When Environmentalism Clashes with Science

Dibakar Das

Protecting the environment is a worthy goal. The quality of our lives depends on the quality of the environment. We all need clean air, clean drinking water, and healthy food to have a healthy life. Poor air quality increases the risks of respiratory illnesses. Degrading soil health and warming global temperatures challenge continued food production. And deforestation, air and water pollution, and excess use of chemicals in food production only make things worse. The conservation of many endangered species of animals depends on protecting their environment. Protecting the environment is also important to contain man/wildlife conflicts, which often end badly. Wild animals driven by habitat destruction often attack human settlements in search of food, and in the worst scenario may help spread new diseases. The responsibility to protect the environment is therefore natural in most of us.

This tendency to care deeply for the environment, although useful in most instances, sometimes leads to irrational behaviors—ones based more on emotions than science. This issue merits some consideration in the interest of science and scientific thinking in general.

As people are becoming more environmentally aware, a form of environmentalism fashioned in exaggerated interpretation (and sometimes science denial) is growing among some youth. Secured in innocent emotions to protect and worship mother nature, this form of environmentalism looks similar to dogmatic religion in some aspects. It is often blind in opposition, based on emotions, and fierce in response to criticism. While I do not want to brand everybody who cares for the environment as a new religionist, the tendency of innocent youth to stand out as environmentalists at every occasion without being skeptical is dangerous and contrary to scientific thinking. This almost cult mentality may obstruct constructive and useful discussion—for example, whether we should go “all organic.” The environmentalist I am talking about, of course, will say yes, even if a strong case could be made against the proposal.

What drives this form of environmentalism and makes it difficult to dispel is the blurred overlap between true science and environmentalism, making it fertile ground for propaganda. Environmentalism has often prompted people to share misinformation, believe in popular rhetoric—such as the Amazon rainforests are the lungs of the planet contributing 20 percent of global oxygen—and ironically promote the ineffective “pray for [cause here]” trends on social media. Although the Amazon rainforest is important for the general well-being of the planet, it does not emit 20 percent of global oxygen. While believing in such misinformation may not be immediately harmful, this gullible attitude can push people to take positions not based on factual or scientific evidence on important decisions.

Take the example of the GMOs in agriculture. Fake environmentalism stands in the way of science and attempts to block technologies that can improve the lives of millions. To cite one example of irrational and violent behavior inspired by such environmentalism, in 2013 activists in the Philippines illegally destroyed the golden rice trials at the International Rice Research Station. The anti-GMO activists tirelessly attack science and continue to mislead people about the safety of GMOs, despite scientific consensus that they are generally safe. This kind of environmentalism can be dangerous and has parallels to religion.

We need not get into details of the GMO controversy; think instead of simple tree planting. As people around the world are increasingly becoming climate conscious, planting trees has become a visible activity in communities. People are even celebrating birthdays by planting trees. Planting trees is not bad—but careless tree planting is. If you are climate conscious and want to protect the environment (as everyone should be), I bet you are not going to read a couple of research papers on tree planting before you plant two of your own. But it would be better if you did, because the act could be counterproductive. A study has shown that improper tree planting in riverbanks can have negative consequences on the water cycle. Reforestation efforts often use new, nonnative species of trees that may become invasive and prove detrimental to the local ecology.

To battle climate change, we need more technological interventions, for example, fast and fuel-efficient transport—not bicycles for seven billion people. We need to produce enough food to feed the growing population without clearing more forest lands for cultivation. That’s where technologies such as GMOs and gene-edited crops—which many environmentalists oppose—can help. So a mere concern for the environment without understanding the science in a larger context can actually harm the environment in the long run. The blind, aggressive protests of so-called environmentalists to GMOs is similar to that of conservative Christians to evolution. Both live in denial of science.

Often what starts as an environmental protest soon turns into a political activity. As people are united by shared emotions and beliefs, it becomes easier for politicians to turn those feelings to their own favor. While we need politicians to understand environmental issues, the unwarranted mixing of politics and environmental concerns can be dangerous and lead to political instrumentalization of environmental protection. Our judgments and concerns for the environment should be guided by science-based evidence instead of emotions or opportunistic politics.

We should not move forward with ideas before clearly understanding them and their implications. We should certainly not believe every environmental narrative popular in the media. We should not engage in counterproductive activities such as those that destroyed the golden rice trials in the Philippines. Instead, we can educate ourselves on how simple behaviors can help protect the environment. Let us put our trust in the women and men who understand science—or at least bother to try. Let us protect the environment while we also protect the integrity of science. Let us promote science and scientific thinking for a better society.

Dibakar Das

Dibakar Das is a senior PhD student in agricultural plant sciences at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, West Bengal, India. He writes for the Genetic Literacy Project and has a keen interest in science, promoting science communication, and scientific thinking.


Protecting the environment is a worthy goal. The quality of our lives depends on the quality of the environment. We all need clean air, clean drinking water, and healthy food to have a healthy life. Poor air quality increases the risks of respiratory illnesses. Degrading soil health and warming global temperatures challenge continued food production. …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.