Science, Empathy, Collaboration and Sustainability

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

The title of this article is taken from the theme for the 2016 Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) conference: “Science, Empathy, Collaboration and Sustainability.” The conference will take place on June 8 – 11, 2016 in Washington, D.C. and will show-case the multi-disciplinary strengths of AESS.  If you are reading this prior to 5/22/2106, you can register here.  Suggested topics for proposals can be read here (proposal submission has closed).

As organizations such as AESS support the growth and understanding of sustainability, it is important for those of us in industry to also embrace the full meaning of sustainable development. To perform a project per specifications and make a profit is a meager measure of success. It is no longer enough – was truly never enough – to ensure that we leave a site no more contaminated than we found it. The short and long term impacts to the natural and human ecology must be taken into consideration.

Scientists at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, as briefly discussed in a December 4, 2015 article in Science Daily and as published in Nature Geosciences, conducted experiments indicating that naturally occurring arsenic-releasing bacteria in wetlands and groundwater are ‘reactive’ carbon limited (Stuckey, Schaefer, Kocar, Benner, & Fendorf, Arsenic release metabolically limited to permanently water-saturated soil in Mekong Delta.  Nature Geoscience, 2015).  This means the bacteria do not normally release arsenic into wetlands and groundwater because there isn’t enough carbon available in a usable form for the bacteria to metabolize arsenic as an end-product. The experiment further indicates that land development could stimulate the release of toxic levels of arsenic into the groundwater. In such a scenario in real life, an approach to project execution that includes assessing the microbial constituents in groundwater or wetlands, and further includes interacting with the local populace to determine if there is a history of land development or extreme seasonal events followed by illness and deaths isn’t simply respectful, it’s crucial for avoiding disastrous results.

Research also indicates that localized examples of psychological intervention lead to environmental action, and that small changes in the practices of individual families, as well as local measures and incentives encourage energy conservation and help generate new norms (Ross, et. al, The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence, BioScience, 2016).

Although a shift is being seen on the industry level, as well as the personal and family level, normative shifts in business practices may not be occurring quickly enough. Scientists estimate that a global temperature increase of greater than 2º C (3.6 º F) above pre-industrial levels would be catastrophic; however, if temperatures continue to increase at the current rate, an increase of approximately 5ºC (9 º F) is likely within the next two to three decades (Queré, et. al., Global Carbon Budget 2014, Earth Science Data, 2014).  Global action and rapid shifts in industry norms are essential.

Limited capacity to focus on community engagement or perform an analysis of usage, costs, and differential impacts to the poor can be an Achilles heel for the long-term success of any project if not recognized and addressed early. An understanding of the natural ecology, as well as the human ecology – inclusive of community needs and concerns – is critical not only to achieve community buy-in but also to the long-term success of any project. It is crucial for economic and social sustainability strategies to have a basis in practical knowledge.

At Oak Services, we strive to align our work with the components of this 2016 AESS conference theme. Our combination of scientific and technical expertise, our deeply-held beliefs in the importance of gender-equity, and our ethics- and faith-based motivation drive us to execute all work with what we believe to be the key to such a normative shift: empathy and dignity towards the local natural and human ecology, a coordinated application of a variety of scientific disciplines, and a long-range world view that interprets successful projects as those that improve the quality of life for the current community, as well as the quality of life for the community’s children and their children’s children. Our dedication to a respectful, data-driven assessment of any situation serves as a reminder that no one discipline, organization, faith, or organization can have all the answers and we anticipate learning a great deal from the presentations and research to be shared at this years’ AESS conference.


Gutowski, et, al.  International Technology Research Institute, World Technology (WTEC) Division, WTEC Panel Report on Environmentally Benign Manufacturing, 2001.  Full report here:

Quéré, et.  al., Global Carbon Budget 2014, Earth Science Data, 2104.  Abstract here:

Ross, et.  al, The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence, BioScience, 2016.  Abstract here:

Stuckey, Schaefer, Kocar, Benner, & Fendorf, Arsenic release metabolically limited to permanently water-saturated soil in Mekong Delta.  Nature Geoscience, 2015.  Abstract here:

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed by the United States Congress in 1976 to address problems caused by municipal and industrial waste. RCRA’s focus is on active and future wa

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 include clean water and sanitation, an end to poverty and hunger, gender equality and access to quality education, c

The 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22) and the twelfth meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12) recently concluded in Marrakech, Morocco. More information can be found at the COP 22