Science and Sociability: The Sustainable Common Ground

Build It Green NYCBy Leah Newman, Climate and Society ’13

As a graduate student, I make ends meet the way many in New York City do, by working in the service industry, in my case, bartending. Given my scientific background and current climate science studies, I end up in a slew of climate change conversations with laypeople, some of whom are fully informed, and others who are full blown skeptics. These conversations do not always end well, and I have often left an interaction disappointed with my reactions and responses. While the Climate and Society program has given me the tools to speak cogently, all these conversations consistently leave me wondering how do we, as science minded individuals approach climate change without seeming preachy? Is there a way to integrate science into daily social interactions, and if so, how far can it go?

This summer I’ve seen that a roundabout approach can be a great option. Make something accessible (and beneficial) to the public, and they’ll come up with their own questions, ready to engage in conversation. BIG!Compost, a program within Build it Green!NYC, funded through the NYC Department of Sanitation, is doing just that.

BIG!Compost is a non-profit that sets up food scrap collection sites at various green markets throughout the New York City area, and then composts the collected materials underneath the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City. The feedback cycle culminates in free compost and mulch that is distributed to schools, community gardens, and individuals.

So how does this spread the science? The key is giving individuals the power.  Drop-off sites and pick-up sites are manned with employees or volunteers that are well versed in composting and, moreover, are enthusiastic about it. The choice location is also important. Many drop off site are conveniently located at pre-existing greenmarkets, making the target audience readily available. By placing well-versed people in the appropriate setting, BIG!Compost paves a road for the science behind sustainability to become a talking point.

But what’s the takeaway?

The key principle that BIG! and many other programs around NYC focus on is the choice of the individual. If there is anything that the social science component to my Columbia education has taught me, it’s that all people, particularly Americans, want to maximize their capital, be it social, economic, or political.  As scientists, that is so easy to forget. Researchers are used to using numbers and logic to create poignant arguments, but that rarely work in a general social setting.  Conveying our scientific findings to the public is far more complex than simply publishing an article or handing out flyers. While these are effective tools to reach out within the scientific community, the majority of laypeople will remain unengaged.

Climate-friendly (and economically beneficial!) programs engage the general public, and allow individuals to integrate themselves into the science. Once laypeople participate in a sustainable activity they are likely to be much more open to discussion and education on the subject. Rather than becoming defensive about their lack of knowledge, they’ll be able to approach the scientists they consider peers to engage in conversation.  Social events and organizations outwardly based on individual gains provide the perfect foundation for roundabout science education. It allows even footing, assuring that no one’s knowledge is “threatened”, and ideally creates a uniform sense of obligation, pushing laypeoples’ interest and openness to climate change discussion.

Overall, when introducing science in a social setting, we need to remember that it’s not about being in the right logically, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. By placing researchers in the proper setting, science doesn’t have to lose out on a social life.

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