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Rediscovering the Earth (and a Sustainable Future)
Alex Steffen, 17 May 04

Stuart Pimm, in his book (called, with no surplus of modesty, The World According To Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth), proposed an "audit" of the capacity of the world's biological systems, with the aim in mind of finding out just how unsustainable our civilization is. What he found is that humans were consuming 42% of the planet's biomass each year (as of 2,000 C.E.), 50% of the fresh water, and a third of ocean's productivity. This, he noted, could probably not continue.

Since then, debate over our reliance and impact on nature's services (or "ecosystem services") -- all the things natural systems do for us -- has only intensified, with a number of people attempting to forecast and anticipate the future results of our destruction of those systems.

The mother of all these efforts, though, is the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year, $17 million project to compile what is known about the state of our planet's systems. (You can download their 245-page first report Ecosystems and Human Wellbeing, if you're the kind of person who gets into that sort of thing.)

Combine this with the emergence of planetary science, our ever-increasing ability to know nature through technology and efforts in collaborative biology, and we may find ourselves nearing the point where we finally understand the world we live on. And knowing the planet better is one of the neccessary components of planning a sustainable future.

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While activists should certainly feel free to utilize data such as ecoservices figures to make rhetorical appeals to people's common sense that trouble's got a capital T in this case, I just strongly disagree with the hopeful appeal for scientific understanding of the planet that keeps getting promoted here. Without making the equally unsatisfactory counter-ideological move (typical of other SF quarters) that cites the pathology of the Cartesian-Newtownian paradigm, it is also clear that modern science and its mindset has been co-constitutive of ecological collapse. The notion that we must now use technology and science to save us from the very perils in which they have helped to deliver us is part of a progressive ecological modernism that has been correctly analyzed by someone like Rudolf Bahro as complicit with a predatory capitalist economic system, as well as global imperialism. During a period of historical conditions such as ours, when transnational capitalism and global imperialism represent some of the greatest catalysts to peace we know, we simply must make a more rigorous critique of modern science as an establishment tool.

Thus, the central importance of the "sciences" is something that many of us are seeking to overthrow as an outdated social project. Let me suggest that what we need, rather, to work towards is what Herbert Marcuse thought of as a "new science" that involves a relationship to existence that is produced by entirely new sensibilities. The sensibility of a great many of today's scientific institutions, I'm afraid, just won't stand up to what is required. Marcuse wanted to re-humanize the sciences. That project still stands, but is ultimately liberal. A more radical project yet would be to post-humanize the sciences...either way, the technical control and management of the earth is not necessary or ultimately helpful. But, as I said, as long as it goes on, the least we can do is utilize the information and attempt to turn it towards other purposes.

Posted by: Richard Kahn on 17 May 04

Richard -

I guess we disagree. I've read a fair bit of the criticism of Cartesian thought and the Enlightenment project, and I find it, personally, utterly unhelpful.

We've bought the ticket: we have 6+ billion people on the planet, all with very human desires to live in prosperity. Any scenario which involves a dramatic collapse of that population is among the worst-case scenarios not just in terms of humanitarian tragedy but also in terms of ecological destruction.

So we somehow need to figure out a way for at least six, and probably nine or ten, billion people to share this planet without completely shredding its ecological systems.

I don't think there's any way to do that without a greater reliance on science and technology. Should we be clear about the embedded politics of particular technologies? Absolutely. Should we incorporate the precautionary principle? Certainly. Should we open and democratize the process of technological development? Undoubtedly.

"Re-humanizing the sciences" sounds all to the good, though I have to admit I don't really know what you (or Marcuse) mean by that.

But ultimately, I think the baseline is that we *are* managing the planet -- we're changing its climate and chemical composition, the composition and extent of its species and ecosystems, etc. etc. etc. -- we're just not managing it very well.

To do a better job, we need objective tools (that we can all agree represent the reality of the planet's biological systems) to steer by.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 May 04

I'm not familiar with the works of Herbert Marcuse, or what the most useful definition of, or effort toward, "rehumanizing the sciences" is, but I would say that powerful technocrats who identify themselves as ecologists (most powerful technocrats probably do identify themselves as ecologists) still don't understand or express their place in the world in terms of obligations, places, stories, and memory.

More likely they would be more sensitive to scientific methods, corporate boards, bottom lines, and whatever immediately gratifying deliverables are the result of a four-year, $17 million project.

I'd also be interested in who Mr. Steffen thinks the "we" is when he says "we *are* managing the planet." Who gets to lay their hands on the objective tools, and on whose say so?

Do I believe whatever gets counted counts? Certainly. Do I believe scientific study will help? Of course. But will greater, bigger, faster command and control systems rid us of our problems? Not necessarily.

Posted by: Mark Stroup on 17 May 04

One of the things that strikes me about this discussion is the lack of consensus about what questions to ask. Richard says he doesn't know what questions to ask, but whatever they are, they should be 'rehumanized.' Alex says the question is about how we can use what we have to make better decisions in order to make a better future. Mark says the question is: 'Who's paying the bills and what are they actually buying?'

I think that big wads of information like the two projects mentioned will allow more room for better questions, since they'll give us a better indication of where we actually stand. So I guess I agree with Alex the most, with the reservations about responsibility and accountability presented by Richard and Mark.

That's the cool thing about science: It transcends politics, if used properly. The uncool thing is that everyone thinks they understand what the scientists are telling them, even when they don't.

Posted by: Paul on 17 May 04



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