As the summer is drawing to a close, I felt inclined to discuss the conclusions I reached with my Monroe project, reflect on several unanswered questions, and propose future directions for my research.
Much of my research this summer was based on the premise that a better public understanding of the science behind environmental issues would lead to a better understanding of the issues themselves, and better preparation on the part of the public to make important policy decisions. For one thing, understanding basic concepts of climate, biodiversity, fossil fuel formation, and other topics aids in developing an understanding of the environmental issues they concern. A conclusion I reached from the freshman seminar course that inspired this project (Beyond Petroleum as Fuel, taught by Professor Hinkle) is that an understanding of the process of science is also critically important. Realizing that research is inherently slow-moving and replete with dead ends can help overcome, for example, the misconception that alternative sources of energy will materialize without political support.
Through my research this summer, I uncovered another of the various roles that science plays in public understanding of environmental issues. As I concluded in my last post, the framework used to communicate scientific information to a non-technical readership may be even more important than the information itself. However, basic scientific knowledge is crucial to successfully interpret the commonly-used frames of “social progress” and “morality/ethics.” Many of the most potent themes and images that occur with these frames are themselves based in science. Themes of the interconnectedness of all things in nature through cycles and relationships of symbiosis, of the Earth’s fortunate position in the enormity of the universe, of the (so far) unique development of life on our planet, of the complex process of evolution that has shaped our history and can continue to shape our future, and of the legacy of our species contained in our genes are enhanced and strengthened by an understanding of underlying scientific concepts. Scientific themes and imagery as well as scientific information have been recurrent throughout the literary history of the environmental movement, leading to the conclusion that writing on environmental issues will not only be increasingly understood by a scientifically literate populace, but will resonate more effectively with them as well.
With any research project, flaws are most clearly recognized in the aftermath. The greatest weakness in my project, which opens up a fertile path for future research, is that I chose the books I read for a specific reason: I was interested in the topics they discussed. I am left with the nagging awareness that popular books on environmental issues will appeal mostly to those who are already interested in the topics they discuss. Since voting and, hence, policy decisions are made by a much wider subsection of the population, effective communication of environmental information must reach more than a specific interest group. Crafting a public environmental consciousness will require a widespread appraisal of all communication channels. Addressing the question of where most people get their information on environmental issues would be a good starting point for the continuation of this research project.
If the answer to this question turns out to include news sources, a problem arises related to journalistic ethics. Can news sources incorporate the second premise? Should they do so, or is it their responsibility to remain wholly objective? When opinions are given in traditional news sources, both sides are, ideally, represented equally. The problem is not with this “equal representation,” but with the implication that issues have only two sides, which too often leads to debates simplified along partisan lines. Future research could investigate the most effective way to popularizes sources of information that are free to explore the second premise, and involve citizens in ethical discussions that incorporate a greater variety of viewpoints.
A personal objective for this project was to improve my own writing. I have learned a great deal about the effectiveness of frames, especially those concerning social progress and morality/ethics, and about the importance of assessing the values of your audience when crafting an essay or an article. As a writer, I should also strive for an increased awareness of the first vs. the second premise. While ethical judgments are powerful, I should keep them clearly separated from any scientific evidence I cite, to avoid compromising the integrity of the discipline.
I thoroughly enjoyed my Monroe research experience this summer, and I am excited to explore new avenues as I continue my research of this topic.