Scientists are not dispassionate observers. While science strives to be as objective as possible, scientists themselves are still human at the end of the day — and when you’re describing how humans are destroying ecosystem after ecosystem, it’s hard not to feel sadness.
In a 2019 letter that mostly flew under the radar, three leading researchers argued that researchers must be “allowed to cry” over the destruction they are seeing. It’s more important than ever that we heed that call.
Take some of the world’s most brilliant people and have them document all the ways in which mankind is destroying nature. Sprinkle a lot of criticism from some parts of society, and what do you end up with? Well… you end up with environmental science in a nutshell.
Most researchers documenting the state of ecosystems would tell you the same thing: it’s pretty bad. Tim Gordon, lead author of the letter and a marine biologist from the University of Exeter, summed it up thusly:
“We’re documenting the destruction of the world’s most beautiful and valuable ecosystems, and it’s impossible to remain emotionally detached.
“When you spend your life studying places like the Great Barrier Reef or the Arctic ice caps, and then watch them bleach into rubble fields or melt into the sea, it hits you really hard.”
Mankind is affecting every corner of the planet. Whether it’s indirectly, through things like climate change or ocean acidification, or directly, through localized pollution, there’s no place that has been spared of our impact. We know this precisely because researchers are studying it. You’ll easily find thousands upon thousands of them, and most are pretty depressing.
Unsurprisingly, environmental scientists are often feeling the toll. According to the letter authors, it’s common for researchers to respond to this by ignoring the problem or suppressing it, which saps away at their mental health.
Dr Steve Simpson of the University of Exeter, also a co-writer of the letter, said: “Instead of ignoring or suppressing our grief, environmental scientists should be acknowledging, accepting and working through it.
“In doing so, we can use grief to strengthen our resolve and find ways to understand and protect ecosystems that still have a chance of survival in our rapidly changing world.”
Co-writer Professor Andy Radford, of the University of Bristol, added: “The emotional burden of this kind of research should not be underestimated.
“Grief, when unaddressed, can cloud judgment, inhibit creativity and engender a sense that there is no way forward.”
As the world battles with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing something similar with doctors — it’s not just the fatigue and bleak outcomes that often take shape in hospitals, but it’s the fact that much, if not all of this, could have been avoided. The environmental researchers suggest that much can be learned from healthcare professionals, but researchers must ultimately be allowed to cry and grieve over the environmental destruction they are witnessing.
Read the full letter here.