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A new way to approach environmental problems

Nearly four years ago, scientific academies throughout the world signed off on a statement that global warming due to human activities is occurring. Yet skeptics from all walks of life—scientific and layman—continue to challenge the validity of findings leading to that conclusion.

Healthy scientific debate? Perhaps. But MU Environmental Studies Director Jan Weaver recently contended that the ongoing argument also illustrates one of 10 rules she is proposing as a new paradigm for understanding environmental problems: “Perception is reality.”

“The view that humans could even have such an impact on the globe is hard to accept,” Weaver said.

Weaver discussed her proposed paradigm during a Mizzou Environmental Engineering & Water Resources Seminar held April 10 in the MU Geological Sciences Building. Calling her proposal the “Practical Environmental Paradigm (PEP),” Weaver outlined its main tenets and fielded questions about how it would apply to environmental and scientific issues.

Today’s environmental problems cannot be understood and resolved by the “New Environmental Paradigm” that gained currency during the 1970s, which emphasized resource limitations and the importance of preserving a natural balance, Weaver said. A more pragmatic perspective is necessary, she said.

Grounded in 15 years of environmental studies, Weaver’s PEP seeks to offer that practical approach through a cautionary set of rules for interpreting contemporary issues. The PEP’s “Perception is reality” rule highlights how the public perception of an issue can influence the effectiveness and speed of political and economic responses to it. Other PEP rules include “Follow the money,” which advises digging out who benefits from a policy to determine the cause of environmental problems, and “Commons are abused,” which argues for social sanctions to effectively protect commonly held resources.

Asked by an audience member how science interacts with policy, Weaver pointed both to pitfalls and benefits of scientific study. Often, she said, science causes environmental problems, but once scientists recognize the problem they frequently develop solutions and make the case for change.

Still, Weaver advocated modifying traditional scientific method to encourage more flexible policy change. Faced by critical environmental woes such as global warming, scientists must be more willing to support policy amendments even before they are “100 percent” certain that the cause has been nailed down, Weaver said.

“By the time we’re 100 percent certain, we’re under water,” she said.