effective within the local environment, but they can also be sabotaged by industry. Industry has the money and power to sue these groups, and these groups often do not have the resources to fight back.3 Additionally, industry also uses grassroots tactic in organizing its own anti-environmental legislation lobby groups. Groups like "People for the West" or the "National Wetland Coalition" hide industrial agendas behind ambiguous environmental names.4 With thousands of grassroots groups in existence, separating the good from the bad can be a formidable task.

These impostor grassroots groups are an example of industrial greenwashing by which an industry that is actually harming the environment conceals its true motives. It is this tactic that is the biggest obstacle to a green economy. Green capitalism is another proposed method of solving environmental problems through the creation of an economy, by private consumers and companies, that is based on environmentally friendly goods and services. In a capitalistic society instilled with environmental values this can theoretically be an effective method.5 However, science again plays a fundamental role in this approach. For in order to be successful green capitalism requires knowledgeable green consumers. Science provides the resources for educating consumers to distinguish between genuinely green industries and greenwashing.

Science is clearly important to the environmental movement and should be given priority in its leadership. Many critics would argue that science is the cause of pollution in the first place. In some ways, this is a valid criticism. Some scientists work for the huge corporations that introduce harmful chemicals into the environment. They do not understand the consequences of their own technology. It is clear that, in order to provide the leadership necessary in the environmental movement, the scientific community must first be united under a common environmental ethic. Scientist Jane Lubchenco suggests a "new social contract" to define the goals of scientific conservation and environmental research. This contract would extend the Hippocratic oath of "First do no harm" to all scientists. Scientist Carl Safina affirms this need for a social contract, asserting that "academics with relevant expertise have a professional—and personal—obligation not to assume that some other responsible party will figure out how to preserve the resources on which we and future generations must depend."6 Likewise, the secretary-general of the Earth Summit in 1992, Maurice Strong, emphasized the need for science to "develop a code of environmental and development conduct, readily accessible to the public, so that its guiding principles are transparent and the scientific community itself is accountable to other sectors of society."7 In addition to studying science, students should not leave a university without understanding how their technology will impact the environment.

Many scientists have been instrumental in identifying many environmental problems. Scientific studies have stressed the importance of biodiversity and the danger of polluting the air, water, and land. Now it is time for scientists to take a more active role in finding solutions to these problems. Just what is that role? Lubchenco explains: "Science does not provide the solutions, but it can help understand the consequences of different choices."8 To do this, scientists must be open about their research. Effective communication of research is necessary so that it can be used by fellow scientists in different fields, by policy makers, and by the general public. Lubchenco argues that "scientific knowledge is urgently needed to provide the understanding for individuals to make informed policy and management decisions and to provide the basis for new technologies."

In conveying information, science evaluates what are the most urgent needs of the environment.9 To ensure that action is taken, however, scientists must work together to compile their data. For example, there have been numerous studies on pesticides as detrimental to human health, but more extensive data is not available to further substantiate these reports. California is the only state that has made it mandatory to report pesticide-related illnesses. However, because this system is through worker's compensation, even this data can underestimate the true scope of this problem.10 Scientists have been doing environmental research but that alone cannot solve the problems of pesticide damage unless scientists communicate with each other to correlate their research and then convey their findings to the public.

But it is not enough for scientists to present their research: they must also stand by it. Safina warns that in science "the distinction between objectivity and apathy was often lost."11 As in any profession, the most passionate advocators are often the most successful. The most inspired scientists are those that believe that their work benefits humanity. The most striking example of this passion is Rachel Carson in her scientific crusade against pesticides. In Silent Spring, she raised public awareness that in turn launched new policies toward pesticide pollution. As a result, DDT and other chemicals were banned. Rachel Carson took it upon herself to educate the public, forcing people to address the problems of pesticide use.

Another method of addressing environmental problems is for scientists who work within the industries to report on their unethical practices. Scientists must serve as whistleblowers. Many medical professionals have expanded their oath of "first, do no harm" to include the environmental ethic. Physicians for Social Responsibility is a group that has encouraged medical professionals to become activists—beginning with their own workplace. They have identified the problem of incineration of medical waste as a major source of dioxin and mercury toxicity, threatening public health. They have organized nationwide campaigns to eliminate pollution in health care settings and have supported the development of environmentally safe medical technology and practices.12 Here is an example of scientists communicating across specialized fields, identifying a problem, and then acting upon it.

In addition to the roles of leader, organizer, and informer, scientists are the researchers who will provide the technology to make solutions feasible. Scientists need to continue to study methods of cleaning toxic wastes in an environmentally sound manner. They have done so by developing bioremediation and phytoremediation. Now oil-eating bacteria can be used to clean oil and other organic wastes. This technique was successful in cleaning up the beaches of Prince William Sound after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez Spill. It involves first using advanced detergents to break down the oil, then spraying the beaches with nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer in which to grow oil eating microbes.13 Microorganisms have also been found useful in combating the foul-smelling, possibly carcinogenic, fuel additive, MTBE, that perpetually pollutes groundwater.14

Phytoremediation is another environmentally compatible, economically feasible solution for cleaning toxins. Scientists have found poplar trees to be effective in this process. The tree metabolizes the chemicals into less volatile compounds, then releases these byproducts through its leaves into the atmosphere. A hybrid poplar developed at the University of Georgia has been shown to absorb a variety of substances from heavy metals found in industrial wastes to weed killer chemicals from agricultural wastes. The poplar phytoremediation technique is now being implemented in Oregon to clean up TCE still permeating the soil after a truck skidded spilling hundreds of gallons of the suspected carcinogen in 1984.15

In addition to cleaning up the pollution that already exists, scientists are also designing new methods to reduce pollution in the future. In Beltsville, an experimental farm right outside of Washington, DC, 450 PhDs are working on problems of this sort in over 50 laboratories. Kevin Morris is conducting research in one of them to develop a more environmentally friendly grass that will reduce the need for pesticides. He has experimented with dozens of different grasses to find the one that would fit society's standards while doing less damage to the environment. He knows the ideal of a plush green, weed free lawn and the difficulty in attaining it. "A lawn is a real curse for most people" he explains, as well as to the environment.16 Few people realize the far reaching consequences of watering, cutting, and spraying chemicals on the 50,000 square miles of lawns in the United States.

Morris' research could ease those effects. He has experimented with about 400 different varieties of grass seeds sold in the US. He rated each variety on its color, density, insect resistance, susceptibility to disease, maintenance requirements, drought tolerance, and ability to sustain heavy foot traffic. He found that zoysia required less water and chemicals and that its thick mat stood up well against heavy traffic. However, it also turns yellow in the cold. Morris combined zoysia with fescue grass, which will provide green cover after the zoysia has turned yellow. His experiment is currently surviving the ultimate test on the mall in Washington, DC, where it has been growing since 1988.17

Clearly, genetic science can also be a key for breaking our dependence on chemicals. Learning how species of plants and their genes work within nature can help us create compatible blends and hybrids like that created by Morris. If guided properly, genetic technology can develop a sophisticated organic-based agricultural system that will decreased the need for pesticides and herbicides.18 The emphasis needs to be put on nature as the source of inspiration for future technology.

While it may be the scientists' role to lead, educate, and study, it is the people in a democratic society that ultimately make the decisions. It is contingent upon the public to change the environment to reflect their own values. Scientists are already working on behalf of the environment, identifying and addressing local sources of pollution, such as medical incinerators, and developing technologies like bioremediation and phytoremediation to clean up industrial pollution. Scientists are developing the technology to make society more compatible with the environment and less dependent as pesticides in the future. Scientists have a unique insight into the complexities of this problem, and they have a social responsibility to act upon that information. Their leadership is imperative to ensure the public has the resources and the knowledge to make intelligent decisions regarding the future of this planet.


Breton, Mary Joy. Women Pioneers for the Environment. Northeastern University Press, August 1998.

Helvarg, David. "The big green spin machine." The Amicus Journal. (Summer 1996).

Lubchenco, Jane. "Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science." Science Vol. 279, 23 January 1998.

Moses, Marion, MD. "Pesticide-Related health Problems and Farmworkers." American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Journal. Vol. 37, March 1989.

Parlange, Mary. "A Taste for Waste." New Scientist. 19 December 1998.

Pearce, Fred. "New Scientists Needed to Save the Earth. New Scientist. 7 December 1991.

Physicians for Social Responsibility homepage. Providing a PSR guide for health care without harm. Described campaign of physicians to eliminate medical waste incineration and dioxin.

Rifkin, Jeremy. "Apocalypse When?" New Scientist. 31 October 1998.

Safina, Carl. "To Save the Earth, Scientists Should Join Policy Debates." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 6 November 1998: A80.

Satchell, Michael and Betsy Carpenter. "The Disaster That Wasn't." US News and World Report 18 September 1989: 60-69.

Soloman, Wendy. "Horsehead subpoenas termed typical tactic." Allentown Morning Call, March 31, 1998.

Van Dyne, Larry. "Thank God for the Country Boys; Ten Miles From the White House, Government Scientists Are Working to Bring You a Greener Lawn, Juicier Peaches, Leaner Pork, and Other Wonders." Washingtonian. August 1992.

Verrengia, Joseph. "Weapons against pollution? Poplar trees drink up toxins." Seattle Times. (September 30, 1998) 093098.html. Seattle Times webpage.