Environmental science

John Bull is an Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in Pollution Ecology, in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science, and is one of the founding members of the environmental science degree at Plymouth. The degree is one of the highest ranked in the country, and has alumni working around the world in an incredible variety of roles. Here, John explains why environmental science is so important.

The world needs more environmental scientists

Environmental science is the most interdisciplinary of subjects, and one of the things that I tell prospective students is that the science is only two-thirds of the story. Yes, it will help you to understand how the climate works, but in order to tackle the issue of climate change you have to handle yourself in the realms of economics, sociology, culture, philosophy, even theology. If you are going to deal with politicians and big business, you have to get in the ring with them – and it is a source of great pride that the grounding we give our students results in ultra-employable graduates – dangerous new kids on the block!

The cavalry isn’t coming 

One of the things that you hear people say in relation to issues such as plastic pollution in the oceans or rising levels of greenhouse gases, is ‘it’s too big a problem for me to deal with – let the governments sort it out’. But this is blinkered for two reasons. Firstly, you can make a difference. You can choose not to buy a plastic bottle. You can drop the amount of meat you eat by one or two meals each week. After all, it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef, and only 2,500 litres to produce a kilo of wheat. And secondly, governments around the world are not going to sort it out. They might tackle small ticket items and short-term fixes – putting tax up on fuel for example. But what government is going to seriously look at the issue of the cement industry, which produces a vast amount of carbon dioxide? If there are no votes in it for them, they’re not going to do it.

Plant a tree 

Britain used to be one of the most heavily wooded countries in Europe. At one stage, we had 97 per cent coverage. By the time Queen Victoria died, that figure was just 2 per cent. What a remarkable job we did there during the Industrial Revolution! And globally, every second, we cut down six hectares of rainforest – that’s four football pitches. We know less than one in five plant species, and yet every 30 seconds we make a plant extinct. There goes a potential cure for cancer. There goes our best means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Consider waste reduction over recycling 

It’s great that we recycle – it needs to happen. But we can all do our bit by cutting back on the things we don’t need. Why put loose vegetables in a plastic bag? I don’t need my toothbrush to come wrapped in plastic – I’ll actually take it out of the packaging and give it back to the shop! One of things we do on our degree is lifecycle analysis. So, how is this product made? How are the components manufactured? How are they transported? What are the full energy costs and water consumption? So, you might be swayed by a product that is packaged in an environmentally friendly fashion – but if it’s unsustainable in itself, what good is that? 

Frugality isn’t being mean 

We’re all hooked into consumerism. We go through all of this education and spend all of that time at work to, what, buy stuff? We’ve become slaves to capitalism, and it is the very definition of unsustainable. So the concept of frugality is key, because we’re the first species to forget about our feedback loop. The lion does not eat all of the antelopes and zebras because in the long term it will starve. The antelope knows that it must produce enough offspring to account for the loss of a certain percentage. All of these species are interlinked. But we go on growing our population by 150 people every minute. That’s the population of Plymouth every day – where do they live, and what will they eat? And all the while we’re making species extinct at the fastest rate in our history and cutting down the natural environment. Eventually we’ll be brought to heel, but by then it will be too late.

There are no easy answers – but students are prepared to ask the tough questions 

We’ve been taking our students to Malaysia for more than 25 years, and they see first-hand how oil palm has developed since the first commercial plantation in 1917. And while the environmental aspects appear to be terribly damaging, it has nevertheless lifted 600,000 Malaysians out of poverty. Nothing is black and white, and we certainly cannot impose our own post-industrial British model of sustainability on other countries. And that’s why it’s great that we have students from the Caribbean, East Africa, Hong Kong, and South America coming to Plymouth. They absorb all of the sociology, the politics, the economics, and then they return home to apply it. I’m delighted about that. They understand the culture better than we do. Let a Trinidadian save Trinidad. Education and the application of it is key to saving this planet.