WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor, Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto
STEM-associated Personal, Social & Environmental Harms

Humans are facing many realized and potential harms to wellbeing of individuals, societies and environments (e.g., as at right) that have been linked to fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics ('STEM') - but are, perhaps, most attributed to financial and other elite societal members.

Students educated about such harms - despite their controversial nature in many cases - can become motivated  to develop and carry out personal and socio-political actions to address them.


Considering the simple model shown at left, there seem to be many possible relationships among fields of science and technology and societies and environments. There often is much debate, however, about how positive are some such relationships. Not everyone agrees, for instance, on benefits of fast foods and other manufactured foods - with many people enjoying their taste and convenience, while others express concerns about added salts, sugars, fats, dyes, preservatives, etc in such products. There are many debates like this, some of which are given at Global Issues. In the sense that many of these debates are based, to some extent, on science, they often are called 'socioscientific' issues (SSIs). The more people investigate such issues, it seems, the more likely they may effectively address them.
Among controversies within STSE relationships are likely many causes of problems. On the one hand, problems and controversies may be due, in part, to - for example - the 'maturity' of the field. In early stages of fields of bio-technology, such as engineering of genes for modifying food crops, for example, much controversy seemed to arise from uncertainty of broader and long-term effects of engineered organisms. Nevertheless, for many issues/harms, there appear to be significant concerns around influences of powerful people (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., transnational corporations, governments, etc.) on fields of science and technology (and, likely, engineering & mathematics ['STEM']).

For example, as suggested in the short documentary at left, it appears that companies that make various products that use shiny mica (e.g., for cosmetics and for paints [e.g., for automobiles]) are making significant profits while harming wellbeing of people (often children) mining it under unhealthy working conditions. Perhaps contributing to such harms are governments that set laws encouraging sale of commodities containing mica and allowing child labour, for example. 'Consumers' who choose to use such products without consideration of related harms also may be contributing to such harms.
Although analyses of controversies and problems are complex and uncertain, it seems clear that a person's views about merits of practices and products of fields of science and technology depend on her/his ideological perspectives with regards to matters of political economy. A common way to study one's ideological perspectives relating to political economy is to take the 'test' (questionnaire) at the Political Compass website, here. In this analysis, although people's views can be located across a spectrum, there appears to be considerable debate between those who, on one hand, support neoliberal capitalism (also see here) and those opposed to such institutionalization/mobilization of free-market priorities. Some elaboration of the so-called Left-vs-Right Divide is given here. I stand in significant opposition to neoliberalism - supported, for instance, here. Given their role in assisting financiers and companies in development and marketing of for-profit products and services, I am particularly concerned with capitalists' influences on fields of science and technology (and, likely, engineering and mathematics) - as outlined at Corrupted Science, for example.

Some 'WISE' Harms in STSE Relationships
As argued above and elsewhere by me, it appears that fields of science and technology (and engineering & mathematics) seem to be largely assimilated into a global network under significant influence of capitalist entities (e.g., financiers & corporations). Many of the products and services noted below (e.g., foods & beverages, drugs, forms of transportation, etc.) are associated with (not, perhaps directly, responsible for) harms for wellbeing of individuals, societies and environments (WISE) likely due, in large part, to such influences.

A good starting point for discussions of harms linked to fields of science & technology (and, likely, engineering & mathematics) is in terms of capitalists' promotion of consumerism. Very simple introductions to capitalism-induced consumerism and related harms are provided through The Story of Stuff project, which began with the video at left.

Climate Change
There is much evidence, such as from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that average temperatures have been dramatically increasing roughly since the Industrial Revolution and appears largely due to human technology-faciliated activities. Greta Thunberg, youth activist, says the problem is so severe, we must act as if "our house is on fire!" This can be tracked at the site of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in terms of its Keeling Curve. Youth have organized a global general strike.

Although there are numerous benefits, many manufactured and natural chemicals used for altering human cognitive and/or health states often have negative side-effects. Some people are concerned about adverse effects of 'mind-altering' drugs, such as marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, ecstasy, etc. An excellent source of information about drugs and alcohol is at: Teen Challenge. Another is: CAMH Mental Health & Addiction Index.

Foods & Beverages
Many manufactured foods and beverages are sources of health problems (e.g., blood-vascular diseases and cancer) for people & societies more generally. Many of these products have high sugar, salt and/or fat content, along with artificial flavours, colours, sweeteners, preservatives and caffeine - often at the expense of healthy (but expensive) nutrient content. Many people also are concerned with possible adverse effects of genetically-modified foods & beverages. See the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

People throughout the world often mediate their social relations through various forms of electronic technologies, including cell phones, personal music players and organizers, video games, television, movies, and the internet. Concerns about these and other technologies are that they may carry with them particular 'messages' (often in the form of instructions for or limitations of use) that may surreptitiously govern people's lives.

Many forms of transportation, while helping to bring people, goods and services together, have negative side-effects. Of particular concern are energy sources that generate potentially hazardous by-products, including 'smog' (refer to video at right) and 'Greenhouse Gases' from petroleum products. Production of long-lasting radioactive breakdown products from nuclear fission reactions also is problematic.

Various forms of recreation, while providing many health benefits, for example, can pose WISE problems. Recreation depending on motorized devices (e.g., boats, personal water craft, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, etc.) produce various forms of pollution and, in some cases, physical injury due to accidents. Some issues pertaining to personal watercraft, for example, include those at: Ban on Jet Skis.

Pop Culture & Entertainment
Forms of popular culture using entertainment (e.g., in television, movies, magazines, etc.) have potentially problematic characteristics. Many often have subliminal messages (e.g.,
Mind Power News) within them to promote further consumption. Associated with such advertizing are techniques of data-mining; e.g., using computer systems to determine consumer purchasing habits and then to adjust advertizing to encourage further consumption. For some ideas relating to this issue, refer to: Data Snatchers; Consuming Kids.

Resource Extraction
Forms of resource extraction (mining, forestry, fishing, etc.), although important for human survival and quality of life, appear to be contributing to significant habitat destruction and species losses. People appear to be consuming too many products and, through timed-obsolescence, discarding & replacing them -  leading to problems of waste accumulation, much of which is toxic. Related to these are many serious social justice problems (see: Blood in the Mobile).

Health & Beauty Aids
Many people use products and services (e.g., plastic surgery, cosmetics, vitamins, perfumes & colognes, etc.) to improve their health and/or physical appearance. Some vitamin supplements, like Vitamin A, can be helpful for people living where there are long periods of low sunlight levels. Use of multivitamins is, however, a controversial practice - with some studies indicating health improvements, while others are critical of them. Similarly, considerable concern has developed about cosmetics that use anti-bacterial and anti-fungal chemical additives - which may lead to forms of cancer.

An undeniable aspect of human life is the need for labour - to sustain life and, in many cases, to improve it. Many struggle, however, with achieving a healthy balance between labour and leisure. Indeed, apparently due to a highly individualized competitive economic environment in many countries, the work-to-leisure ratio has steadily declined in approximately the last one-hundred years (e.g., Leisure?). On the other hand, many people - including children - work under unfair labour practices - like Iqbal.

In the last three decades, there has been a 'revolution' in biotechnology, the engineering of living things. Although many of these products - such as genetically-modified seeds that can grow in new, formally less-suitable, soils - may have various benefits, there can be issues associated with such technologies. That they can be patented, for example, means that their use is limited to those who can afford to pay for them. Issues relating to bio-technologies are discussed at ActionBioscience.

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