Wes Jackson, a leading environmentalist and the founder of the Land Institute, a Kansas-based environmental research organization, kicked off his lecture last Wednesday with a harrowing comparison.
“I am going to give a talk tonight that may be rough,” said Jackson. “I have not given this talk before, and I have prepared it partly because I had to.”
In the lecture’s first five minutes, Jackson soberly compared climate change to Nazi-occupied Germany, using a quotation from a Nicole Krauss novel. He challenged the audience with the notion of being a bystander and called for citizens to question what their responsibilities are on the issue.
“There were rumours of unfathomable things, and because we couldn’t fathom them we failed to believe them, until we had no choice and it was too late,” Jackson said, quoting Krauss.
Jackson stressed the importance of using the appropriate terminology in describing environmental problems.
“To assign the language of economics to the ecosystem is to have this perverse notion that we can control it,” he said.
Jackson also emphasized that scientific research conducted in the field must be done objectively. Arguments should not shape the research – rather the research should shape the arguments.
“My question to the ecosystem service researchers is this: are you planting the flag of science into the unknown, into the realm of mystery?” he asked.
One peculiar aspect of Jackson’s lecture was his heavy use of literary references to build his argument and convince his audience of their moral responsibility. This led some listeners to criticize the lecture for being short on scientific data.
Faiz Abhuasi, a McGill alumnus with a degree in International Development Studies, said the argument was convincing but questioned the efficacy of Jackson’s approach.
“If you want to convince people to change their behaviour, the tools he uses are great,” Abhuasi said. “But if you want to convince people to change … the behaviour of people in power, you can’t use irrational, non-scientific arguments.”
However, for Eby Heller, a master’s student in geography at McGill, Jackson’s credibility as a scientist was not an issue.
“Having seen his other side, in which he is extraordinarily capable of having extremely scientific arguments, makes me less worried about him,” Heller said. “Because I know he can talk any plant-geneticist around the bush six times. He actually knows what he’s talking about.”