By Nick Garbaty
Environmental tipping points, like the disappearance of glaciers and higher global temperatures, were the focus of the opening keynote of a two-day conference hosted by Northwestern’s Science in Human Culture program on Friday. Titled Making Knowledge of the Problem and Place, the conference highlighted issues in the studies of technology and science.
“This event is to start conversations that are maybe a little more nuanced about policymaking, ideas and science,” said Helen Tilley, director of Northwestern’s Science in Human Culture program. “It’s not so much what we don’t know, it’s about the opening of conversations.”
Keynote speaker Adriana Petryna, an anthropologist from the University of Pennsylvania, presented information about the future of human interaction with climate change. Primarily, she focused on analysis of scientific theory related to approaching tipping points: the points at which the damage caused by humans to the environment cannot be undone.
Petryna has authored several books, including Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, about the environmental and political implications of the Chernobyl disaster and When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects, covering pharmaceuticals and human subjects. Her current project focuses on extinction and climate change.
“She came to us with her ideas about horizoning work,” Tilley said. “She wasn’t calling out climate change, rather asking what does it mean when you’re trying to look into the future and you don’t know?”
During her presentation, Petryna referenced Life Exposed and attributed Chernobyl’s disastrous environmental effects to a lack of knowledge on how to handle unexpected situations. Further, she compared this to a period of 10 years during which wildfires increased in New Mexico, which she postulated were due to a disconnect between models and reality.
“People weren’t trained to expect crazy weather,” she said. “Ten years later, the freak incident became the norm.”
Petryna also explored the possibility that humans are living on borrowed time, referring to the decreasing possibility of humans having control over a given situation. These ideas connect with her discussion of humanity’s approach to environmental tipping points, in that remedying future problems depends on the actions of today.
“We need to create infrastructures of monitoring,” she said. “How do we identify systems that have already crossed the tipping point?”
Petryna concluded with a hopeful analogy. Asking the audience members to imagine they were fish, she discussed that a way to revitalize a lake devastated by algae blooms was to remove the fish to allow plankton to thrive in order to filter the water. In essence, solutions to environmental problems can be unconventional and happen rather abruptly.
“Change is not gradual and modes of recovery are counter-intuitive,” she said. “It is important to avoid misrecognition of the nature of nature, borrowed time and the future.”