Why Ecology and Environmental Science is Everyone’s Business

I’ve summarised one of our Science on Google+ Hangouts on Air. Our guests discussed three fascinating fields of ecological study: air quality; marine life; and extreme weather events.

Our most recent Science on Google+ Posterside Hangout on Ecology and Environmental Science was excellent and well worth watching in full. It highlighted the intersections between climate change the social consequences of environmental damage. The presentations covered the measurement of air quality; disease outbreak amongst fish; and the relationship between extreme thunderstorms and global warming. Below I give a detailed summary of the points I was most interested in as a social scientist (I will do the same for our previous hangouts).

I urge you to watch the presentations in full and comment on the talks from your perspectives. I am particularly interested in different social science reactions to these talks: how can we make a contribution to weather and marine sciences using the ecological frameworks and methods described by the presenters?

Environmental advocacy is truly an interdisciplinary endeavour that requires both critical public debate and empirical solutions. This includes improved data collection and innovative responses that connect scientific theory to social policy and practice. A collaborative and proactive approach to climate change is not assured. Australia recently changed Government and one of the first tasks our new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, put into effect was to dismantle the Climate Change Commission, which was led by eminent scientist Tim Flannery. (Thankfully the work continues thanks to crowd-source funding.) Abbott also removed the position of Science Minister (along with other adverse social policy shifts). Climate change policies in some other countries are in a better state, but many nations remain reactionary to environmental disasters. For these reasons, ecology and environmental science require our full participation.

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“Zombie” pigeons in Russia = apocalypse! According to this Al Jazeera video, some unspecified group of Russian locals believe that these diseased pigeons signal the end of times. Bummer it was scheduled for the 23rd of August and it’s 20 minutes too late where I am. The actual disease affecting these pigeons is Newcastle Disease. Jezebel is reporting that it’s transmittable to humans, which is great news for people who enjoy baseless public fear. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry reports that while Newcastle can affect humans, this is rare.

Interestingly, the National Cancer Institute reports on a series of studies where Newcastle Disease is being studied as a treatment of cancer because the virus infects the host’s cells and then it uses these to replicate itself. This behaviour is similar to the way cancers work. Clinical trials show mixed results.

My interest in this story is more on the moral panic. I enjoy a great zombie virus story. Or two. Or three. This story however makes no attempt to move past the tongue-in-cheek reference to zombies to actually inform people about this fascinating disease. Avian flu spread a lot of fear and misunderstanding. In Australia, the media framed avian flu debates by evoking the Spanish Influenza Epidemic which contributed to over inflated discussions of risk and threat. Similarly in the UK while the media may not have been wholly responsible for replicating poor public health discussions about avian flu, the media amplified a “rhetoric of fear and blame…”. Media reports of swine flu in the UK also lacked social responsibility for alarmist headlines and poor scientific engagement.

The general public do not always know where to look for scientific information when a new public health story breaks. They are likely to seek out reputable sources, which includes Al Jazeera. In this case, they’ve dropped the ball.