To what extent is science the solution to environmental problems?

 The pursuit of scientific knowledge has benefited mankind in many ways. Science and its applications have helped us combat the multitude of problems facing our world, and many believe that science is the solution to any future challenges we may face. Our longer lifespans, ever-expanding knowledge of diseases and how to treat them, and a growing convenience in our lives all lends credence to such a belief. Thus, it should only stand to reason that environmental problems – which are illnesses plaguing nature – are simply impermanent challenges facing man, which would soon submit to the successes of the scientific world. Yet, such reason fails upon closer examination of the issue at hand; we should not be as optimistic as scientists and technocrats would like us to be. Instead, it is perversely more likely that environmental problems are here to stay. Science cannot be depended upon as the solution to these problems – at best, science and technology can only offer short-term methods to alleviate their symptoms.
Science has removed many of mankind’s stumbling blocks in the past, and it may seem likely that science will pull off such miracles again vis-à-vis the environment. After all, environmental problems do not seem to be radically different in nature from previous problems. Furthermore, the fact that scientific discoveries rely on empirical evidence and reliable results also lends credence to the belief that science and its application, technology, is a dependable source of solutions to the difficulties we encounter. Vaccines, derived from medical science, have conquered smallpox and the German measles; the Green Revolution, stemming from soil science, allowed Mankind to escape the Malthusian theories of global famine. There seems to be no reason, then, not to believe that in time, science will offer us solutions to the problems of global warming, pollution, and a loss of biodiversity. Already, scientists have been able to make some progress on recovering the genetic makeup of certain extinct species, opening up possibilities of bringing them back from the abyss of extinction.
In addition, science appears to be the most viable solution Man currently has to combat the overwhelming burdens of environmental degradation. Science has saved us where all else has failed, precisely because understanding the laws of nature and manipulating them allows us to replicate previous successes. The atomic bomb, created out of theories of nuclear fission, brought Japan to its knees and World War II to a close. This saved thousands of lives from a prolonged war, where all diplomatic attempts had failed. This situation is not unlike that of environmental degradation. In a time when we are warring against the forces of nature, and all attempts to reach peaceful understandings at Copenhagen and Rio de Janeiro have failed, the world waits with bated breath for scientists to make a breathtaking entry and save the world.
As much as we wish that the above arguments hold true, the reality is that science is merely an option to alleviate particular symptoms of environmental problems, and cannot be treated as a panacea. The precedents of disease and famine were localised, having singular or few root causes. In comparison, the magnitude and intensity with which environmental problems plague us are incomparably large. Global warming, as its name suggests, involves a global phenomenon by which entire regions experience rising temperatures, accompanied by rising sea levels. Pollution, as seen in the Pacific Garbage Patch, is the result of excessive consumption and insufficient responsibility taken for waste disposal. As such, the root of environmental problems can be distilled into excessive human consumption, with a disregard for the consequences. This differentiates such environmental issues from the Malthusian famines, which are naturally occuring phenomenon. However, human beings’ unique thirst for consumer goods, and the attendant ability to supply these goods, leads us to conclude that science will be ineffectual in addressing the root cause of the problem. At best, even if scientific discoveries could aid the creation of a piece of technology capable of nullifying the effects of human overconsumption on the environment, it would not convince people to understand the error in their ways. In fact, it is likely to spur further consumption and leave people dependent on the existing technology to prevent the devastation of nature. Hence, science is unable to address the root cause of environmental degradation, and cannot be considered to be its solution.
Even when considering the possible merits of science in alleviating the symptoms of environmental problems, it is worthwhile to note that protecting the environment is a time-sensitive issue that requires quick, if not immediate, responses. While the technology developed off scientific theories may be dependable and reliable, another drawback is that much time is needed for the technology to be designed, built and then tested for possible side-effects. At the same time, we are in a race to preserve the environment as it is. We have lost 17% of the Amazon Forest, the world’s last pharmacopoeia, in the last fifty years, and this number will grow to a shocking 65% by 2030. Hundreds of trees are felled in forests all around the world as minutes tick, representing the loss of habitats for wild species. Subsequently, entire ecosystems will be thrown off balance, as the world waits for a way to scientific breakthrough. Meanwhile, the continuation of manufacturing plants spewing toxic chemicals into the air, slash and burn techniques employed on the forests of Indonesia, and practices encouraging overfishing continue apace with scientific efforts to pull together a response. In this situation, it is difficult to forsee science as the answer to a problem as pressing as those of the environment.
As a corollary, it is important to acknowledge that the possibility of science making a globally applicable breakthrough is predicated on a best case scenario in which people worldwide will be amenable to introducing the new, critical technologies into their lives. More often than not, other possible conflicting interests, be they political or economic in nature, may hinder our decision-making. For instance, Germany recently announced new energy plans, with the end goal of powering 60% of the country’s needs with renewable energy. The burden of such high energy prices fell on the companies in heavy industry, leading to companies pulling out of Germany to set up shop elsewhere in search for other countries with comparatively lax energy pricing which allow for lower costs of operations. RAND Corporation also released a report, saying that the cost of China replacing half its coal-fired generations would be US$184 billion. Most countries, if not all, would shy away from taking up such heavy responsibilities. Therefore, even when the benefit of the doubt has been given, there is no confirmation that the answers which science provides will be ones which politicians and the common man would like to hear. Hypothetically speaking, even if scientific discoveries had the potential to radically affect the quandary described the environment, there is no guarantee that they will be used in a world which prioritises economic growth and political strength over all else.

Unfortunately, it seems that science has run into a wall which it cannot break through. The sheer commitment required to develop a scientific response to environmental degradation, and then implement it worldwide, seems daunting. It seems that the best mankind can do is to hope that scientific discovery can help stall for time by alleviating the symptoms of environmental problems, while the world’s leaders wrangle out an agreement which could potentially deal with the issue at hand.


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.