Lies and Sustainability
" Sustainability is like lying. Both depend on how the result impacts others."
Teaching my daughter about lying was one of the first lessons I gave her. For a small child, the lesson is simple. Do not lie. Ever. Yet, I remember a particular conversation when she asked me if lying is always wrong. Trying to be honest myself, I said, Well, it depends on how the truth affects others. So I can lie! , she said delightedly. The infallible logic of a child.
In my husband’s hometown, there was recently an opinion article written by a local politician claiming that organic food has a greater negative impact on climate than conventional farming. Some sleuthing revealed that the article was based, in part, on a report by the Agrifood Economics Center (a collaboration between the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Lund University to bridge science and policy). In the report, the authors suggested that hectare for hectare, organic farming is better than conventional agriculture in terms of nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the authors also noted that organic farming generally requires more land than conventional farming for the same output. Thus, if the extra land was left to the wilderness, that could offset the benefits of organic farming. Furthermore, if organic food needs to be imported, transport costs and perhaps the destruction of natural resources abroad could also outweigh the benefits. So organic farming is bad!, concluded the politicians.
Sustainability is like lying. Both depend on how the result impacts others. In a now-famous infographic in Forbes, Jan Konietzko discusses “Carbon Tunnel Vision”. He argues that the transition to sustainability is a complex milieu of many social, environmental, and ecological factors. Using carbon emissions as the sole measure of success can exacerbate other concerns like overconsumption, biodiversity loss, and poverty alleviation. So is organic farming bad for the environment? No, of course not. Is it the only factor we need to consider for sustainability? Well, no. And therein lies the problem. So maybe we need a different approach.
In essence, no form of agriculture leaves an ecosystem intact. Cultivation by definition alters ecology. But in the absence of foraging, which is ecologically sustainable but can not sustain our human population, we need to cultivate land. So we should choose the path that causes the least harm to our ecosystems. There is no question that the pesticides, fertilizers, and monocropping defining conventional agriculture are disastrous for our ecosystems. And transporting food long distances leaves an enormous carbon footprint. Ideally, we should grow food in ways that reduce both those outcomes. So yes, it is possible that an organic mango from South America grown on land snatched from the rainforest is more detrimental to our ecosystems than an apple grown using pesticides and fertilizers in Sweden. But better still is an organic apple purchased from an intercropped or grazing orchard from the local market.
Like lying, knowing what is right and wrong for sustainability isn’t the hard part. We know, instinctively, what the best options are. But people generally lie not for others, but for themselves. The same is true for sustainability.
I finally told my daughter to ask herself - if she wants to lie, would the lie help her or help others? Then she should do what her heart tells her to do. I ask you to do the same. The next time you hear someone argue against something you intuitively feel is better for our ecosystems, just ask yourself - are they arguing for you, or for them? Then listen to your heart.
They were children once too
"We cannot face our biggest problems as individuals. Sustaining India requires a shared ownership in finding the solution."
Fifty years ago, over 2000 scientists signed the Menton Message. These scientists warned about the impending environmental crisis, the arms race, and the very real possibility of the extinction of our own species on this planet.
Here we are, 50 years in the future, in an eerily similar position. Scientists like myself are still sending the same message. A conference this week is meant to renew this discussion from 50 years ago and drive the message of multilateral environmental action into the 21st century. The conference intends to promote the importance of the following In sustaining our future on this planet:
As someone who has left a professorship and bet her entire career on promoting such ideas, this conference is a bittersweet event for me. On one hand, these ideals match mine and those of the echo network to drive collective multi-sectoral action for India and our planet. I am excited to see them promoted so prominently. On the other hand, that number resounds in my head:
As an educator, and especially in India, I meet bright and capable youth every day who demand environmental and ecological action and are ready to work to achieve sustainability. Across the world, programs to inspire and train youth for environmental action are being promoted by governments, foundations, and educational institutions.
But today, as we celebrate the bittersweet anniversary of an event that is as meaningful today as it was 50 years ago, I can’t help but wonder - what happened to the children of 1972? Were they not as idealistic and enthusiastic as the youth I meet today? The 1970s was a period of environmental awakening across the world. What happened to them?
The answer, of course, is nothing. They grew up. Some became scientists like me. Others became doctors, or merchants, or farmers. Most remained poor, And some became very rich. In fact, nearly every world leader in government, industry, and the private sector would have been that youth of the 1970s. So why are we having a meeting 50 years later that tells those grown-up children about what they already believed when they were young?
Because children have nothing to lose, but adults do.
As we age, regardless of our socioeconomic status, our responsibilities increase, and so does our fear of losing what we have attained. This fear is an enormously powerful motivator that can turn good people to charge 22,000 Rupees for personal protective equipment during the most tragic health emergency in India’s modern history. This is not going to change. My PhD in neurobiology and animal behavior tells me that this isn’t just human nature, it is a law of nature. Organisms protect themselves to ensure their own survival. The first thing I tell my animal behavior students is that there are only two things you need to remember about life on this planet: organisms are lazy and greedy. They will do as little as possible to get as much as they can. That is how you stay alive.
This law of nature flies fundamentally in the face of what we need to do to survive as a species right now. Sustainability does not mean status quo. Sustaining this planet means we all have to give up something - money, time, things, and most frightening of all - power. So how do we overcome human nature? Well, we harness another fundamental aspect of our species - humans are social animals. We have evolved to work together to survive. Working together allows us to harness more with less. It builds cities and civilizations. And it can destroy them too.
I propose three immediate mechanisms for us to ensure that we don’t have another meeting in Stockholm 50 years from now (because by then it might not be possible):
Distributed knowledge sharing: We need to immediately decentralize our scientific and social knowledge about sustainability and make sure it reaches everyone. This can only happen by allowing and supporting organizations who raise awareness and share information to increasingly more localized networks that can reach every person in the community.
Human investment: Sustainability is a people problem. It is not about windmills, or solar power, or pesticides. It’s about people. Social capital is the greatest resource we have in India and the world. We need to invest in training, employing, and activating people across the board. Strangely, people are the hardest thing to get support for from governments and foundations, yet they are the key to everything.
Youth Activation: The children are not our future. The children from 1972 are the decision makers now. The future is already here. We must stop simply investing in education and training of youth and start activating their enormous potential to drive collective action and change in our communities. Remember, they have nothing to lose, and will put their hearts and souls into making their own future better.
If you’re reading this, the single most important tool you have for saving our species is right in front of you. It’s you. Listen to others who speak with compassion. Share knowledge. Support collective action. Find others to work with. Work with youth. Soon, you’ll find that the thing that changes is not the environment around you, but yourself. And that is when we will truly realize the dreams we all had when we were children, too.
A new perspective
"We cannot face our biggest problems as individuals. Sustaining India requires a shared ownership in finding the solution."
A while back one of my students lamented that a recent publication didn't cite his work when it directly backed the study. The first author of that publication even emailed my student for info. I pointed out that there were nearly 60 citations and not a single woman PI listed. Shortly after this episode, the father of my student’s girlfriend (also a young scientist) passed away from COVID-19 and this citation issue quickly faded into the background. Just a short time after that, a now infamous publication was released in Nature Communications that suggested that female mentors like myself actually reduce the productivity of young scientists (1). Due to immense social media backlash, the article was retracted at the end of last year. Now, I’m not going to tell you a sob story about how difficult it has been to be a woman (2) in an unpopular field (chemical ecology) working on an even more unpopular system (wild insects) in a country where publishers still raise eyebrows (India) that itself remains far too hierarchical and gender-biased. I’m going to tell you what I’m trying to do about it.
The fact is, my student had a right to complain about the citation. In academia, we all know how important publications and citations are to our careers (3). They dictate positions, grant awards, promotions, and pecking rights at conferences and meetings. We all know that the more publications and citations we get, the closer we are to “eminent scientist” status that bypasses a lot of the early checkpoints for editorial boards and committees (though perhaps not their final outcomes). This vicious cycle has produced its fair share of academic pariahs who have used unscrupulous methods to get this status (4). This cycle has also exacerbated the number of factory-like labs requiring a large body of workers to produce the high-impact research needed for the publications (5). Finally, the current scenario can lead to dog-eat-dog mentalities that are harmful to women and minorities (6) and may have eventually led to my Indian student not getting the citation he very much needs for his career. Yet, there is another equally important fact. Outside of our profession, our world is facing immense challenges where scientific research and technological advancements can play an essential role in their solution. Not just a role for applied science, but also a need to increase the basic understanding of our planet to develop the tools to sustain it. Unfortunately, “publish or perish” does not always encourage an academic environment that can address these challenges head-on. Its self-selection system promotes research that is 1) easy to publish in high-impact journals 2) popular and therefore more likely to be cited and 3) attractive to grant agencies. Sometimes, like with biomedical research on diseases such as cancer, these interests align with the real-world challenges we currently face. However, the fallout from COVID-19 has shown that far too often what we academics are publishing and citing will not directly help the health, environmental, and social-political upheaval we currently face.
These dichotomies motivated me to shift from pure laboratory research to leading the echo network (7, 8), where we are dedicated to changing the way academic research is embedded in our society. First, we need to stimulate interactions between academics, citizens, government, industry, and NGOs. Too often, we academics think of “outreach” as a requirement by institutions and grant agencies to disseminate scientific knowledge to the public. But outreach can equally be an opportunity for scientists to get new perspectives and knowledge from society as well. Throughout our first few months, the echo network has engaged in a number of activities to generate interdisciplinary discussion. We started with a unique group of scholars, economists, healthcare professionals, lawyers, policy-makers, activists, journalists, and CEOs who established a white paper (9, 10) that identified several current challenges where science and technology can play a role. What was most remarkable about this diverse group was the synergy in their ideas. They had far more points of convergence in their conversations than points of contention.
Second, we need to seek out new research ideas from these interactions. Through a series of Q&A sessions (11) followed by concentrated workshops with relevant stakeholders and experts, we are currently identifying research questions that can help address central knowledge gaps related to the identified challenges. In this way, the resulting scientific research is not driven by “publishability”, but by what is needed for Indian society going forward.
Finally, we need to train a new generation of scientists who are not confined to the borders of their profession or their discipline. We academics continue to mould our young scientists purely for the confines of our academic walls, armed with our own vocabulary, our own questions, and ultimately our own priorities. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Following our workshops, we are initiating consortium-based research collaborations (12, 13) amongst the different entities who generated the questions. These diverse organizations will be linked through “research ambassadors”; postdoctoral scientists who will move between the groups and drive the research forward. These scientists will not only develop their research skills but will learn, through this unique experience, how to integrate scientific exploration with diverse sectors. After this, they will be able to discuss their profession with a bureaucrat or a farmer with equal ease. That’s when we can begin to really start integrating academia into society.
In all this, women, minorities, and our disenfranchised communities play a fundamental role. That’s why the echo network works with the public through unique experiences that show how science and technology play a vital role in their everyday lives. However, we must not only reach across genders and sectors but languages as well. Much of the scientific world is shrouded from our Indian population by my mother tongue – English. But it shouldn’t be that way. Making science more accessible in all ways is what will lift up women, our underprivileged, and indeed this entire country. Imagine what we can do when all of us have the chance to both understand the problem and contribute to its solution!
We cannot face our biggest problems as individuals. Sustaining India requires a shared ownership in finding the solution. Science and technology play a fundamental role in that journey. We need to make a new system where science and research are as part of our society as law or medicine. Where diverse cultures, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds are an asset for gaining new perspectives and not a liability for an academic career. That’s the kind of impact factor I’ll be striving for from now on, as a woman in science, and a citizen on this planet.
1. AlShebli B, Makovi K, Rahwan T (2020) The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nature Communications:1–8. Retracted.
2. Huang J, Gates AJ, Sinatra R, Barbarási A-L Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 117(9):4609–4616.
3. Berenbaum MR (2019) Impact factor impacts on early-career scientist careers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 116(34):16659–16662.
4. Jamieson KH, McNutt M, Kiermer V, Sever R Signaling the trustworthiness of science. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 116(39):19231–19236.
5. Cook I, Grange S, Eyre-Walker A (2015) Research groups: How big should they be? PeerJ 3:e989–13.
6. Hofstra B, et al. (2020) The Diversity-Innovation Paradox in Science. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 117(17):9284–9291.
7. the echo network. Available at: http://www.echonetwork.in. Accessed: August 6, 2020.
8. PIB Delhi, Ministry of Commerce and Industry (2020) EChO Network launched to catalyze cross- disciplinary leadership in India; will train educators and students in interdisciplinary manner Preparing Indian education for post-technological world: Prof. VijayRaghavan. Available at: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1597013 Accesed
9. Ghosh A, et al. (2020) India’s Journey Beyond COVID-19 eds Kumar M, Nair P. Available at: http://www.echonetwork.in. Accessed: August 6, 2020.
10. Deepika KC (2020) Pandemic not just a public health emergency: Echo Network paper. The Hindu:1–3.
11. the echo network, Q&A Sessions (YouTube) Available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZkg1htlQiZmj0q_jwbXb-w. Accessed: August 6, 2020.
12. Bindra PS, et al. (2020) The Post-COVID India:. Ecol Econ Soc 3(2):5–11.
13. the echo network Shloka Nath & Uma Ramakrishnan talk about the echo network (YouTube) Available at: https://youtu.be/bsZmWUCPwZo. Accessed: August 6, 2020.