Scientists can be important public advocates in environmental issues. But scientific activism can take different forms, and deciding when and how to become an activist can be difficult for people who are trained to understand science as the objective pursuit of truth. This case study explores these issues through the history of the Oxygen Depletion Crisis. Between 1966 and 1970, it appeared that the global oxygen supply might be endangered by pesticides, industrial pollution, or the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels. The science was uncertain, but the potential threat was considerable. One response came from geophysicists Lloyd Berkner and Lauriston Marshall, who quietly initiated a research program and refrained from speaking publicly until the full scope of the crisis was better understood, in a conscious effort to avoid provoking public concern. We label this approach “public reticence.” Ecologist LaMont Cole instead made oxygen depletion a prominent talking point in his Congressional testimony and presentations across the country, so successfully stimulating the public concern that oxygen depletion became one of the multiple environmental anxieties motivating mass action on Earth Day in 1970. While the oxygen depletion crisis had a relatively clear scientific resolution, its legacy for environmental policy is interestingly complicated. This case uses historical perspective to help students to debate on scientific activism, an issue especially relevant today in light of climate change and events like the March for Science on Earth Day, 2017.

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