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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2016

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Editorial - Listening to Unheard Voices

The world is replete with “quiet shadows,” the unheard and the unseen. In this issue we bring into the capacious ambit of sustainability science the ecological and medical significance of marine biota, and the cries of the disenfranchised in air and water pollution abatement.

The article by Andrea Bodnar is to some extent a “first” for Environment. Here is a delightfully detailed scientific assessment of the role of marine creatures in enhancing our health. On the surface this is a very technical exposition of marine biology by a specialist in the field. But dig a little deeper and we find that mollusks and sea urchins reveal traits of defenses and resilience that can be turned into highly effective prophylactics and medicines. One of the dreams of the ecosystems economists is that many species of plants and animals provide the scope for cures and protections that are on offer if the bioprospecting is well researched and underpinned by sound science. Andrea Bodnar offers us a glimpse of this unseen and unheard world of marine bioscience medical potential. Yet this world can only be revealed by systematic and painstaking science. Hence the need for both publicly and commercially funded science working in tandem, but operating within the rules of the scientific peer review and independent analysis.

What appears in her review is an intriguing conundrum. It seems that certain species of clam and urchin contain cells and biochemical processes that permit prolonged aging. If these mechanisms can be transferred to human genomes and cells, it may just be possible to extend life even beyond the current 80 or so years of reasonable healthy and wealthy people. Yet this brings a headache to the economics of the health services, as prolonging age carries with it all manner of other possible ailments that are costly to cure, and adds even more financial burdens to the already beleaguered health programs.

This raises an interesting ethical theme for sustainability science. Prolonging and enhancing health is a wonderful asset for those otherwise in discomfort or indigence. And discovering the key to longevity is surely part of investigative science, irrespective of the moral and social qualifications. Yet the implication for sustainability science lies in targeting those who will benefit from such medical advances and ensuring that healthiness extends beyond where illness would otherwise kick in. This felicitous arrangement cannot be guaranteed in a world of inequity and injustice. It may simply favor those who can easily afford it and be financially out of reach to those who most need it.

This takes on the social justice dimensions of pollution control as considered by David Konisky, also in this issue. It is worthy of grateful note that the tortuous political decision as to whether London should get its new runway either in Heathrow or Gatwick is being delayed on the grounds of air pollution and noise pollution incidence and social well-being. The delay allows the government to let the elections for the next London Mayor (due in May 2016) to conclude before the final fateful choice is executed. The two most likely successful candidates are implacably opposed to any extension of Heathrow air traffic.

But lying behind this procrastination is a real social justice issue, namely, that enhanced levels of microparticulates and nitrous oxides pose a significant additional health burden on those living in the vicinity of the selected existing airport. In Konisky's article we learn of the extension of powers of investigation and appeal, plus third-party lobbying, to ensure that the distributional effects of pollution related health damage are fully weighed in any final air quality decision. This perspective applies to the controversial Clean Energy Act that propels the Obama Administration's case for meeting the Paris Agreement over climate change for the United States.

As Konisky points out, however, social justice is not a function of disenfranchisement, or of race or poverty. It applies to a culture of care. Bestowing vent to grievance, enabling science to portray otherwise undetected medical damage, and ensuring due process in the regulatory procedures are not sufficient for pollution related equity. Sustainability science speaks to a duty of care and to a whole concept of decency of treatment before any regulations are even considered. Applying niceties of distributional justice is a beginning, but not an end. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will reshape its training and wider scientific judgments to embrace such perspectives.

The unseen and the unheard require three champions. One is painstaking scientific discovery and monitoring, often disrupted by lack of reliable funding. A second is a culture of support for those not yet supported, including their descendants. And the third is an extended moral framework that allows political and commercial judgments to be set in a broader well-being perspective. An enduring quality of sustainability science is to ensure that all three are given both light and sound.       

—Tim O'Riordan

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