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.