Cognitive Dissonance for Environmental & Earth Scientists


I was recently talking to a scientist working at a preeminent research facility. He has a master’s in environmental science, but the only job he could get was analyzing coal samples. A little bit of cognitive dissonance going on here. It made me wonder how many people in industries allied to the fossil fuel industries are in these difficult positions. How many research scientists are working in research that they know will prolong the agony of the Earth?

Used car dealers and politicians seem able to peddle their wares with a conscience that doesn’t trip them up. Some may be ignorant, some may be willingly ignorant, and some may be downright dishonest. Perhaps we need a new medical term for this sort of blindness — mental gymnastics performed at the behavior of fiscal obligation. Something with a little bit of Latin or Greek in it to make it sound scientific as well—perhaps excaecatus pecunia syndrome.

But it may be more difficult for our scientific community, with its commitment to truth based on empirical research. If your income depends on you ignoring the science and your own ethical position, it is a good recipe for a nervous breakdown for a scientist with values.

Dr Matt Beard has this to say: “We all know it’s important to be happy, but we also know our happiness shouldn’t come at the cost of someone else’s wellbeing. If you really believe your work is helping destroy the planet, that seems like a high price to pay for your financial stability and work-life balance. A lot of the time, sticking to our principles comes at a price: social acceptance, money and comfort are powerful temptations to make us compromise on things that really shouldn’t be up for grabs — like our sense of what’s right.”

Recently, I was called a fanatic for advising a young woman to keep her eyes open for other job prospects. She works as a geologist for a large Australian gas company. How would you advise a bright, young, qualified person in this age of rapid transition? In a few years, we fanatics might be renamed visionaries.

Perhaps this is the reason we are seeing fewer graduates in the earth sciences — if the only jobs they can get will contribute to those industries which exacerbate climate change?

A just and orderly transition to a greener world needs to take into account the training and retraining of professionals so that we don’t lose the human capital we need to survive our brave new world.

 

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