Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Our Science-Based Society: Solution or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

CBC aired a documentary called “Playing God with Planet Earth” where they explore the latest on geoengineering and engage in a very thoughtful debate about the potential opportunities and dangers of pursuing this highly controversial area of science.

I was particularly struck by the following quotation from scientist David Keith:

“These are technologies that give us enormous leverage over the planet where once you know how to put a kind of aerosol in the stratosphere, then an incredibly small amount of money allows you to manipulate the entire planet. It gives you enormous god-like powers”

During the documentary, there is a debate about whether we should use computer models to test the effects of geoengineering or whether we should conduct small-scale experiments to monitor their effects. Isn't this missing a bigger issue? On the one hand, computer models are limited to capturing the variables it is programmed to include. On the other hand, the use of experiments falls victim to a naïve assumption that the effects are merely small-scale versions of global phenomena – something that complexity theory would disagree with.

In both cases, it’s important to ask whether we have grown over-confident in our ability to use the scientific method to resolve global issues. The documentary nicely chronicles a geoengineering strategy off the coast of Senegal where government officials responded to flooding upstream by cutting a drainage canal in a sandbar that protected small villages from the strong ocean currents. Within a matter of months, the canal exploded in size from a few meters wide to several hundred meters. The resulting waves wreaked havoc on small villages ill-prepared for the onslaught. The point CBC was trying to make is that we are ill-equipped to fully understand our very simplistic responses to nature's complexity.

To explore this further, it may be worthwhile to consider the debate on what is meant by “sustainable development”. The “weak” interpretation of sustainable development is guided by a perspective that views humans as superior to nature and thus in a position to exploit the natural environment as part of an economically rationalized agenda. Here, sustainable development is overpowered by the scientific-industrial paradigm whereby development should be determined by science and economics. The very idea that we have control over nature and that the coveted scientific method will come to the rescue falls within our socially constructed worldview, resulting in, what some would argue, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Are we falling victim to what Einstein warned: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

The “strong” interpretation of sustainable development views humans merely as one strand of the web of life with no privileged place in nature. Advocates of this perspective argue for changing the ends of social actions away from economic and scientific ideals to morals and values using participatory, transparent and democratic processes. The Dalai Lama, in a book called The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, argues that the separation of science and spiritually is a false distinction that must come to an end if we are to address some of the more complex phenomena in our society. Some physicists, stumped by the unpredictable and completely irrational nature of particles at the subatomic level, are beginning to turn to spirituality and non-science based thinking for answers.

Could a greater incorporation of non-science and non-rational based thinking play a critical role in highly complex decisions? Applying this question to geoengineering at a simplistic level might suggest that any scientific pursuit must be tempered by considering the behavioral element or, as the documentary calls it, our habitual addiction to activities that cause climate change. In other words, resorting to science as a panacea for these sorts of systemic issues is not only dangerously naïve but goes against the very fabric upon which we exist. It arguably omits a whole spectrum of non-science and non-rational responses that make up our society and the ecological environment in which we reside.

What are the implications for business? You could argue that the business version of the above discussion comes out in the overall purpose of why the business exists. The weak approach pushes for an economic-based business model while the strong approach pushes for a moral-based business model. Will the latter companies be better positioned to deal with complex issues such as climate change, poverty, and human rights? Time will tell.


  1. Happy Holidays, Mike,

    Even though one could write a whole masters’ thesis on this topic, it still invokes more questions than answers!

    Frankly—terms like “solar radiation management” freak me out. Some of these geo-engineers sound more like mad chefs who want to keep cooking and concocting without first bothering to stop and clean up the mess still left in the kitchen. Instead, they keep grasping for novelty, driven by some insatiable appetite and forgetting about the reasons why they started cooking in the first place. “We want to make the clouds brighter?” Seriously?

    When geo-engineers start dreaming up schemes where they have convinced themselves that spraying sulphuric aerosols into the atmosphere is a good method for solving environmental problems and an even better one than finding ways to eliminate the demand for more smoke stacks, the morality of science becomes crucial.

    So, if humans want to intentionally impact nature, shouldn’t there be an apriori consideration requiring scientists to master themselves first? If humans are spiritual beings, then does our desire to understand nature and environment have a place within natural law? If scientists are seriously considering this scheme, it appears that the current milieu encourages whimsical experimentation where the underlying motives may be passion-based without and consideration to reason. A false distinction between logic and emotion already exists in science.

    Yet, in my sustainability classes, I’ve learned that an emerging stream of thought in environmentally-conscious development called “biomimicry” may provide some cogent principles for the development of cradle-to-cradle technologies. If scientists truly want to find ways to heal the environment, couldn’t prerequisites for experimentation support only technologies that seek to mimic nature and co-exist with it rather than dominating it with artificial chemistry?

    Modern business reports on policy measures, economic development initiatives, liability and force majeure clauses that aren’t even necessarily crafted with the triple-bottom line in-mind, one can clearly see the role various actors have in assuming risk and responsibility for development and where they do not. Irrespective of these accountabilities (or lack thereof), there is still no solution for the deaths of those children in that indigenous village because no individual or entity could ever bring them back to their mothers.

    Could there be some divine and eternal remedy for mother’s losses if only it exists in the spiritual realm? Does the contemplation of the possibility of a grander spiritual reality somehow release actors from moral responsibility, if only in their own psyches?

    On the other hand, without systemic scientific exploration, we would not have penicillin, the capacity to refrigerate sustaining resources, engage in comparative advantage or even have the time to reflect upon the moral consequences of our actions. Many lives have been saved because of scientific discoveries and it could be argued that humankind ought to engage in scientific pursuits to increase understanding of nature. If we believe that humans do have a role to play in nature; that the human drive to survive is a constructive one; and that human error must be rectified when it happens, then a systemic methodology for increasing understanding is also necessary in order to accommodate the requirements of spirituality and social development.

    I think the challenge for actors is to develop authentically, environmental-oriented technologies than are not “anthropocentric” (i.e. biomimicry) that replace toxic and harmful systems. While some large-scale natural event could come along and instantaneously put us in our place, what else are we going to do in the meantime but attempt to harmonize with nature? If we are to make responsible and moral decisions about how we interact with nature, then the incorporation of non-science based thinking plays a crucial role in making decisions about complex systems.

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