Sunday, March 18, 2007

An uneasy alliance

Those concerned with climate change are quick to cite the impressive body of scientific knowledge already amassed by the world's researchers which leaves little doubt that global warming is real, that its main driver is human activity, and that its consequences will be profound.

Other scientific research continues to point to converging ecological catastrophes in the coming decades including soil degradation and erosion; water, mineral, energy, and fisheries depletion; and increasing pollution of all types, chemical, radiological and genetic.

But there is a flip side to this seemingly eco-friendly onslaught of scientific findings; it is the nature of science itself. We like to imagine that science is a method for the unbiased pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. In fact, the science we practice has a particular aim summarized most economically by philosopher Francis Bacon as follows: "Knowledge is power."

To be fair to Bacon the empirical approach which he advocated has become the bedrock of modern science. And, it is this approach which has allowed scientists to understand what human civilization is doing to the biosphere. But the bulk of scientific research remains focused on manipulating and dominating the natural world rather than finding ways to live sustainably in it.

This focus accounts for such schemes as giant mirrors in space to alleviate global warming, so-called vertical farming to enhance the local production of food, roving self-powered fish ranches to address overfishing, and even Martian terraforming to give us a new planet after we've wrecked this one.

In each area of the biosphere where human activity threatens to undermine the basic needs of civilization, there are technological schemes put forward which are alleged to allow us to go about our lives pretty much as usual. Ethanol and hydrogen are touted as liquid fuel replacements for petroleum. There are schemes for growing perennial crops to lessen the burden on arable land and then converting their cellulose into syrups to be used as a basis for synthetic foods. There are, of course, numerous schemes for sequestering carbon, especially from coal burning. Unfortunately, none of the above schemes are designed to account for how little we still know about natural systems and their interactions.

All of this illustrates why those who advocate for drastic changes in behavior by citing the available and compelling scientific evidence frequently meet a wall of resistance. Other science can be used to explain how we will get out of this mess we've made with little or no sacrifice. Even many people who style themselves as serious environmentalists imagine a bright green future of sustainable technological marvels. Of course, we will need to make changes, they say, but we won't be deprived of any of the comforts and conveniences we now enjoy.

There are, of course, many scientists who are toiling to create a new kind of science, one aimed at learning how to live within the limits of the natural world and based on humility rather than hubris. But this new approach to science is in its infancy and finds only modest support among government agencies and foundations. This new science, however, is paving the way for a closer relationship between sustainability and scientific endeavor. In doing so, it is helping us move beyond an uneasy alliance which continues to prove troublesome to those committed to a sustainable world.

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