Sunday, May 1, 2011

It is rocket science: The complexity of environmental science

I am an:
Soil Scientist
Political Scientist
and nature enthusiast...

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary field, which requires those studying it to know a little bit of everything. There is so much underlying complexity to the earth and how we relate to it, that you need to know a little bit about a lot of stuff.

I know of two ex-astrophysicists whom are now environmental scientists that have even said that the complexity of our field makes them wish they stayed in astrophysics. This was not something I was really expecting an astrophysicist to say.


Environmental scientists are trained to think big and to think small. We need to look at whole systems and how people and environment work together. But we also need to understand fine processes, like how plants are able to utilise soil nutrients.

We need to think about people. Why do they recycle? Why don't they? How do people interact with their environment in Australia versus the High Country tribes of Papua New Guinea? How did Indigenous Australians view our landscape?

We need to consider the use of our environment and current economic structures. How do humans  affect the environment and our economy? How does one affect the other?

To make change, we also have to communicate and teach. This includes education about recycling programs to large scale issues of deforestation and climate change. Explaining the complexity of a situation is often broken down into shorter and simpler formats, leaving out some important interactions or ideas.

Together this means that...

Although questions may seem simple, the answers can be incredibly complex.

There are no incorrect answers in environmental science. With so many varied opinions and research, it creates an overwhelming complexity of ideas. There are many possible solutions and answers to any problem. As soon as you think you have considered everything, one thing may change or a new piece of research comes out that will change your idea and answers. This may be why you see continually changing science on climate change, water management, endangered species and even renewable energy debates. This is the opposite to fields like mathematics or physics, where there is often only one solution to a problem.

Luckily many scientists and other researchers are now coming together and collaborating within environmental science. With experts in discrete fields working to solve problems, we have more opportunity to specialise and also to come up with some creative solutions.

Environmental science is not concrete, it is rapidly adapting and changing to many different fields as we uncover more about the earth and ourselves.


  1. "Environmental scientists are trained to think big and to think small."

    Very true, Jess. Thinking on multiple scales probably defines environmental science as much as anything.

  2. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it. As someone with an obsession with permaculture, I am a committed generalist. It is a difficult path and I appreciate someone outlining its difficulty.



  3. Absolutely right. Soils are themselves the most complex natural system known to man.

  4. It's hard to be an expert in everything, but it seems like a rare opportunity these days to avoid being specialised into an area so small it seems esoteric. I had to laugh at the comment from the converted astrophysicists!