Re: Christian environmental concern

Mon, 24 Jun 1996 10:37:01 -0400 (EDT)

Dean Ohlman wrote:

> Both Russ Maatman and Edwin Olsen in his response to Dick Wright brought
> up the point of the difficulty in getting the facts about environmental
> degradation. As a writer specializing in Christian environmental ethics,
> I was hoping that this ASA community, if any, would have some good ideas
> about that. If I cannot be sure I am getting the facts from either the
> secular or the Christian science communities, where do I turn? Is it
> hopeless? Do I just take the tack taken by many Christian friends:
> "Nobody knows the facts, so I'm just going to ignore the whole thing"?

I'd like to recommend a strategy, both for summarizing the results of old
environmental studies, and for participating in new environmental studies
(a privilege and responsibility which some of us will have in the future).

Rather than presenting a single interpretation of the data, and a single
plan-for-action to resolve the problem,

Present the full range of (informed) opinions on the data; present
a variety of (reasonable) extrapolations of the data (from benign
to dire); and present a variety of plans-for-action with varying
degrees of economic cost.

It is tempting to try to present a single "right" answer to these tricky
questions. But as Dean and others have pointed out, there are often
several conflicting interpretations of the data. Even if you have a
fairly strong opinion about which interpretation is correct, it adds to
your credibility to admit that there is some disagreement. It is often
ultimately self-defeating to take rigid stands on uncertain data.

I'm not advocating that you present the ENTIRE range of opinions; there
are always a few people on both ends of the spectrum who take opinions
regardless of the facts. But most environmental issues (especially global
ones such as CO2/global warming, ozone/CFCs, and hormone-mimicing
chemicals) usually admit to a range of respectable opinions from:

1) Yes, we see a trend in the data and, yes, we have a model of human
activity could account for that data, but the causal relationship is
unproven; there are some natural phenomena which _could_ account for some
or all of the observed effects, and there are certain natural processes
which could ameliorate some or all of the "predicted" bad effects;
therefore it is too soon to implement costly changes.


2) We see a trend in the data which we can attribute to human activity;
there are no serious consequences yet because the environment can handle
certain levels of change, but if the trend continues unchanged for a
few decades it will certainly cause serious problems; therefore we should
begin to scale back this activity and slowly change to less damaging ones
over the next decade or two.


3) We have already pushed to its limits the environment's ability to
"cushion" these changes; if this trend continues we will soon cause
serious, perhaps irreversible, damage; therefore we should quickly cease
this damaging activity.

For example, the data on the global levels of CO2 are fairly
straightforward and can be presented as such. but the _interpretation_ of
global temperatures could (IMO) fit any of those three descriptions above.
The actual levels of hormone-mimicing chemicals in the environment can
simply be measured, but the effects on animals and humans could still fit
any of those three interpretations.

The relationship between environmental science and the public/politicians
should work on many of the same principles of a good doctor/patient
relationship. The principle of "informed choice" is very popular in
health care, and for good reason. So I suggest telling non-scientists a
range of (responsible) scientific opinions (perhaps with some indication
of which part of the spectrum MOST scientists are on).

"You should always save hyperbole |
until you really need it." | Loren Haarsma
--Hobbes (_Calvin_and_Hobbes_) |