Revisiting Earth Day

The 37th annual Earth Day will be celebrated in the United States on April 22, 2006. The purpose of the first Earth Day—in the words of one of its founders—was “to inspire a public demonstration so big it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and force the environmental issue onto the national political agenda.”1 Some would argue that this should still be the purpose—particularly with regard to inaction on the issues of global warming or sustainability. But what needs to be recognized now is that environmental issues have been on the political agenda for some time, and several policy-makers would like to see some of the existing requirements made less stringent—or at least less inflexible—not more stringent. While everyone may agree that clean air and clean water, and other aspects of environmental quality, are important, there is less agreement on how to achieve these goals, or how clean is “clean enough.”

These questions have both scientific and political components. People cannot rationally decide how clean is clean enough without scientific input, yet science cannot give definitive answers to broad questions. There are uncertainties, and the decisions regarding how much to apply the precautionary principle and err on the side of caution tend to be subjective. But science is becoming marginalized in the decision-making process when the lines between the science and subjective judgments are blurred. Mistrust and claims of “junk science” end up eliminating scientific input from the decision-making process. So, while Earth Day could continue to be used as a grassroots means for the public to pressure policy-makers to take action, there is really more of a need for scientists, the media, and the public to recognize and communicate the distinction between science and key subjective assumptions (including those of the scientists) if we want to move forward rationally in the environmental field.

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