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News Flash: Environmental Science Has A Social Component

A Matter Of Degrees

... The thread isn't the staggering complexity of the Earth's life support systems. Given sackloads more data and a few dozen more supercomputers strung together, we might just begin to cope with that. No, it's the infinite, and infinitely shifting human perceptions of, and reactions to, this drama now unfolding. Now here's something that we can, pedagogically speaking, get our teeth into.

It's got everything: business, politics, economics, love and hate, rich and poor, science and art, and also, for comic relief, a soupcon or two of sheer gormless stupidity. You can develop fancy academic models of human behaviour. The frog-in-the-beaker-of water-being heated analogy, for instance (frog put into hot water straight away would jump out; frog in heating water stays put until ... it's too late). It's multidisciplinary, and crosses the arts/humanities divide. It just needs a fancy title. How about psychoclimatics, say? That's got a nice ring to it.

I'm glad he's discovered the importance of studying the human dimensions of global environmental change just a century after geographers took up the topic. When he puts together his syllabus on "psychoclimatics," I recommend starting with Carl O. Sauer, B.L. Turner II, William Denevan, Gilbert F. White, Roger Kasperson ... I'm hopeful he'll find something in those readings a bit more sophisticated than the old boiling frog analogy.

It's frustrating how often people from the natural sciences stumble upon the idea that social issues require analysis as well, then proceed to theorize with apparent obliviousness to the fact that social scientists have been working on these problems for years. I'm open to the idea that an outsider may have some fresh perspective, but you've got to show that you're familiar with what's been said before (and are thus being neither redundant nor naive) if you want to advance it as a scientific proposition.

On the other hand, I'm frustrated with the failure of social scientists to do this kind of realm-crossing. Even within human-environment study, people who start out on the social side tend to stay there, unwilling to make a real attempt to grapple with the subject matter -- much less the theoretical literature -- of the natural sciences. Unfortunately I have to count myself among this group as well.


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