Friday, January 24, 2020

Thoughts on environmental science

Environmental Science:  Planning for the Seventh Generation?

Text and Photography by Sallie G. Sprague
Text reprinted with permission from: 
Window on Wheeler, Issue 1, 1994-1995, "The Runnins River Project."

Environmental science is not a science akin to the current pursuits of biology, chemistry and physics. It does not seek to 'divide and conquer' the complexities of the organism, the reaction, or the nuclear particle.  It is instead a concept of the whole, a pursuit that seeks to unite the disparate parts and their interactions into a coherent picture.

In the simplest of definitions environmental science is perhaps an attempt to apply scientific methods and rigor to the study of the whole environment.  Peter J. Bowler credits the current rise of the environmental sciences in part to "...the general public [which] has now begun to think of 'the environment' as an important problem in which science is deeply involved."  (The Norton History of the Environmental Sciences, 1993)

Science and technology have made huge strides, e.g., in fighting diseases and improving our standard of living.  The goals of science have been focused in the past on improving the life of humans on the planet with little regard for our environment.  We have been pitted against the forces of nature.  What we now see as problems in the environment give all of us the opportunity to bring science and natural history into our lives in an urgent, practical and non-academic way.

We humans need clean water, air, and lands to meet our basic metabolic needs (water, oxygen and food).  We also need open space, wilderness and community to meet our basic spiritual and/or psychological needs.  Each of us can make a difference through our cumulative actions.

Living in the Pacific Northwest I am daily aware of those who argue that preserving one more species of salmon or one last stand of virgin forest is not important to our survival today.  That is the short-sighted view.  With the huge increase in the human population and the ensuing demands for land and resources, we have reached the point where every salmon run, like a canary in the mine, serves as an indicator for the health of the stream and of the lands comprising the watershed for the stream.  Of the vast supply of water on Earth, only 0.018% is available as fresh water.  If salmon can no longer inhabit our streams and rivers, what will we use for our drinking water?

Salmon stream through pasture
before fencing and restoration
In the bigger picture, environmental science is not the academic delineation of all the inter-relationships within an ecosystem.  It is a way of life for all of us.  We all live here and we all have a chance to participate.  Preserving or caring for the large thing that we all call the environment is a commitment to our grandchildren and their grandchildren.  The efforts of the environmental movement, the hours volunteered to clean up environmental mistakes, speak to the true costs of some of our finest technological advances.

Volunteers planting trees along
the stream
Growth of planted vegetation
seven years later
Oil spills and factory wastes are probably the examples that come most quickly to mind but there are many, many smaller incidents that occur all around us every day.  Only when we, the people living down stream and down wind, stand up for our right to clean water and clean air will those still seeking short term gain at the expense of the environment be forced to correct their polluting practices.

How much of an increase in cancer or respiratory disease risk are we willing to tolerate for ourselves?  Or for our children?

Aldo Leopold's works of 1949, from The Sand County Almanac, are largely true today:

          "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.  We abuse because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.  There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.   
             That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.  That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten."

Is the rise in environmental awareness the beginning of our recognition of the community in which we must survive?
For more information on the Runnins River Project contact: 
The Wheeler School, 216 Hope Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02906, or

All photos are copyright © by Sallie G. Sprague and show stream and habitat protection and repair efforts in the Pacific Northwest.  For more information about habitat and stream projects in Whatcom County, Washington, visit the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association online at  If you would like to help NSEA improve riparian habitat contact their volunteer coordinator.

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