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Exposing the Social Roots of Our Environmental Problems

From energy policy to honeybee health, climate change to disaster preparedness, Drexel social scientists are bringing important new perspectives to the nation’s greatest environmental challenges.

By Tim Hyland

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is one of the most troubling and confounding problems facing the American agricultural industry today.

Since 2006, beekeepers from coast to coast have been reporting sudden and unexplained losses in their hives, with formerly healthy colonies losing as much as 90 percent of their bees over the course of a season. Often left behind when CCD strikes is a lonely queen, a few immature bees, but no adult worker bees at all.

This perplexing disease at first glance may seem to be only a problem for American farmers, but in reality, it’s a massive economic issue as well. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in crop value each year. Saving the bees, then, is of paramount importance to wide swaths of this country, and scientists have been working for nearly a decade to find the elusive cure.

Drexel’s Chloe Silverman, PhD, is among them. But unlike her colleagues in biology or ecology or entomology, she is approaching the problem of CCD from a very different perspective — and asking very different questions.

HoneybeeSilverman, a sociologist and historian of science in Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology and Society, is in the midst of a new research project that looks not for the single root cause of CCD, or for clues to a cure, but rather at the ways stakeholders are defining the problem — its scope, its impact, its severity — and what they conceive the ultimate “solution” might look like. By bringing these diverse approaches to light, Silverman hopes to improve our understanding of CCD as a multidimensional issue, far more complex than some media members — and even some scientists — might admit.

In understanding how people work, she says, scientists may be able to better understand how bees work.

“The data that is emerging from my research suggests that, not surprisingly, our intuitive ways of describing health and illness as humans don’t necessarily map onto honeybee hives,” says Silverman, who previously studied the dynamics and history of autism spectrum disorders. “I’d like to understand better if the different groups tackling this problem — entomologists, beekeepers, agricultural extension workers — are defining health and illness for bees in different ways. If they are, that’s a very important dynamic for us to understand as we work to maintain pollinator health. We have to manage communication among these groups.”

At a time when environmental issues big and small are vexing scientists and challenging public policy makers like never before, Drexel social scientists like Silverman are offering valuable insight into problems, such as CCD, that may simply be too complex for any single discipline to conquer. From climate change to disaster preparedness to the myriad ethical challenges spurred by society’s energy policies, Drexel researchers are working at the forefront of some of the most important debates in environmental science today.

Their contributions, which expose layers of complexity that extend far beyond the labs and measurements of the hard sciences, could prove invaluable as the wider science community grapples with issues that pose serious and ever-rising threats to our economy, our ecology and even our collective safety.

Scott Knowles, PhD, describes himself as “a historian of disaster.” Over the course of his unique and accomplished academic career, Knowles has established himself as an expert in the area of broad-scale risk management and preparedness — how risks emerge in a fast-changing world, how policy experts attempt to tackle (or, sometimes, ignore) those risks, and how and why policies are ultimately put into place to mitigate them.

It’s an area of expertise that Knowles, an associate professor of history at Drexel, developed after first becoming interested in why so many cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries suffered such devastating fires — the Great Chicago Fire that killed 300 people in 1871, the San Francisco earthquake and blaze that killed 3,000 in 1906, and any number of others. That interest in fire soon expanded to include other types of disasters, from hurricanes and earthquakes to nuclear war and terrorism. Today, Knowles spends much of his time researching the new and often unexpected threats posed by emerging technologies. A current project has him investigating what American nuclear scientists might be able to learn from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan — a disaster that continues to pose an environmental hazard on the Japanese coast.

At its core, Knowles’ work is aimed at helping policymakers both understand the history of disaster and better prepare themselves to mitigate the impacts of the inevitable disasters to come. It is work that draws on a number of disciplines.

“I identify myself as a historian, but my methods flow from the history of public policy, policy analysis, sociology, and science, technology and society,” he says. “My work really is sprawling across many different realms.”

His hope, he says, is that policymakers might be able to draw on his research to be more proactive when it comes to disaster planning — even when doing so may prove unpopular with their constituencies. It’s one thing, for example, for a governor or president to respond with strong and swift action after a disaster hits — providing state or federal support, sending in the National Guard, helping towns rebuild — but it’s another entirely for them to propose tough legislation limiting development in vulnerable (though desirable) coastal areas or to push for higher taxes to pay for safeguards that could help cities better endure hurricanes or earthquakes.

“The important thing is to have all of the work regarding disasters in multiple disciplines — engineering, medicine, history — somewhat coordinated, so we can move the needle policy-wise over time,” Knowles says. “It can happen.”

Of course, it doesn’t always happen quickly — or easily.

Knowles’ colleague at Drexel, Robert J. Brulle, PhD, can certainly attest to that.

Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science, has spent much of his career investigating the way politicians, and society as a whole, view environmental problems. More recently, much of his work has focused on perhaps the most divisive environmental issue of our time: climate change.

“Climate change is such an enormous environmental issue that all of the rest of them somewhat pale in significance,” says Brulle. “If we don’t get this one, if we don’t somehow address it, we’re not going to be able to save the wilderness, for example. It will just tank anyway.”

Brulle’s interest in environmental issues dates all the way back to his days in high school, when he took it upon himself to investigate the impact of oil spills on the Mississippi River. Later, he served in the Coast Guard and began to understand that, while biologists and ecologists have a great role to play in helping society understand the impact and causes of environmental issues, most solutions to those problems are borne not out of a lab, but rather through the political process. With that understanding, and a passion for the environment, he decided to pursue a PhD in sociology.

“It became clear to me at some point that the environment is what it is because of the things we do to it,” he says. “And so if we want to fix the environment, we have to change what we do to it.”

In Brulle’s mind, that simple truth sits at the very essence of the climate change debate, and for one reason: From a scientific point of view, he says, there is no debate.

Climate change, according to almost all reputable scientists, is happening. What’s fascinating to Brulle is that this scientific truth remains such a topic of debate within the world of politics and media. Until those dynamics change, he says, it’s unlikely that anything will be accomplished from a policy point of view to remedy the looming disaster.

“Climate change is a political debate,” he says. “It is not a scientific debate.”

But how exactly has this dynamic developed? Why has a strictly scientific issue devolved into a political war? And why do the climate change deniers remain so steadfast in their belief that it’s all one big lie?

There are many factors at work, says Brulle.

“What we find is that, for most people, climate change is just one more issue among many — education, foreign policy, those kinds of things,” he says. “With most issues, people don’t have the time to necessarily study these things in depth. What should we be doing in Ukraine? How should we be handling the Middle East? Most people will say, ‘Well, I have no idea. I don’t have the time or ability to study all of those facts and learn about all of those dynamics.’ So what we do is look to people we trust for guidance on issues that are often peripheral to our main concerns.”

For the most part, he says, people know what they know. They also know what they don’t know. In essence, then, they outsource their thinking on those issues to those — either in the media, or the political sphere — with whom they feel most aligned. And this is where the problem is rooted.

“If you’re talking to somebody in Philadelphia about traffic on I-76, or how to get in and out of Philly via the Ben Franklin Bridge, people know a lot about that — because that’s their life,” Brulle says. “But climate change is something that’s way out in the distance. What people do is rely on their trusted sources of information — the media or politicians or pundits. People will tend to follow those opinions. So if one of these trusted opinion leaders says this thing is real, then people will believe it’s real and will believe, too, that we should probably do something about it. The problem is that the political elite are actually divided on this. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh or FOX News, climate change isn’t real. It’s a fraud. It’s fake. And on the other side, you have people reading the New York Times and listening to Al Gore and MSNBC.”

It’s a political and, in some ways, cultural deadlock that is unlikely to be broken any time soon, Brulle says, if only because there is so much evidence backing one side of the debate and so much money and influence backing the other.

Both sides are entrenched.

But history tells us there is one way that opinions can ultimately be changed.

“If the guys on the denier side lose elections and keep losing, and if this becomes a real electoral issue, that’s what is ultimately going to make a difference,” he says. “If politicians affiliated with climate change denial [start losing elections], they will run away from that position. They will start to waver.”

While climate change may seem a distant or even non-existent issue to some sides, other environmental concerns — particularly those looming in our own backyard — are less easily denied.

Gwen Ottinger, PhD, a new assistant professor at Drexel, has carved out an expertise at the juncture of science and technology studies and environmental justice. It’s an expertise that allows her to delve deeply into issues ranging from renewable technology to energy policy, in a quest to understand the unique problems and challenges posed to both people and communities by society’s policy decisions. Most recently, she received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to look at the potential impact of technologies that might allow people living near oil refineries to more easily collect environmental data and counter claims made by industry scientists.

It’s an important project for society as a whole, Ottinger says, because every decision a municipality or a state or the nation makes regarding energy impacts somebody. Her interests lie in figuring out which voices get heard in the debate, which ones don’t, and why.

Oil Refinery“I investigate how the benefits and harms of any number of environmental issues are distributed, because it’s not a monolithic thing,” she explains. “I am especially interested in the kind of claims that different stakeholders make about environmental and health issues, which claims are actually taken seriously, and how and why certain claims get acted upon. For instance, I want to know what happens when a community near an oil refinery says, ‘We know what’s going on, and we know we are getting sick from this plant being here,’ while the oil people counter, ‘Well, we have these tests and measurements that say you can’t possibly be getting sick.’”

In that sense, Ottinger’s work is both local and global; while she often studies individual communities struggling with their own unique problems, the dynamics present in each of those situations play out in countless towns and cities the whole world over.

By shedding light on the processes that ultimately decide the fate of these people and these communities, Ottinger may help policymakers understand more fully the impact of their decisions.

With her new NSF grant, she wants to empower those individuals who are most impacted by the presence of oil refineries by giving them the ability to gather environmental data on their own, using basic equipment that can be distributed throughout an impact zone. If citizens can learn to reliably collect environmental data and, perhaps more importantly, understand what that data means, the playing field between big energy and local residents could be leveled in an important way.

“We’re looking at communities that feel they are being overburdened by society — communities that feel they are bearing more than their fair share of the risks and hazards associated with energy generation,” Ottinger says. “They want to change things, but they are confronted with big companies and big political apparatus that are not necessarily set up to be friendly toward them.”

The project, if successful, could change the way energy companies interact with their communities — empowering those communities in a way that they’ve never been empowered before, and changing society’s wider discourse about energy policy.

“If these people have a better opportunity to actually do something with this data, the question is what kind of claims they could actually make,” she says. “If they were able to say with confidence to these companies, ‘We have this data — now you need to tell us the truth,’ that would be a huge success.”

Ottinger says her work — and that of her Drexel colleagues — is illustrative of the value that social scientists bring to the world’s efforts to tackle its biggest environmental problems.

While biologists, geologists, ecologists and others working in the hard sciences are more equipped to help us see what the world’s greatest environmental issues are, Ottinger says, social scientists can help us understand how and why we as a society have allowed these problems to arise — and to understand what kinds of collective changes need to be made to alleviate them.

“Unless we understand how our social structures helped create these problems, we have no hope of fixing them,” she says. “That’s what social scientists bring to these discussions. Our environmental problems really are social problems — problems that have their origins in how we have organized ourselves as a society, and how our decisions have impacted the world around us.”

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