2004 Denver Annual Meeting (November 7–10, 2004)

Paper No. 4
Presentation Time: 2:40 PM


SAREWITZ, Daniel, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State Univ, PO Box 874401, Tempe, AZ 85287-4401, dsarewitz@asu.edu

The idea that an environmentally sustainable future depends upon communication of scientific ideas to the public and decision makers is a sensible one, yet it confronts many challenges. Perhaps most importantly, the meaning of “sustainability” itself is rooted in values and ethics, not in facts. That is, progress toward a “sustainable” future depends on agreement about a) what sustainability actually means; b) the values and ethical considerations underlying any broadly accepted definition of sustainability; and c) the acceptability of trade-offs necessary to achieve sustainability so defined. Because these are each issues of values, rather than facts, they must be confronted through processes of values-adjudication—in other words, through politics. They cannot be resolved through communication of scientific facts.

Science does not offer a single, coherent view of “nature,” “the environment” or “a sustainable future.” Rather, it offers a rich array of facts that can be relevant to various competing, value-laden sides of ongoing political debates surrounding sustainability. Thus, recent accusations that the administration of President George W. Bush has been “politicizing” environmental science are correct, yet unsurprising. Any time scientific facts are used to bolster a position that is value-laden, science is being politicized. From this perspective, political gridlock on many environmental issues can be recognized as a failure to sort out and adjudicate value disputes and competing interests, not a failure to understand or communicate facts. As clarity about values emerges, the factual bases for achieving a sustainable future will themselves become increasingly clear, and decreasingly controversial.