Monday, June 20, 2005

The Verdict of Science

It's no surprise that human beings want all the benefits of science without accepting its verdict. The benefits come from understanding how to manipulate biological, chemical and physical processes to create a consumer paradise that is increasingly going global. The verdict comes from understanding how that manipulation is leading to oil depletion, global warming, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and a host of other effects that could eventually lead to the end of industrial civilization as we know it.

We think of science as objective, nonpartisan, and neutral. Yet, both those who believe in endless technical fixes and those who forecast ecological collapse cite science. How can this be? In fact, science has an ideology. Sir Francis Bacon noted that "knowledge is power." In effect, that means science has been the handmaiden of what the ecologist calls "takeover" and "drawdown." Takeover is merely the ecologist's name for the taking of resources by one species away from another. Farming is a good example. Takeover increases carrying capacity* for one species while lowering it for another (or possibly many others). Drawdown refers to the extraction of a resource faster than it is being replaced. The quintessential examples of drawdown by humans are fossil fuels and metals. But many more resources are now being added to the list including water and soil.

Because observation and inquiry form the basis of science, it was inevitable that the same science used to conquer the environment would discover its destruction. These discoveries are byproducts, and fortunate ones. They give us a chance to change course.

In a classic book on human population and resource use, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, human ecologist William Catton asks whether we humans are the same as all other animals. Are we destined for the terrible collapse that has always been the fate of other species that overshoot the underlying carrying capacity of their environment, or are we different enough to plan ahead and manage a population decline? His book and the question it asks are as relevant now as they were in 1980 when the book first appeared. Will we at long last accept the verdict of science?


*The maximum population of a given species which a particular habitat can support indefinitely (under specified technology and organization, in the case of human species.) [Definition taken from Overshoot by William Catton.]

[Excerpts of Overshoot are available on the web and include the following chapters: The Tragic Story of Human Success, Dependence on Phantom Carrying Capacity, and Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse.]

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odograph said...

As someone educted in the sciences, it is a pretty big turn-off to be painted with a broad brush ("science has an ideology").

No, scientists may have ideologies, and some may be downright pragmatic.

Cameron said...

Ideology is a requirement for sustained adherance to a set of values and an agreed-upon approach to knowledge. The commitment to being pragmatic is itself an ideology. And the commitment to the value of peer review and replicability of results reflects an ideology about the nature of valid information. I agree that the statement "Science has an ideology" by itself, with no further explanation or contexting, is a broad brush --that paints over more than it reveals.

Liz Logan said...

Thanks for the links to the book. They are helping me to expand my understanding as I am learning about peak oil, etc. (Not to mention giving me something to blog about.)

odograph said...

It's been a while since I wandered through this thread. On "being pragmatic is itself an ideology" ... you might be amused that it is, rather than a point-position of ideology, pragmatism is often also considered (like right/left) a continuum:

"This axis is much less important than the first. It represents a combination of philosophies you could call 'pragmatism', 'utilitarianism' and so forth, mixing social, religious and economic issues."