The identification of environmental problems


in M.Phil thesis, Politics, Science, The environment

The identification of an environmental ‘problem’ is not a single crystalline moment of transition, from ignorance to understanding. Rather, it is ambiguous, contingent, and dependent upon the roles and modes of thinking of the actors involved, and values that inform judgments. Rather like Thomas Kuhn’s example about the discovery of oxygen (with different people accessing different aspects of the element’s nature, and understanding it in different contexts), the emergence of what is perceived as a new environmental problem occurs at the confluence of facts, roles, and existing understandings. While one or more causal connections ultimately form the core of how an environmental problem is understood, they are given comprehensibility and salience as the result of factors that are not strictly rational. From the perspective of global environmental politics and international relations, environmental problems are best understood as complexes of facts and judgments: human understandings that are subjective and dynamic, despite how elements of their composition are firmly grounded in the empirical realities of the world.

POPs and climate change

Consider first the case of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The toxicity of chemicals like dioxins was known well before any of the key events that led to the Stockholm Convention. At the time, the problem of POPs was largely understood as one of local contamination by direct application or short distance dispersal. It took the combination of the observation of these chemicals in an unexpected place, the development of an explanation for how this had transpired, and a set of moral judgments about acceptable and unacceptable human conduct to form the present characterization of the problem. That understanding in turn forms the basis for political action, the generation of international law, and the investigation of techniques and technologies for mitigating the problem as now understood. Even now, the specific chemicals chosen and the particular individuals whose interests are best represented are partly the product of political and bureaucratic factors.

If we accept former American Vice President Al Gore’s history of climate change, the form of problem identification is even more remarkable. He asserts that the discovery of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations by Roger Revelle in the 1960s, rather than of specific changes to the global climatic system directly, were what prompted the initial concern of some scientists and policy makers. This is akin to how the 1974 paper by Mario Molina and F.S. Rowland established the chemical basis for stratospheric ozone depletion by CFCs which, in turn, actually led to considerable action before their supposition was empirically confirmed. Gore’s characterization of the initial discovery of the climate change problem also offers glimpses into some of the heuristic mechanisms people use to evaluate key information, deciding which arguments, individuals, and organizations are trustworthy and then prioritizing ideas and actions.

Definition and initial implications

For the present moment, environmental ‘problems’ will be defined as being the consequences of unintentional (though not necessarily unanticipated) side effects of human activity in the world. While mining may release heavy metals into the natural environment, this didn’t crystallize in the minds of people as a problem until the harm they caused to human beings and other biological systems proved evident. While the empirical reality of heavy metal buildup may have preceded any human understanding of the issue, it could not really be understood as an environmental problem at that time. It only became so through the confluence of data about the world, a causal understanding between actions and outcomes, and moral judgments about what is right or desirable. Likewise, while lightning storms cause harm both to humans and other biological systems, their apparent status as an integral component of nature, rather than the product of human activities, makes them something other than an environmental problem as here described. Of course, if it were shown, for example, that climate change was increasing the frequency and severity of thunderstorms (a human behaviour causing an unwanted outcome, though a comprehensible causal link) then that additional damage could be understood as an environmental problem in the sense of the term here used.

Worth noting is the possibility of a dilemma between two sets of preferences and understandings: the alleviation of one environmental problem, for instance by regulating the usage of DDT, may reduce the scope to which another problem can be addressed, such as the possibility of increased prevalence of malaria in a warmer world. It is likewise entirely possible that different groups of people could ascribe different value judgments to the same empirical phenomena. For instance, ranchers and conservationists disagree about whether or not it is desirable to have wild wolves in the western United States.

Problem identification, investigation, and the formulation of understandings about the connections between human activity and the natural world do not comprise a linear progression. This is partially the product of how human psychological processes develop and maintain understandings about the world and partly the consequence of the nature of scientific investigation and political and moral deliberation. Existing understandings can be subjected to shocks caused by either new data or new ideas. Changed understandings in one area of inquiry can prompt the identification of possible problems in another. Finally, the processes and characteristics of problem investigation are conditioned by heuristic, political, and bureaucratic factors that will be discussed at greater length below.

Problematizing the origin of environmental problems as human understandings does not simply add complexity to the debate. It generates possibilities for a more rigorous understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature (including perceptions about why the two are so often seen as distinct). It also offers the possibility of dealing with dilemmas like the example above in a more informed and effective manner.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing February 25, 2007 at 1:28 pm

This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read of yours. The only issue I have with it is your mining example – mines continue to pay as little as they can get away with of the costs of dealing with tailings, and this is just an externalization of cost. I wonder if there is a fundamental difference between ignorance (because, in some cases ignorance can be produced), and externalizing costs. There is certainly a difference, because as you say at some point heavy metal tailings could not have been concieved of as a problem. However, since coming to concieve them as a problem is a process over which money can sometimes hold sway (re: many examples of coorperate interest driven science), is the coorperations desire to externalize cost only quantitatively different from ignorance of those costs?

I’m not sure if this is important for you, you just might want to re-word that so as not to make mine companies sound like the upstanding citizens that they’ve never been and, likely, can’t be.

Tristan Laing February 25, 2007 at 1:29 pm

Picasso picture online page slideshow option is pretty good eh?

I’ve taken so many great pictures since I last saw you, and I still have your scanner somewhere.


Milan February 25, 2007 at 1:42 pm


On mine tailings:

There is a difference between genuine disagreements based on differing moral interpretations and disingenuous positions taken up to avoid getting stuck with the costs of dealing with something. An example of the first case might be to say that we should allow the use of pesticides in tropical regions that poison the Arctic, because the former can improve the lives of billions while harming only 150,000. Someone might argue, as a retort, that the protection of the Arctic native way of life has an importance over and above such utilitarian calculus.

Of course, if a big manufacturer of pesticides were to argue for not regulating pesticides (or pay hacks like the American Enterprise Institute to do so), it would naturally be suspect.

You might even call that one of the linkages between problem identification (chapter 2, due Wednesday) and remedy design (chapter 5, due at the end of March).

Milan February 25, 2007 at 1:46 pm

Ignorance about the effects of activity is, in most cases, an absolute defence under law. If switching my kitchen light off happens to deactivate a circuit upon which someone’s life support machine depends (and I am completely ignorant of this), I can hardly be morally responsible.

If, on the other hand, I can reasonably anticipate that blasting my music at enormous volume will disturb and quite possibly materially harm people in the hospital across the street, the moral and legal calculus is quite different.

The identification of the problem, in the sense used above, is what distinguishes these cases. At the time Thomas Midgley invented CFCs, he thought he was solving the problem of using toxic refrigerants like ammonia and sulfur dioxide. Only in 1974 did anyone anticipate their impact on ozone. Before then, making CFCs was turning off the kitchen light. Now, it is tormenting the hospitalized with Rammstein.

Milan February 25, 2007 at 1:57 pm

I realized that something similar to the above is true for scientific ‘problems’ of the sort Kuhn discusses.

Knowing the charge of an electron is obviously an empirical thing, but the reasons for which that knowledge takes on importance and a problematic status are established by concerns of this sort. For instance, the position that such data would have within existing theories.

R.K. February 25, 2007 at 1:55 pm

“human understandings that are subjective and dynamic, despite how elements of their composition are firmly grounded in the empirical ontological realities of the world.”

1) Sounds more impressive

2) Better conveys what you mean

Apply also to: “While the empirical reality of heavy metal buildup may have preceded any human understanding of the issue”

“It is likewise entirely possible that different groups of people could ascribe different value judgments to the same empirical phenomena.”

Tristan Laing February 25, 2007 at 8:55 pm


I don’t think it sounds more impressive, unless by impressive you mean, less people will understand what your saying. However, I after some reflection do think that ontoligical, rather than empirical reality, is what elements of cognition are grounded upon. However, the notion of grounding is deceving, because it is not nor never a solid ground. Ontological reality manifests itself only in empirical reality, which is to say being can only make itself manifest in perception. So I think the real problem with this phrase is the word “firm” – human cognition is never firmly grounded on ontology, it is rather always contingently arising out of it. Which is to say, that if you have different rules in your empiricism, different aspects of ontological reality will succeed in making themselfs manifest in your empiricism.

As to the second application, you are entirely right, I believe. In fact, to say an empirical reality preceeded a human understanding is as straight a contradiction in terms as I ever did see.

The reason why I think it’s not awful, however, to, in a non philosophical setting, mistake empiricism and ontology, is because the vulgar concept of empiricism de-historicizes its transcendentals. And thereby, considers empirical content not as perceptive reality but as a specific ontology. And in that sense, all of the “empirical reality” of the world today existed in ancient greece, it just coudn’t manifiest itself because we didn’t know the transcendentals (catagories) yet. However, since Milan’s working with Kuhn, it is fairly innapropriate to de historicize scientific catagories, I suppose.

Milan February 25, 2007 at 9:05 pm


The above comment reminds me of why I am (rightly) afraid of philosophical terminology. Using it risks provoking responses that are very difficult to wrap my head around, even with generous infusions of Tesco brand imitation Red Bull.

That said, I will make an effort at doing so soon.

Is the distinction basically:

empirical reality the terms according to which we describe something, for instance a particular humpback whale

ontological reality the actual thing out there, whatever it is (description is hard, because it pretty much automatically becomes a discussion of empirical reality)

R.K. February 25, 2007 at 7:49 pm

Have you read much Haas yet? Some of it definitely pertains to this chapter.

Tristan Laing February 26, 2007 at 3:22 am

You’re right on, I think.

Pippa February 27, 2007 at 1:36 pm

I think I disagree. Milan, I think “human understandings that are subjective and dynamic, despite how elements of their composition are firmly grounded in the empirical realities of the world” means that, whatever the greater (subjective, dynamic) understanding/ ruling paradigm at any particular point in time, (nowadays) it has some basis or points of departure that can be verified empirically by the scientific method. [Modern scientific method has only in fact actually been around since, say, Francis Bacon and officially formalised in the creation of the Royal Society of Science in the 1650s]. I would think that “ontological reality” refers much more to the elements that we think makes up a whale… (Although perhaps R.K. would like to comment, since s/he introduced it).

On the subject of sounding impressive, I think the only people who want to sound impressive are academics, politicians and bull**ers. Once you start working, you will spend most of your time trying to put difficult concepts into terms as easy to understand as possible, so that your boss realises why what s/he is proposing will not work!! You will reach a far wider audience & make a far bigger name for yourself by writing simply and clearly so more people understand, than writing to sound impressive…

Pippa February 27, 2007 at 1:37 pm

P.S. You might enjoy “Paradigms Lost”, which is an excellent & very accessible book about the development of science and scientific consensus on various subjects by an American mathematician, who set out to make science accessible to lay people. It is a fantastic book!

Tristan Laing March 1, 2007 at 10:05 am

I think the issue is that what you are trying to say, “despite being firmly grounded on the empirical realities of the world” is just false. It’s not true that science is ever firmly grounded on reality. Inasmuch as its grounded on its empirical reality the ground is firm but it is not a ground, it’s a tautological inference. And inasmuch as you consider the relation between science and ontology the grounding can never be firm because science only ever reveals ontology aspectually.

Pippa March 5, 2007 at 5:58 pm

BTW, I found a great quote and a great comment on the website Anonymous posted above (Katie Greene) on the subject of science & writing –

Albert Einstein once said that scientific theories should be “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The same could be said about good science writing. When writing for a non-expert audience, the prose has to be easy to read, but not devoid of substance. To me, this is the fun and the challenge of it all.

Milan March 14, 2007 at 10:42 pm


That is a good quotation. It also speaks to the tension between parsimony and comprehensiveness that crops up again and again in IR.

One of the reasons the neos (neo-realists and neo-liberals) are always talking past people who take a more understanding based approach is because their objectives are fundamentally different.

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