Tag Archives: Climate Change

Scientivists urgently needed!

Almost every scientist recognises this picture. Having devoted much of their lives to perform research on a specific issue, but not being able to get the message outside the academic walls (and it’s not only the government that’s ‘out there’). This holds for the more fundamental sciences, but even more so for research on more complex issues, like climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss, financial-economic crisis, and the current corona pandemic.

Of course, many scientists are to be blamed as well. Being so caught up in their own scientific square centimetre, they are unable to communicate the main message of their research to others. Stimulated by the perverse publication system that only accounts for peer-reviewed publications (and not so much for more understandable messages), leaves people outside academia with only scientific papers. Not very useful in the public arena.

But still. Isn’t it funny, that a society that pays lots of money to universities and research centres, that does value teaching and research done at these places highly, then dismisses results of these institutes if it is not ‘handy’, and perhaps a little too vague?

Academia has responded through the initiation of new fields of research, such as sustainability science, focusing on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and non-academic stakeholders from business, government, and the civil society. Not so much for the fundamental sciences, but for the earlier mentioned ‘complex societal issues’ humanity faces today. The idea behind this is that we all need to work together in order to address sustainability challenges and develop real solution patterns.

Well, that’s a step in the right direction. However, being good scientists, this idea of ‘sustainability science’ is becoming formalised rapidly. And  – although classified by concepts such as post-normal, mode-2, triple helix, and other science paradigms – it still are ‘scientific’ classifications. With other words, it is being ‘bounded’ by similar rules that apply to other sciences as well.

From a scientific point of view, this is fine. But what about the point of view of moving forward to a more sustainable world? Does this not oblige scientists to take more responsibility, especially at times when many signals in nature and society are red? Or do we (scientists) continue to discuss the rules under which ‘sustainability science’ needs to be operated? Rules that probably will be ‘dismissed’ by the other stakeholders if it suits their purpose?

It is about time for many (more) scientists to become scientivists. Scientivists are people that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the ‘science part’), to promote, impede, or direct societal change (the ‘activist part’). Scientivism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, to economic activism, such as boycotts, sit-ins etc. Scientivists are not afraid of interfering with legitimized procedures and official politics when science shows this would be needed.

On the other hand, scientivists must be aware that their actions may increase the risk of scientific results inappropriately being used into social discourses and in the media. This might lead to situations where, for instance, researchers find themselves unwittingly “supporting” an application of the generated knowledge they might strongly disagree with.

It is, therefore, not a ‘job’ (as for most of us ‘being a scientist’ is), but rather an ‘attitude’. An attitude that may be urgently to move forward to a more sustainable society. As in this era of social media, opportunities for scientivists will increase as we speak, there are no reasons not to join…unless you do not have that attitude…

(Published earlier (in 2012) by Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans)

See also (in Dutch): Een taxonomie van de wetenschapsactivist and The meaning of academia in times of environmental crisis.

Our sustainability challenges: climate change, health, and animal well-being

The lecture by Prof. Pim Martens, given Monday June 15th

Our dominant current socio-economic and political systems have become decoupled from the larger ecology of life, and our relationship with our natural environment and the animals within has changed dramatically. This has led to various outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases – with COVID-19 as the hard lesson learned (or not?). In this lecture, Pim Martens, Professor of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University, will discuss the complexities and connections between our own well-being and that of the animals with whom we live, and global environmental changes like climate change and biodiversity loss.

Compared to climate change, the impact of covid-19 will look like peanuts

We’ve been warning about this for decades

COVID-19, the third outbreak of coronavirus in 20 years, wasn’t exactly unpredictable. Professor Pim Martens, who tries to integrate scientific knowledge and animal advocacy, talks about how zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans, foreground the complex interconnectedness of our wellbeing and our treatment of animals.

“It was strange – I had no idea. And even when the first reports emerged, I was quite sure they would contain it within the province….” Professor of Sustainable Development Pim Martens has been to China at the end of last year at the invitation of Bingtao Su, his former PhD student at Maastricht University. As a visiting professor, he spent two weeks lecturing at Shandong University and the Chinese Academy of Science.

Under his guidance, Su had studied the Chinese perspective on animal welfare, as compared to the Netherlands and Japan. They used questionnaires to collect data about how factors such as age, gender, or religion relate to attitudes towards animals. He is now also supervising PhD and MSc students conducting similar research in Indonesia and Spain.

Chinese attitudes towards animals

“Sustainability is underrepresented in Chinese Academics, but they are keen to bring in expertise, especially integrated perspectives on interdisciplinary sustainability science.” Sustainable human-animal relationship is a somewhat delicate topic in China: apart from the vast amounts of money at stake, there is also still a belief in the medicinal powers of rare animals’ organs as well as a cultural reluctance towards open criticism.

“China is a huge and very diverse country, so it’s difficult to generalise – that’s also what we’ve found in the study. It is true that they eat a much bigger variety of animals than we do – although you could also say it’s surprising how few animals we in Western Europe eat…” In any case, many suspect that wet markets, on which many different species of animal are kept in close proximity, is where COVID-19 has originated.

Meat, milk and raw materials

More and more animals are kept closely together in unsanitary or overly hygienic (antibiotics, etc.) conditions to satisfy the rising demand for animal protein of densely populated megacities. The need for space and raw materials perpetuates the encroachment on animal habitats like rainforests, which, in turn, brings more humans in contact with more exotic animal species. Add to that frequent international travel – both human and animal – and it’s excellent conditions for zoonosis.

Diseases moving from animals to humans isn’t entirely preventable of course. “It’s a question of probabilities – if we were all vegan animal rights activists, there could still be a zoonotic pandemic but it would be infinitely less likely.” And this was no perfect storm either. “Academics have been warning for decades that this will happen – it was always a question of when, not if.” We’ve had several zoonotic epidemics – several of them corona in fact – in recent decades.

Zoonosis closer to home

According to Martens, a Western European source of zoonotic disease isn’t unthinkable either. The Netherlands, for example, is a densely populated country with a lot of intensively farmed livestock: more than a 1.5 million animals are slaughtered per day, after having spent their lives at very close quarters indeed. The population is very mobile within the country and Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in Europe.

Martens cites the 2007 outbreak of Q Fever, a rather uncommon but devastating disease that can spread from livestock to humans. Dutch authorities were struggling to contain or monitor the spread and the original tally of 25 victims is now estimated to be closer to a hundred. The spread of the disease was eventually contained through a mass cull (of goats and sheep, that is) and by introducing a vaccine for animals.

Greater respect for nature

“The solution is greater respect for nature: moving away from industrial livestock farming, deforestation, wet markets, etc. This would also help address climate change, the impact of which will make this look like peanuts.” Martens’ own contribution to science – together with many international scientists – is studying the complexity and interactions between humans, animals and nature by, among other things, developing mathematical models to simulate the spread of zoonoses. But he also hopes to do his part in bringing about a change of attitude.

He was certainly heartened by how many students attended his lectures in China and how interested and knowledgeable they were. “You can tell that there is a cultural shift especially among young, educated people in urban areas.” Together with Su, he now wants to repeat the original study to see whether the COVID-19 outbreak has changed attitudes towards animal welfare in China.

Surely, it must have changed? Given the public and political discourse, Martens has his doubts. “Of course, economic recovery is very important, but I really hope we won’t rush back to business as usual without fixing the underlying problem.” He adds with a sigh: “If we haven’t learnt anything from this pandemic, then maybe we will from the next one…”

By: Florian Raith. See original post on UMnieuws.