Another reason we’re failing at sustainability: relying on the wrong people

May 16, 2024 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership, Nature

When I started graduate school in physics at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the faculty members in the department confused the students. He didn’t confuse us with complex science. He was a world leader in his subject, but the subject was tennis—the physics of tennis.

I studied there in 1993-94. When the professor, Howard Brody, died, the New York Times published his obituary, Howard Brody, an Expert in the Physics of Tennis, Dies at 83, rare for physicists. He created the field and knew more about it than anyone.

The last sentences of the obituary revealed why humanity is failing at sustainability, if you know what to look for. It ends:

Over the years, Professor Brody was asked whether his tennis research had improved his own game. In that respect, he replied ruefully, he was a victim of his own success.

“If I had spent as much time on the courts as I’ve spent in the lab,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988, “I’d be a great player.”

Do you see the point? For whatever his expertise in the science of tennis, no one would expect him to play well. We wouldn’t expect him to know how to coach either. In fact, his success at science undermines and conflicts with his ability to play or coach.

We shouldn’t expect scientists to lead in sustainability no matter how much they know the science. Yet we look to them for solutions. We should no more look to them for solutions than we’d look to Professor Brody to make Wimbledon.

His science can still help tennis players and coaches, but it would need people to interpret it. We shouldn’t expect him to be able to make his science usable. We shouldn’t expect environmental scientists to make their science usable. Science results can be usable, but someone has to make them so and their discovering results doesn’t mean we should expect them to make their results usable.

I don’t think we should expect leaders to understand the science either. I don’t criticize either group. They’re doing their best, but we should acknowledge the gap between people who understand our environmental problems and people who could solve them and implement those solutions. Only when we acknowledge that gap and understand it can we bridge it, so effective leaders can implement effective solutions, liberating scientists to study the problems.

Missing: translators

We could use a group of people skilled enough in science and leadership, even if not experts in either, to bridge that gap.

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