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Community Science as a Force for Healing

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In the past two years, the interwoven issues of climate and environmental justice have started to get increasing attention in the scientific community. It’s about time.

Or maybe it’s too late. Maybe it’s 150 years too late to prevent climate change and the impact it will have on those who are both most vulnerable to climate change and who have done the least to cause it. Maybe it is 400 years too late to undo the way slavery – with its exploitation of people and landscapes – anchored racism in the bedrock of our nation. Maybe it is 600 years too late to prevent the near genocide of Indigenous people on this continent and the commodification of this continent’s natural resources.

What is especially alarming is that science was part of these histories. There was a pseudo-scientific story about a wild, uninhabited continent; discredited scientific ideas about Africans’ affinity to hard labor in hot and humid climates, and even today, science and technology are enlisted to hurt people and places so that we can extract resources. We like to think of science as the truth that sets us free, but it is also fair to say that science has been part of the lies that keep people in chains.

Exploitation of people and the exploitation of resources have always gone together. So it isn’t surprising that the most inequitable time in human history – now – is also a time of climate and environmental crisis. Harming places harms the people who live there. Forcing people to live in damaged places damages people. Inequity and environmental harm go hand in hand.

But, if exploitation of people and landscapes go together, so can the opposite – people and landscapes can thrive together. If environmental damage and inequity go together, environmental healing and justice go together. If science can be a force for oppression, it can also be a force for liberation.

I have seen science – especially community science – used as a force for liberation. In the Amazon, Indigenous communities are using satellite images to fight deforestation and maintain their stewardship of their homelands. Citizen groups all over the world are measuring air pollution and using those measurements to hold polluters accountable, like this example in Pakistan. In Oakland, the Greenlining Institute is leveraging the green economy to undo the legacy redlining.

Community science is one of the best ways to right past wrongs and bind environment, science, and justice more closely together. What’s more, community science actually improves science. Here is how:

Community science invites new contributors. Including new contributors improves science. Women entering biology completely revolutionized the ways we think about mate selection; Indigenous communities in the Arctic were the first to recognize and name shifts in seasonality as a manifestation of climate change; and gay activism led to virology research that helped us  understand AIDS and laid the foundation for COVID-19 vaccine development.

Community science invites new questions. The very goal of community science is to work with communities to define questions and set scientific priorities that are different than those set by scientists alone. That is the real meaning and promise of diversity and inclusion: it isn’t just inviting new people into science as it is; it’s inviting and supporting people to create a better science.

Community science makes science an ally. Community science is driven by the idea that all communities – especially communities who have been excluded from science – have the right to ask and answer their scientific questions. For Thriving Earth Exchange, it means that the people who live next to the refinery, fracking site, highway or new development should be able to measure the impact of those activities for themselves, and not rely on someone else’s assurances that it’s all ok. It also means taking the things community members notice seriously, and designing new ways to measure those things. This can mean collecting data no one had thought to collect before – which takes us all the way back to the first point about bringing new insights and methods into science.

Community science makes science work better. Community organizations, especially community organizations devoted to justice, have a deep well of experience in equitable ways of working, and they share that experience with scientists they work with. I have seen more than one community scientist change the way they hold lab meetings after working with community leaders – and that equitable approach spreads to other colleagues and partners they work with. To paraphrase Parliament Funkadelic, “Free your science, and your lab will follow.”

In sum, while science has been part of the exploitation of people and landscapes, community science can be part of healing, justice and restoration. Community science also improves science and makes it a better ally. Community science can help us build a future where environment, science, and justice are interconnected and reinforcing … and our future depends on it.


Blake McGhghy subscriber

1 Comment

K. ThieroMar 14, 2022 at 12:55 AM


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