Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Climate Change is not (only) science**

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I'm a bit all-over-the-place about my interests, Marine research fosters this plurality because the marine world is huge and impactful- it touches everything. So I thought in this post I would talk about what I actually research.

My research is concerned with the way that a huge swath of people from all walks of life contribute to knowledge about the ocean. At one end of the spectrum is a bunch of different people, including (but not limited to) fisheries biologists, professional aquarists, hobbyists, anglers, beach goers, sailors, and academic biologists and on the other end is a product: published scientific knowledge.

In our world, we have a system of knowing- how do we know something? Society generally agrees that we "know" something because it was published and peer reviewed (i'll get to the quibbles later). So someone can feel some way about the weather, but a scientist can confirm that it is true. This is what we in the academy call epistemology- we know something for sure when people we trust go through a system we trust to prove it. Sometimes, this seems ridiculous. This is what makes morning talk show hosts and buzzfeed writers goggle at reports that say things like, "Scientists find that getting punched in the face hurts." Because,yeah, if you're a youngest child you didn't need a degree in physics to know the velocity of a fist to know that getting squarely punched in the face for stealing someone's favorite toy hurts like hell. You know it. But your childhood abuse at the hands of your older siblings doesn't count as universal "knowing"- there's too many questions. Maybe you have a sensitive face, or you're a crybaby, or your sister has a really supernaturally strong arm. So scientists study and they publish a report and that's when we know that it's okay that you told your mom. Because that really, according to scientists, hurt dude.

But here's what I study- I study the way that people who got punched in the face contribute to knowledge about face punching. Only in marine science.

The ocean is huge. And the health of the ocean impacts everyone. The US Fish Commission (now Fish and Wildlife and NOAA) was founded in 1871 because fishermen started noticing that their catch was decreasing dramatically and they asked the federal government to mediate an argument. The argument was between two states- one said that the problem was the use of a certain type of nets and the other said it wasn't. So the government formed a special commission to go check it out. And, after extensive interviews with fishermen and others who worked on or near the water, what they found was a bunch of fishermen who all said the same thing- there's way less fish. And they all had different ideas about the cause. They found that, based on study, that catches were much smaller and that it was most likely caused by the use of a certain type of net. Interestingly, when the findings were presented to both states, one banned the nets and the other didn't. We can see this small historical moment as indicative of most marine science (and environmental science in general).

The first to notice changes in the land are those that work with and on it and who thrive when that land thrives. These laborers and residents are the first to see the changes in the land and to sound the alarm. Rachel Carson knew this and used it as evidence in Silent Spring. For her, the people that knew about the danger of pesticides were backyard bird watchers- she uses the voices of judges and doctors who see fewer and fewer birds in their backyards as evidence. And this is powerful- because she could throw so much scientific evidence at people, and she does in doses, but  she is clear- these residents are the people to really trust. They are sounding the alarm. They have knowledge.

This is the same with climate change. The residents of islands and artic regions are screaming. They are sounding the alarm. Those societies that survive and thrive when the ocean does are struggling. In ecology, we call these indicator species- it means a species that shows the effects of a stressor first- one species that basically shows us which way the wind is blowing. These societies, that survive because they have marine proteins, ice shelves, or even just land, are indicators of what is to come- and they are telling us. These are not scientists- they are laborers, fishermen and women, people who are residents at the front lines of a changing planet. They are giving information to scientists and while that information is confirmed by climate scientists, they are getting it from real people- people who don't make money from a universal scientific conspiracy. Just people who labor and live by the sea and are rapidly watching their way of life get washed away.

The ruling classes everywhere have always been particularly bad at understanding warnings about the ocean. Wealth and privilege allow distance, not just from a subsistence lifestyle, but from the actual labor that attaches people to the land. They cannot "know" the land because they are separated from it. For instance, at the turn of the twentieth century, a very well-known British Scientist (T.H. Huxley), going against the knowledge of American and English fishermen of that era and quite a few fisheries biologists, declared the ocean to be endlessly abundant. He said that there was absolutely no way we could ever overfish- none. And people really believed him. Especially people in power. Because he was a scientist and a really really famous dude to boot. But here's the thing, we already knew that stocks were disappearing when he said it because laborers and residents knew it and they had told people. And papers had been written. But those at the top- those that eat but don't gather- they see little.

Right now, Americans are terribly spoiled and wealthy. Especially when it comes to the ocean and its resources. If you want fish for dinner, or scallops, or clams, or oysters, or shrimp- you go to the store and you get it. And most people don't look on the package to see where it came from or how it got there. If there isn't one type of fish, you get another. But most of the time, you buy frozen and the amount and price seems consistent. So when you hear scientists and residents yell about declining stocks or ocean acidification or mass migration, you don't listen. Because of course it seems preposterous. Possibly another Population Bomb scare if you're old enough to remember it.

But it's not. Climate Change is not (just) an academic science- it's the knowledge produced by confirmation of the alarms raised by people who know the most- those that are living on the front lines. And eventually, whether we want to talk about it (or can talk about it), that person on the front lines will be you. At first, you'll just be inconvenienced because you can't get the fish you like, then your usual spot for your beach vacation will be ugly or unavailable because of erosion. But eventually, the salinization of drinking water on the coasts coupled with extreme droughts will make you a front line resident and you will sound the alarm and wonder why no one is listening.

Anti-intellectualism shouldn't stop you from believing in climate change. Because the people it affects, the people who are sounding the alarm, are not scientists. They just live in the most sensitive places right now. Climate science isn't academic- it is the most down-to-earth knowledge available. Don't let conversations about lazy, rich, privileged scientists stop you from listening to the people you trust. Laborers, mothers, fathers, anglers, and yes, business people, see the change.

The argument that climate change is a scientific conspiracy is wrong. Because it is knowledge of the earth by people who live on it. If you are a fan of laborers, blue collar workers, people just trying to survive and raise their babies, you have to be concerned about climate change. They are the telling you the truth.

Climate Change isn't Science: it's common sense.

**if you're concerned about this title, know I've thought about it- and I used it because I want it to come up in google searches in a specific way.

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