Science and Sustainability

One of the most impactful discoveries in science over the past century is the discovery that the Earth’s climate is changing on a catastrophic scale due to the release of man-made greenhouse gasses. This topic has been on everyone’s mind recently, thanks to the efforts of activist Greta Thunberg and many others. It got me thinking about how science – which helped the world realise there is a major problem – could do a lot better in terms of being environmentally-friendly. I also came across this article, which discussed the issue with plastic waste in certain fields.

Since this is a platform for young scientists, and young people are often open to change and trying out new things, I thought it would be a good place to open up the discussion about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our science. I know that most of us, as postgrads and young researchers, don’t necessarily have the power or authority to implement changes on the large scale as needed – and may require participating in some of the more destructive habits like travel to build our careers – but we can start by raising these topics and making suggestions! I’d also like to remind everyone that no-one is perfect when it comes to being carbon-neutral, but it’s important that we all try our best for the sake of the planet!

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polar ice cracking (credit: By Christopher Michel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19626661335/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41618273),

Since I’m an astronomer, I will be drawing from this white paper titled ‘Astronomy in a Low Carbon Future’, which was prepared for Canada’s long-term planning in astronomy. Because of this, not all of this advice will be applicable in other fields. I’m looking forward to reading the comments on how some of these strategies could be adapted to other fields and how other fields have their own challenges and possibilities. 

One of the first, most impactful ways for science to reduce its carbon budget is to reduce travel. Between conferences and fieldwork, travel is an important and valuable part of science. However, air travel produces excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Travel can be reduced by moving to remote meetings, conferences and even – in some cases – fieldwork. I recently took part in a meeting with and presented my work to some important collaborators in North Carolina without having to leave Cape Town, since the conference organisers wholeheartedly embraced remote participation through Zoom and Google Slides. It also made my participation possible, since I do not have much funding for travel and would not have been able to physically attend the conference otherwise. Although I missed out on the informal discussions, I was still able to confidently present my work and discuss some collaborative research that will form part of my Masters.

Another way that astronomy, in particular, is able to reduce travel is through remote observing. One of my fellow Masters’ students here at the South African Astronomical Observatory regularly controls a telescope in Sutherland from Cape Town and collects her astronomical data without having to travel. Remote observing is slowly becoming more common, which is excellent for reducing the amount of travel that observational astronomers have to do. 

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1.9m telescope in Sutherland which is remotely operable (Credit: SAAO)

An easy substitution that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions is through catering at events. Switching to meals that are vegetarian for the most part will help cut down on overall meat consumption. The other plus-side to this is that it will make everyone who already eats vegetarian food a lot happier since their meals won’t be a sad, salad-based afterthought. 

Since the electricity supply in South Africa is currently a coal-based disaster, this is an area that gives me very little hope when it comes to powering scientific equipment and instrumentation. Unfortunately, massive telescopes like MeerKAT and the upcoming SKA require a lot of power. I can only hope that these telescopes will be powered through the abundant Karoo sunshine, rather than more coal. But, with Eskom’s current crisis and the relatively cheap price of coal, that seems less and less likely. As a student, I don’t have any insight into how the climate effects of this might be mitigated, but it is something that I would like to raise when I get the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I think it’s important that – as scientists – we take part in political processes to counter climate change. Since none of our major political parties seems to take climate change as seriously as they should, we should make our voices heard by supporting activist groups that have the expertise necessary to put climate change on the government’s agenda. On a smaller scale, we can support organisations on our own campuses that advocate for the fight against climate change. Although individual efforts are important, this is a global problem that requires governmental and institutional interventions to prevent the catastrophic effects that will hit countries like South Africa the hardest. 

The Gemini Problem

There are two words that will upset most astronomers – ‘astrology’ and ‘aliens’. Although searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has embraced the scientific method in recent times,  (Area 51 memes aside) and the consensus amongst historians and astronomers is that human beings built the pyramids, astrology becomes more mainstream by the day. A recent video clip from The Bachelor Australia that has been making the rounds perfectly captures how most astronomers feel about this situation. So it got me thinking about pseudoscience and astrology in particular.

On the one hand, things like astrology are pretty harmless and have helped people with things like self-improvement and introspection. All of us (including myself) have beliefs that we follow that aren’t scientific at all but improve our lives. On the other hand, we have climate change denialism and the anti-vaccination movement that are causing serious harm to us as human beings and the planet as a whole. The trouble is figuring out where to draw the line. 

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Something else that bothers me about astrology is how it is specifically targeted at women. Young women who are interested in stars and space might be directed to a Refinery29 article about ‘black hole astrology’ (I refuse to link to it) instead of an article talking about the amazing scientific achievement that several women were involved in. Because astronomy is a field where women are underrepresented, it can be frustrating when you want to encourage girls to become scientists but all of the content targeted towards them is about astrology instead. 

My natural reaction to these posts is usually ‘No!!! You’re wrong!!! That’s not how this works!!!’ and panic, rather than taking the time to stop and listen to the other person and understand their reasons for following whatever they are following. Maybe they’re concerned about their children’s health. Maybe the politician that they trust told them that there are more pressing matters – like poverty and a weak economy – to worry about besides carbon emissions. Sometimes – like in the recent debates about plastic – people are living with disabilities and other concerns that you haven’t taken into account.

Added to all of this is that science is complicated. Many people have been told that they are not smart enough to understand something difficult or that ‘Western’ scientists aren’t to be trusted. 

While explaining complicated scientific concepts in a simple way is a challenge science communicators embrace, science remains intimidating to many people. And it is very easy to insult and belittle people – especially when you are (like I’m sometimes guilty of) coming from the ‘I’m a scientist who knows everything’ perspective. 

Like any good scientist, I am trying to figure out a methodical way of engaging with people around controversial topics. So far, I’ve come up with a few different questions to ask myself: ‘Does this belief cause harm?’, ‘Is this a stranger on the internet or someone I know?‘,  ‘Am I educated in this topic well enough to properly counter their argument?’, ‘Would I be insulting a traditional/marginalized belief system?’ and ‘Have I listened to their reasoning behind these claims?’. I think framing my responses to situations with these questions in mind will help my science communication be a little less frustrating and a lot kinder around controversial topics. 

How do you deal with controversial topics and pseudoscience that overlaps with your field? If you have any advice or questions that you ask yourself, please let me know!