SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
9 October 2014
Volume 15 Issue 10

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Conceptually Simple but Hard to Implement

Cynthia Stahl, USEPA, Ron McCormick, U.S. BLM, Andrew Henderson, Univ. of Texas, SPH, SETAC Advisory Group on Sustainability

Our title is a variation on Ralph Nigro’s Vancouver short course (Nothing Simple is Easy) and our text connects the interrelated concepts of sustainability, resilience, complexity and wicked problems to SETAC’s science and scientists. With its major composition of toxicologists and chemists, thinking about these concepts might be considered superfluous.  However, the Advisory Group on Sustainability (AGS) seeks to have members of SETAC consider the broader question of “What do toxicology and chemistry have to do with sustainability?” Nothing? Everything? Or, some mid-to-broad scale connections?

How we think about our science, and what we do with our science has larger societal implications.  The scientists of SETAC can have a leading role in considering science within a broader context.  Previously, we have advocated that there are four questions that should frame any dialogue about sustainability: What are we sustaining, for whom are we sustaining it, for how long are we sustaining it, and at what cost are we sustaining it?  Simple questions with difficult answers (Allen et al. 2003; Kapustka et al. 2013). It is simple to label something as sustainable, but it is not easy to demonstrate sustainability.  These are questions that we should be asking, answering, and critically thinking about as a Society whenever we allow the labeling of some product, service, or action as sustainable, making certain the devilish details of a sustainability claim become apparent.  Only then can a substantive dialogue on the validity of a claim occur.

For example, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson documented what happens when scientists, policy makers and citizens pursue disconnected goals, even when those goals are driven by good intentions such as increasing crop yields to feed more people (Carson 1962).  DDT was hailed as a pesticide treatment for malaria-carrying mosquitos, granting its inventor, Paul Mȕller, the 1948 Nobel Prize.  However, upon Carson’s documentation of the deleterious effects on bird populations, including bald eagle and peregrine falcon, DDT was banned in the US, even as it continues to be used elsewhere.  But is this really the way to implement our science?  Is hindsight the only way to manage our science-based environmental issues?  What if we engaged in a full benefit-risk evaluation? Within a sustainability context, would a different policy with regard to the use of DDT emerge?

Today, we are confronted with the use of neonicotinoids, potent insecticides used in agriculture to treat seeds and to thwart crop reducing pests such as the flea beetle.  As economically valuable products, neonicotinoid formulations are protected from market competition with patents, which is one example of the current societal and economic value controls over science.  However, we are discovering now that these chemicals are also suspected of adversely affecting birds, aquatic invertebrates, and pollinator bees (Wenning 2014; Mineau and Palmer 2013).  Is there a way to ensure that the neonicotinoid story won’t be a repeat of the DDT story?  Are we asking enough questions here?  Are we asking the deeper level questions?  Crop yield protection, human health, the health of bird and bee populations, a healthy market economy, and encouragement for our best scientists to invent products that are beneficial to society are just some of the things we want to protect but for whom, for how long and at what cost? Simple questions with difficult answers.

Even as we have vastly improved our understanding of certain pieces (e.g., toxicological effects of pesticides) of our environment since the 1950s, how do we know if we may still be pushing the ecological system too hard? This is only a small portion of the story of sustainability and resilience, but it has everything to do with how we think about our science, and what we do with our science.

Sustainability requires that when we formulate ‘solutions’ to these kinds of problems, we must also be open to making changes in personal and social behavior.  These are wicked problems (Rittel and Webber 1973) and ethical problems (Seager et al. 2012). Are we ready and willing to take this on?  What, if anything, tempers the cultural attitudes, such as the pursuit of affluence, economic optimism, and the use of science and technology to tame nature, that have characterized Western societies and our ecological story to date?  Are we positioned in terms of attitudes and ethics such that the current social-economic-ecological system is sustainable for all human societies, for the next hundred years, and at costs that would be judged equitable by most?

How will we know?  To answer this question requires thinking that crosses SETAC’s disciplines, integrating the ecological with social sciences, and plugging into public policy (Attanasio 2014).  Come join us in this continuing journey of exploration and discovery in Vancouver by attending one or all three of the presentations in the coordinated science theme on Energy, Sustainability and Global Risk, including Ralph Nigro’s short course, the Monday morning debate session, and the Monday plenary.  Also, join us for further discussion during the Advisory Group on Sustainability open meeting on Tuesday, Nov 11 from 5:30-6:30pm.

Allen TFH, Tainter JA, Hoekstra TW. Supply-side Sustainability. New York (NY): Columbia University Press; 2003. pp. 459. (Complexity in Ecological Systems.)

Attanasio R. 2014. Neonicotinoid Pesticides: New Findings Highlight Their Role in the Disappearance of Bees. IEAM Blog [Internet]. Available from:

Carson R. Silent Spring. Boston (MA): Houghton Mifflin Company,; 1962. pp. 378.

Kapustka L, McCormick R, Stahl C. 2013. Informing the Sustainability Dialogue. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. 9(3): 355-356.

Mineau P and Palmer C. The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds. American Bird Conservancy; 2013.

McCormick R, Kapustka L, Stahl C, Fava J, Lavoie E, Robertson C, Sanderson H, Scott H, Seager T, Vigon B. 2013. Exploring SETAC’s Roles in the Global Dialogue on Sustainability – An Opening Debate. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 9(1): 7-11.

Rittel HWJ and Webber MM. 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences. 4: 155-169

Seager T, Selinger E, Wiek A. 2012. Sustainable Engineering Science for Solving Wicked Problems. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 25(4): 467-494.

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