Time for life cycle science to stand up

September 12, 2011 at 11:19 am Leave a comment

I was recently at a United Nations/SETAC Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) workshop on knowledge mining.  There was a great deal of discussion about mining of data and knowledge, and how to use them.  There was tension in the room about how far we can generalise learning from LCA and use it in other applications for businesses and communities in both developed and developing countries.

Bo Weidema made a presentation.  He said that we don’t need knowledge mining.  His point was that we already have the knowledge and amazing learning from LCA, and we need to get this knowledge into areas where it can lead to action.

It occurred to me that the scientific community is actually terrible at making a stand and getting information out into broader policy and community debate.

When it suits, businesses will use scientific information to support their products and services.  This is reasonable and to be expected but will not usually challenge the status quo and inertia of current capital investment.

NGOs work hard to challenge environmental issues, but they often focus on the pressure points where problems manifest and not on the underlying systemic causes. Even if an underlying cause is identified, the complex feedbacks and burden-shifting may not be well-understood.

The scientific community is hopeless at pushing its message, and the life cycle assessment community could be the worst.  We focus on what we don’t know rather than what we do.  We look at exceptions rather than the general rule.  We’re scared to call a spade a spade in case it’s a joker.  Perhaps this comes from the early days of LCA when we first found out that our earlier thinking was wrong, and now we have lost trust in the certainty of what we know.  We also have an inbuilt incentive never to complete a study, as the financial imperative is to continue to do research.

With climate change, which is the most pressing environmental issue we have ever faced, providing strong driver to generalise knowledge and make decisions, we risk being bypassed.

So who can stand up and promote the learning from LCA and push it with education and advocacy?  UNEP/SETAC is an option, but they may not be able to take a position against some industries.  Talk of ‘consuming different’ and not ‘consuming less’ outlines how politically difficult it is for UNEP to call a spade a spade.

So then, who?  Scientists remain terrible communicators, and we don’t have enough centuries of resources to teach them to do it well.  So we need a layer of passionate, life cycle-savvy people and organisations to understand and push the learning into media and policy.  New and alternative media offer opportunities, and I hope followers of this blog can help build this connection.  I know there are organisations that have been pushing the message, but their voices are alone in the wilderness.  We need many more voices. 

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