Beyond Technological Optimism: Redefining Science and Engineering in Environmental Sustainability

Much of the early academic dialogue in regard to advancing environmental sustainability centered on the role of technology. Many cast technology as central to improving the environment. Others were skeptical, noting the unintended consequences that accompany technological development and their potential to erode the conceived environmental benefits.

Unfortunately, that debate has faded but is critically needed to mature our understanding of contemporary issues in environmental sustainability.  

This essay positions technological optimism as an artifact of deeper and broader limits and misuses of traditional science for environmental decision-making. I emphasize that environmental sustainability eludes classical modes of scientific reasoning—deduction and induction—and that limiting environmental sustainability to such inquiry induces oversimplified and often misleading interpretations of science, or reductionism.  

When further combined with an instrumental approach to governing science, or one that prioritizes inquiry around potential uses, we diminish scientific inquiry to pragmatism.  Pragmatism assesses truth, theories, or beliefs in terms of their practical applications.  Our pragmatic approach to experimentation orients innovation around short-term technological gains with longer term unintended consequences, hence technological optimism.

While I underscore the importance of science and engineering for informing environmental sustainability, I also advocate for a more careful and broader consideration of the philosophy of science and an examination of the values, priorities, and professional cultures driving technical innovation. 

I also emphasize the need to advance our code of conduct with respect to environmental applications of technologies, highlighting that reasonably foreseen unintended consequences would never be tolerated in a more conventional laboratory setting.  The recommendations are aimed at raising the standard of proof needed to promote social investments in technical innovation and correcting for overconfidence in the practice of science and engineering.  

At its core, scientific inquiry is simply our interpretation of observations thus we are limited by our ability to both interpret and observe our world.  Most tend to see science as a purely truth-seeking endeavor, but the limitations of reasoning challenge this premise.  Broadly, lines of reasoning can be considered deductive, inductive, or abductive.  

Sustainability and the Lines of Reasoning

Deductive reasoning requires stating an assumed premise, then applying logic to weigh conditional statements relative to the premise. For example, one might assert that water sustains life; apple trees are alive; therefore apple trees need water to survive.  Deductive conclusions are perfectly confident, achieved through simple logic, but such confidence is an artifact of any premise. Thus, it’s possible to come to a confident and logical but incorrect conclusion.  In other words, deduction seeks to apply established theories, like gravity, to further inquiry or innovation.

On the other hand, induction remains agnostic with respect to theory or premise but attempts to generalize patterns from many specific observations.  In contrast to deduction, induction seeks theories from many specific observations.  Induction drives classic scientific inquiry, where the results of an experiment are reported with confidence levels, e.g., 95% confidence.  By definition, induction allows for uncertainty. 

Some scientists suggest that induction and deduction collaborate towards universal truths, where deduction provides a theoretical foundation for further inductive inquiry, which, in turn, fortifies the theoretical foundation for deduction.  However, such a paradigm presumes that observations supporting induction are complete and representative of any and all conditions and that unifying theories exist.  

On the other hand, abductive reasoning starts with the premise that current observations are always incomplete, theories may simply be heuristics, and that the interplay between inquiry and theory is not necessarily linear or strategic but simply practicable, constrained to current observations and our ability to interpret them.   

There is no doubt that science has revolutionized knowledge building. However, the experimental conditions that fed recent scientific revolutions in no way characterize the deep uncertainties, disjoint theories, and unknown future conditions associated with environmental sustainability. 

To adequately apply deduction or induction to sustainability would be to observe thousands, perhaps millions of earths in a series of controlled experiments.  It is unfortunate that we continue to force fit climate change observations to induction: “97% of climate scientists believe that recent climate warming trends are caused by human activities.”

I’m not a climate skeptic, but I take no comfort in the hijacking of hypothesis testing, where “beliefs” are substituted for scientific observations and the sample is restricted to the educated few. 

Unfortunately, inappropriate applications of induction force us to oversimplify, or practice reductionism, which precipitates second-order effects in misunderstanding science as applied to environmental issues.

Science indicates recycling is good for the environment. I recycle. Thus I am good for the environment.  Or water sanitation is good for the environment.  We sanitize our water.  Thus we are good for the environment.

It’s no wonder environmental issues remain divisive and difficult to communicate. 

Perhaps we have set ourselves up for such deductive follies by restricting our motivations for scientific inquiry to instrumentalist purposes.

Beyond Technological Optimism

The goal of National Science Foundation’s Environmental Sustainability program is “to promote sustainable engineered systems that support human well-being and that are also compatible with sustaining natural (environmental) systems.“  One can find dozens of similar goals stated by leading academic and policy initiatives. Governing science by its potential for use will only serve to herd the lines of inquiry toward short-term and obvious immediate needs, where grant resources support a few years of inquiry conducted by, at best, a small team of academics.  

Reducing science to induction governed by the potential use of scientific findings parallels the philosophy of pragmatism, which “assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.”  Here is the connection to technological optimism. 

We prioritize social investments in technical innovation based upon what we want in the short term, justifying such investments with a few experiments or a Bayesian model with limited empirical or theoretical purview. Worse yet, pragmatism and instrumentalism prioritize investments in technology based upon uses intended by their gatekeepers, dismissing realistic intentions of expected users let alone those unexpected. 

It’s difficult to find influential technical innovations without unintended, often serious and pervasive, consequences.  Social media is sometimes used for children to bully peers or for terrorists to recruit others.  Bacterial infections resist treatment.  Genetically modified seeds overtake native varieties.  While it once seemed appropriate to cast such consequences as unintended, the pattern has been repeated to the extent that perhaps “undesired” or “inconvenient” consequences would be better terms.  

While unintended consequences may not be conveniently wrapped into an experiment or a closed form solution, they are nevertheless observations.  How can a profession whose currency is observation so routinely dismiss it?

Many scientists and engineers emphasize that experimentation is a necessary means to an end, where self-correction is perhaps the best strength of the philosophy of science.  This seems perfectly acceptable when failed experiments are confined to laboratories but troubling when applied to ecosystems, unsuspecting populations, and other species.  Review boards everywhere would reject experimental premises had historical unintended consequences been observed in the laboratory.  A little consequentialism is all one needs to seriously challenge the ethics underpinning many engineering approaches to the environment.

The undesired impacts of technological experimentation go beyond disproportionately casting future undesired consequences; they also often commit, without choice, future populations to technological subsistence and maintenance.  How could a parent currently envision raising a child without computer skills? Technical innovation compels one to tango, independent of their desire to dance.

Science and technical innovation have been and will continue to be very important contributors to environmental sustainability.  However, we need to advance science and engineering philosophically, culturally, and ethically from disciplines viewed as unbiased panaceas to contributors.  

Sustainability “thinking” requires the development and application of a mental mosaic crossing disciplinary knowledge and experiences, where, like law and medicine, practice is developed by exercising this mosaic across a wide range of sustainability “problems” and intuition for unknowable uncertainty is developed.

Redefining Science & Engineering in Environmental Sustainability

Below is a series of recommendations that can help us advance our knowledge with respect to environmental sustainability.

Defining and Recognizing Limits: We first must recognize, articulate, and accept the potential limits of science and technical innovation for advancing environmental sustainability. Intellectually, this involves accepting some persistent and unknowable uncertainties and, in turn, avoiding the overconfidence that comes with forcing such uncertainty into conventional modes of inquiry.  We can start by framing inquiry as abductive and reorienting education and practice. 

However, we also must consider that we may reach a period of scientific inquiry where our collective empirical abilities cannot keep pace with society’s empirical needs. Pedagogically, this will require a revision of engineering and scientific degree requirements that both teaches the limits of their trade but also strikes a balance between rewarding students for their technical proficiencies without being overconfident.  

Engineering and science students also need to develop strong collaboration skills with other disciplines, collaborations sought with a degree of humility.  Faculty need to lead this transition. 

Practicably, we need to collectively find decision methods that can fill the void left by persistent and unknowable uncertainties and resist reducing such methods to a numbers game or letting any one discipline dominate.  

Rewarding the Reality of Uncertainty:  Policy makers and the press need to shift from negatively casting uncertainty as a technical deficiency to positively recognizing the skills needed to delineate such uncertainty and transparency inherent in doing so.  Disciplines historically being relied upon for their confidence and technical skills need to be encouraged and welcomed to speak to their limits without fear of being cast as incompetent.  

The other side of that coin is we need to call out those that pander or pacify with overconfidence.  We also need to encourage positive dialogue that pushes the concepts presented in this essay, particularly when initiated by scientists and engineers.   

Raising the Standard of Proof: We need to raise the standard of proof expected of social investments in widespread technical change.  When faced with an environmental problem, let’s consider a wide range of solutions before prioritizing technological innovation.  When pursuing technical solutions, we should ask, “why might this not work?” before asking, “how can we make this work?”

If we require measurement and verification for new technological initiatives, allow for short-term failure, and exercise the tenacity to postpone potential innovations when undesired consequences become apparent, we can shift from prioritizing short-term desires to achieving longer-term objectives. 

We can facilitate this by charging neutral review committees with identifying potential unintended consequences throughout the life cycle of innovation and technical change.  We need institutional and ethical review boards at universities to guide, not restrict, technical innovation aimed at environmental applications.

Integrating Ethics: Despite a recent emphasis on interdisciplinary research, perspectives challenging technological optimism are willfully marginalized. The very premise of environmental sustainability requires degrees of altruism, generosity, inclusiveness, and humility.  I am skeptical that a culture characteristic of dismissive and controlling behavior can be trusted environmental caretakers. 

We need to view technical change as an extension of the human condition: our values, strengths, and weaknesses. It's time we invite marginalized disciplines – social scientists, philosophers, historians, and artists – to lead in environmental sustainability.  The invitation alone will spur more careful consideration of unintended consequences.

Redefining Research Agendas: We also need to foster a research agenda that matures our knowledge of environmental sustainability as opposed to just our technical skill.  This will involve requiring investigators detail potential unintended or undesired environmental consequences when applying for sustainability funding and that sponsors weight such details when designating awards. 

Better yet, we need funding allocated exclusively to unraveling how and why unintended consequences occur, including funding allocated to long term, longitudinal studies.  We also need funding unencumbered by the instrumentalist perspective on scientific inquiry and the biases prioritizing technical solutions to environmental issues. 

I have had many discussions with engineering and science faculty unwilling to communicate the limits of their work for fear their apprehension will induce retribution by their peers.  Perpetuating a cycle of pandering will only stymie intellectual growth and, in turn, continue recycling the paradigm on unintended consequences. 

The support of foundations with honest, sustainability driven missions can help break this cycle.  So, too, can integrating non-technical experts into paper and proposal reviews.  Engineering and science faculty would benefit tremendously by the ability to be judged based upon the record of scholarship, not just award amounts and publications.  

Improving Practice: Finally, we need to elevate the standard of practice in sustainability. Before finalizing their work, technologists would do well to ask themselves “would I accept personal liability if this did not work?” If the answer is “no,” we would all benefit from a more careful and open consideration of why. 

 

Dr. Michael Blackhurst is the Research Development Manager at the University Center for Social & Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh and a Research Consultant with Ethos Collaborative.  His research is robustly interdisciplinary, drawing especially from engineering, economics, and statistics. Dr. Blackhurst oversees applied and basic research and consulting projects in the energy and environmental sectors. His work has been profiled in The New York Times and National Geographic. He can be reached at mfb30@pitt.edu.

 

The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 

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