When scientists practice sustainability, what drives them?

1 Agustus 2019

Scientists are hard at promoting climate action and sustainable lifestyles. Yet when it comes to real life, what drives scientists themselves to live more sustainably?

A new article in the journal Science offers some insights. It comes as part of a collection titled “NextGen Voices,” which looks into how scientists reflect on broader societal issues like human rights or artificial intelligence through the perspectives of their research.

With a focus on younger researchers, this time the question was: “How has your awareness of science-inspired you to adopt a more sustainable and environmentally friendly behavior?”

The scientists could hold forth on various topics, including sustainable transport choices, waste reduction practices and diets. And while answers varied from person to person, it seems clear that being a scientist helps you put things into perspective.

Mark Martin Jensen from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City compared the human body to the environment. “There are more than 20,000 unique proteins in our body, but even a small change to one of them can be lethal,” he said. “The environment, like our bodies, is a complex network of systems, and even seemingly small alterations can lead to drastic consequences.”

Meanwhile, for many scientists it all boils down to numbers. Wadim Strielkowski from the Centre for Energy Studies at the Cambridge Institute for Advanced Studies decided to limit his travel by airplane because one transcontinental flight a year erases all the other positive behaviors at once when it comes to personal emissions reduction. For him, it is not only about how hard you try but also how well you grasp the impacts and decide on priorities.

Others told stories of how they stopped eating meat after reading papers on the benefits of plant-based diets for the planet and how they were inspired to live more sustainable lifestyles by the concept of epigenetics. Many also emphasized that it’s not knowledge but the emotion that came with it that actually motivated them to act.

“I was shocked and saddened to see pictures of the amount of plastic in the oceans and to read the scientific studies of all the ways plastic and other types of pollution are harming ocean life and damaging ecosystems,” Wendy Bohon, a researcher based in Washington D.C., noted.

Scientific knowledge can be a strong motivator for responsible choices. Yet we may need something that spans beyond knowing and touches on feelings such as care for and concern over nature and other people. While most researchers highlighted the importance of scientific approaches to shaping sustainable behaviors, many also noted that we need more systemic changes that go beyond individual lifestyle choices.

Yet, once science combines with emotion, political action and other factors, we can see how powerful a force for good it can become.

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