Environmental Anti-Science: Appeal to Nature

One of the most frustrating parts of being an environmental science major is realizing how much incredibly bad information is out there about environmental issues. People often believe they know what the best environmental decisions are, when they are actually ineffectual, complicated, or completely wrong. I really believe that a lot of people want to make decisions that are best for the environment, but they make decisions based on mistaken logic and incorrect information. The most common problem is the fallacy of the appeal to nature.

Many people believe organic food is better for the environment, but that’s not always true. Just because something looks and feels more natural, or even if it IS closer to a natural state, doesn’t mean it’s actually less resource intensive to produce or does less harm to the planet. The same is true for genetic modification; many people believe genetically modified foods must be automatically bad for the environment, but in some cases GMOs may be a great option to make food less resource demanding or more capable of dealing with expected results of environmental problems like water scarcity and climate change. Organic production and genetic modification are techniques – whether they are better or worse for the environment than traditional methods of food production depends entirely on how they are used. The the local food movement often appeals to these ideas this too, but local food is also sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes not much of a difference in terms of carbon footprint or the use of harmful chemicals. It can take a lot more resources to grow tomatoes in Minnesota in the middle of winter than to transport them from further south, but lots of people think local food is always greener.

This problem goes beyond food. Many people think that living in a more rural area is more environmentally friendly than living in an urban area. At first glance this feels like it should be true – cities often feel dirty, crowded, and full of consumption and waste. In cities the visible results of high levels of consumption are obvious, in ubiquitous dumpsters and constant car exhaust. On the other hand, a home in the country is surrounded by plants, wildlife, and clean air! How can a place filled with so much nature be an environmentally unfriendly decision?

It turns out that at least in terms of carbon foot print, city dwellers generally do better than country folks. When things like your work and the grocery store are closer to you, when the electricity you use comes from nearby instead of traveling long distances, and when your home shares a building with other homes you’re going to do a lot better in terms of your energy use. Of course there are individual variations in this (an urbanite who takes regular international flights is going to have greater impact than someone in the country who doesn’t), but that’s exactly the point – the naturalness of your home setting isn’t a good indicator of your environmental impact.

Food and home location are just two examples, but if you look at the way products are advertised as greener you will see this constantly. It would be handy if “natural” was a good shorthand way to tell what a good environmental choice is, but unfortunately it just isn’t that simple. A little more research and understanding is often necessary instead.

Environmental Anti-Science: Appeal to Nature

6 thoughts on “Environmental Anti-Science: Appeal to Nature

  1. 1

    I’ve basically given up trying to discuss these sorts of issues on the internet… Particularly the organic / GM thing. It just seems to have polarised into two opposing camps, each largely populated by people fond of lazy generalisations about complex issues and mostly ignorant of how agriculture of any form actually works in practice. The unfortunate truth is that these issues are hugely complicated, and the best answers vary enormously depending on context and local conditions – anybody looking for a clear, simple, one-size-fits-all solution is inevitably going to be wrong. Even deciding what “best” means is a surprisingly difficult question, involving multiple trade-offs between many different factors.

    And then, of course, the whole business is muddied even further when it gets entangled with marketing…

    If you’re up for it, I would be very interested to read more of your thoughts on the matter.

  2. 2

    I believe there’s also a widespread perception of “grass-fed” animal flesh being more environmentally friendly to consume than factory-farmed animal flesh, while in reality it’s even worse in such aspects as land use and carbon footprint, despite being somewhat less cruelty-intensive (hardly a high bar to clear).

    1. 2.1

      I have definitely heard this as well, especially when I tell people the reason I’m vegetarian is primarily environmental. They say “well, I try to get my meat from friendlier places, like my local organic farm. It’s grass fed!”

      Factory farmed animals are produced in HIGHLY efficient ways. Cruel and gross ways, but highly efficient. You make the most money by not wasting anything, and the industry wants to keep meat cheap, so they waste as little resources as possible. Meat is STILL much worse than plant protein because trophic levels, but the way we produce cheap meat right now is probably the most efficient way of doing it.

      I’m actually wondering about a life cycle assessment on hunting though… I wonder what the carbon footprint is when eating venison, or squirrel. Obviously we CANNOT feed the world’s population on hunted game but in the current context, in places like Wisconsin where deer are overpopulated, it may actually be a very green choice.

      All of this is complex. Even “meat is more environmentally harmful” has caveats and grey areas.

  3. 3

    It gets even more fun when we’re talking about electric power and how to make it happen. Solar energy, whether PV or hydrothermal, or less directly, like wind, is a great way to do things…sometimes, in some places. It’s never free of environmental impact, and it’s not always the best thing for the local environment. Coal is pretty much straight awfulness, but it’s not 100% clear to me that replacing it with fracked natural gas is a sustainable plan. Fusion (apart from solar) is exciting as a future possibility, but there are literally no plans for plant scale fusion that could be built today.

    Then there’s fission, and talk about superstitious nonsense, this is what should be in the dictionary. Three Mile Island’s little screwup might have killed someone by very slightly increasing rates of cancer nearby, or it might not have. Chernobyl *might* have killed 4000 people in a similar way. Most coal plants in normal operation put out more radionuclides in a year than a nuclear plant does in an accident. Do people care that it’s actually safe even with the primitive plants we have now?

    I wish.

    1. 3.1

      Yeah, so I wanted to focus on the appeal to nature issue here, which I think is different than what you’re talking about, but I agree with you. I’m generally in favor of nuclear power myself, for the reasons you cite, but I see it as a good baseload option with a real need for balancing it with good solar, hydro, and wind power, a far more dispersed grid, better storage technologies, and decreases in energy use. Three Miles Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima show how seriously we need to take safety with nuclear power, but even with those cases it’s DRAMATICALLY safer than our current systems.

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