Environmental Scientists Should Lead By Example

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A short article by Nimesh Ved appeared in The Hindu. With focus on environment protection, conservation, and waste management, it makes a note of the various practices followed by conservation agencies and individuals, at conferences and outside of them, that are contrary to any type of conservation effort.

The article does not propose any revolutionary theory or a mass movement that would clean our environment overnight and make our planet worth living. Instead it urges us to take very small steps, little gestures, which when combined, surely would have a great impact in a collective manner. It draws attention to our extravagant and irresponsible practices, which act in complete contrast to our efforts at environment protection and conservation.  Knowledge leads to action. Mostly just drawing people’s attention to such wrong practices is sufficient; it happens that the people hadn’t paid any heed to the long-term effect of their actions earlier. In that way the article serves its purpose well. At the same time I can’t help using the torch that Nimesh Ved has given us to throw some light on similar avoidable practices in our research environment.

Of a similar nature to the practices Nimesh Ved talks about is the manner in which research is carried out in several laboratories. Mostly one would see two computers being used — one in the office, and the other at home that is used for remotely connecting to the office system. The justification for such a practice is hard to digest when the residence is within the institute premises, or at least within commuting distance. This is different from, and in addition to, the electric appliances, water coolers, computer systems being left in running state after closing the laboratory doors. In case of computers being shut down, several times one comes across the monitor — the maximum power consuming part of a computer — not being turned off. In several institutes, one could also find cafes and canteens open till late in the night or maybe whole night to serve the people working till late night, with all the facilities in running state. One practice that I have never been able to comprehend is closing all doors and windows of the office, turning down the blinds, and turning on electric lamps — even though the weather is not extreme, like excessively hot or cold. If we start discussing the impact of this practice on the physical and psychological health of people indoors, that would digress us from the primary focus of the article.

And what about the insistence of the students and scholars on working at night or off-working hours under the pretext of ‘there is no disturbance’? Working at night has become synonymous with working hard. ‘Burning the midnight oil’ as they say. Often in my conversation with youngsters I am told how less they slept or how late in the night had they been working. It is ironical since these students themselves form the collective that is blamed for causing the said daytime-disturbance. In case of overtime, what exactly was the work which could not be done during daytime hours? If a deadline is to be met, what was being done between the announcement of the deadline and the night before the deadline itself? One could understand the case of researchers working in the fields that require them to work at night — for example, astronomy and astrophysics, or night-time observations of the atmosphere. But otherwise the researchers should stop misinterpreting and misusing the facilities and flexibility provided to them. And the offence becomes even more grave for people working in the field of environment and climate studies.

Such is the message conveyed by Nimesh Ved’s article. Certainly, as he would also agree, there are far more avenues of conservation, and plugging in the holes beyond those presented and discussed in the article. Thus, though he does mention the bags and writing pads provided in conferences, he leaves out the thick proceedings volume, which is seldom opened by the participants during or after the conference, sometimes even left behind in the hotel rooms where they have been provided accommodation. We are witnessing several changes in the working attitudes of scientists and scholars from all fields. On-screen reading has cut-down upon printouts, at least in research communities, and several journals have stopped bringing out print editions, thus going completely online or publishing in electronic formats. Students, postdocs, and young researchers send their applications, resumes and their publications to potential employers by e-mail. Thus, in the present digital age, it is really hard to fathom the excessive attachment to printed conference proceedings.

However, Nimesh Ved has provided a starting point, and made us confront our own hypocrisies. Once one starts looking, the various cases of non-conservation keep popping up before our eyes in a chain reaction. Surely it all boils down to how committed the researcher is to the cause he is pursuing. You may call it ‘leading by example’ if you like, but the people learning, teaching, and advocating the environmental causes definitely need to be more responsible. If such extravagant practices are continued, promoted, or left unaddressed by the scholars who surely know better, then how can one expect the general public to be more judicious with their waste disposal and other actions, especially when they look up to the scientists as role models and follow their example?

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