Our Propensity for Inaction

The problem with science has always been its poor track record in wide distribution among the community. Marine science is no exception. A continued failure to communicate in an accurate and compelling way is having dire consequences on the oceans and all life that depends on a healthy functioning marine ecosystem, including humanity. Despite intense scientific research, binding national and international laws, treaties and agreements, the marine environment continues to deteriorate in many parts of the world. It may well be that as scientists, educators and communicators we are not doing our job well enough and people simply do not know how to make responsible choices, nor do they pressure governments to act. We have all heard about the problems through various sources, yet few of us can articulate, or truly understand the consequences if they remain unaddressed.

Some of us are listening, but for the vast majority, scientific findings that hail the need for action are simply not getting through. Or, are they getting through but we are choosing not to act?

If you were driving along a road, only to realize you were about to drive off a cliff, there is no question you would react without delay to save yourself from imminent disaster. If risk to your life is perceived as immediate, you respond to prevent your own demise.

However, when an equally devastating but less immediate risk to our survival and that of our planet is irrefutably evident, why are we far more reluctant to respond and save ourselves? For the community who are often unaware of the quality and origin of science content, blind trust can lull us into a false sense of security, rather than encourage an atmosphere of questioning. However, we have demonstrated that we will learn the terms of science when it is necessary. Climate change is an example of a science issue now high on the agenda of public understanding, thanks largely to scientist turned science communicator Tim Flannery, and former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, both of whom produced popular science media for a wide audience, ‘The Weather Makers’ and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ respectively.

We are beginning to respond to some environmental issues that threaten our survival, such as climate change, though many would argue too few of us are responding too slowly for any realistic hope of survival in the long term.

Unfortunately, we are even worse at responding when systems and the threats to our survival become more complex, and the potential for risk becomes harder for us to define. Over fishing of the world ocean is an obvious example. As the combination of elements in a complex system on a global scale are subject to exponential amplification, and the risk of actual disaster becomes more difficult to quantify, action is delayed. Mathematician Sam C. Saunders of Washington State University points out that “a frog placed in hot water will struggle to escape, but the same frog placed in cool water that’s slowly warmed up will sit peacefully until it’s cooked”. We cannot participate in what we do not perceive, and a disaster of food shortages and contamination that may result from the collapse of oceanic ecosystems is beyond the bounds of comprehension for most of us, particularly when many of us have access to what appears to be plentiful supplies of fish everyday. If the risk is not perceived as immediate, it strikes less fear and therefore, a propensity for inaction.

Members of the magnificent diversity of marine life are gradually becoming part of a dwindling legacy we are leaving for our children. We now face the reality of populations and even entire species going extinct, as their diverse habitats are continuously degraded through chemical and noise pollution, over fishing and climate change. The good news is, science is finding solutions, and we still have time to reverse this trend. But, is it possible for the scientific discoveries that hibernate in lecture halls and academic journals to reach a broader audience in a way that is accurate and effective? And if they do reach us, will we react in time?