Science and the Purpose of Government
A Crumbling Biosphere II
The purpose of government is rarely debated yet it is before us daily in legislatures, committees, boards of selectmen, our courts and in all the news. And purpose changes profoundly with time, with the growth of the human population, with technology and with experience and aspirations. There is no doubt: the purposes of government are manifold and complex and ever mutable. And they are tested ever more intensively as the biosphere comes under greater pressures. For the moment, however, for simplicity I focus on civil rights, the protection of each from the activities of all, and all from the activities of each. The golden rule in some form has been the core of governmental purpose for all of time in every civilization worthy of respect. It has many formulations. Much of the world recognizes it as the principle of Sic Utere (Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas)“Carry yourself in such a way as not to interfere with others”
That charge has stood the tests of time and continues to emerge as the core of civil rights whose protection we steadfastly assign to governments the world over.
Yet the world of the 21st Century is a new world, crowded beyond precedent with 7 billion humans whose numbers continue to expand. It is changing drastically as humans disrupt climates globally and change the chemistry of air, water and land, and invent ever new ways of interacting and communicating with one another. The mechanical demands of life in this new crowded world are ever more stringent, esoteric, difficult to interpret, let alone to see through to a just conclusion protecting the interests of all.
That point became abundantly clear in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s as the world recognized for the first time that humans had made an indelible mark on the earth with radioactivity and a global contamination with agricultural poisons and industrial chemical wastes. The US government responded wisely with famous legislation that became a model for the world. We established the Environmental Protection Agency and a series of laws designed to protect air and water and land and people from industrial and other poisons. Recognizing the technical difficulties, the Congress also established within itself and for its own support in legislating, a special Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. The office accumulated a superb staff of specialists who functioned in helping the Congress develop insights and laws in a more and more complex world, quite beyond the ken of most citizens and lawmakers. It was a brilliant move and a very valuable agency until short sighted, conservative interests in the Congress in 1995 managed to snuff it out in favor of allowing industrial interests greater license to intrude on human welfare for profit.
Meanwhile, the issues become more intensely threatening, more complicated, more subtle. Large corporations have money enough to control government at the cost of the public welfare. Corporations can effectively claim and use the entire global atmosphere for their wastes and extract a subsidy from the global public in the form of a disastrously eroding climatic system. The exploitive interests thrive on public and governmental ignorance. And government, too, becomes an offender as various agencies pursue their missions with narrow purpose. The Navy, for instance, enters the oceans with very high energy, low frequency sound used to detect submarines, and kills marine mammals over large areas. . There are many other effects of that intrusion , difficult to determine, but real enough. The counter-pressures in the public interest come from non-profit, non-governmental agencies such as the conservation law groups, some, such as the NRDC and the EDF, brilliantly staffed with scientists and lawyers who struggle with the politically possible moment by moment. They cannot change the context, only modify the direction at the moment. Changing the context requires much more fundamental insight, scientific power, and persistence in advancing basic ecological facts..
I use these as examples of the complexity and range of interests in environment that emerge as the human occupancy of the earth intensifies. There is no easy flow of information on how the world works supporting legislators, who, no matter their academic experience, are bound to be behind the frontiers of demand for information. Their sources are limited. By far the bulk of the scientific community resides in universities whose purpose, not surprisingly, is to offer students as wide and interesting a menu in education as possible. It is not focused specifically on issues before the government, although universities can do anything they wish. But the point is that the university has an educational mission, not a public service mission in government, whatever the needs of government at any time.
There is a new and urgent need for science in the public service, specifically aimed at protecting the public welfare. Although buried in confusion and complexity, respect for the golden rule persists and requires well focused attention in the context of biophysics. That realm is the scientific world of environmental research, ecology, and it sets the requirements for governmental effectiveness. . It is, or should be, the realm of the national laboratories with specialized missions such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the one-time Nuclear Energy Laboratories of the Department of Energy, the NOAA laboratories and the EPA research programs.
It is also an array of non-profit laboratories and agencies that address specific environmental topics from energy and basic ecology to the global oceans. Laboratories in Woods Hole fit that class, especially The Woods Hole Research Center, The Ecosystems Center, and The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, for examples. The Carnegie Institution of Washington has long served that function, although its recent programs have been more limited than in the earlier years when they made major advances over decades in basic ecology, agriculture and land management. The Rocky Mountain Institute serves those purposes in energy magnificently. These scientific enterprises define purpose, methods and success in government. Economics and politics are tools, not objectives per se.
Once again there is a screaming need for insights into the issues of ecology now emergent as issues of global human welfare. The most important is the restoration of the integrity of function of the biosphere as a whole. That array of topics requires the development of experts cultured deliberately over time. It may take private financing for they will be challenging corporate interests at every turn, forcing the government to do its core job in protecting the public interest over corporate interests. This argument is not for the fusion of such interests into the university structure. Quite the opposite. It is for the proliferation and encouragement of such independent laboratories operating with the express purpose of providing scientific insights into global biophysics. It is a tragedy that we do not have arguments raging at this moment and searing the skin of political leaders who are reluctant to take the steps needed immediately to reverse the climatic disruption. The scientific community should be up in arms and offering the steps to effectiveness. Instead they are wilting into a suicidal policy of Adaptation. The industry could not ask for more!
The human future now entrained assures the melting of all the ice in the world and a sea level rise of 225 feet. No one knows for sure the time schedule. The melting is proceeding far more rapidly than anticipated as are other transitions. Problems exist now and will only be intensified in years to decades. There are not many who would set that transition as an acceptable objective for the common purposes of mankind, already challenged by seven billion people. Avoiding it requires action now, concerted action in reversing current global trends. Science has defined the problem and must be engaged in developing a plan for a New World that can assure support for a vigorous human presence into the foreseeable future. Defining that world and how to build it is an urgent mission. It will not flow easily from the free-enterprise science of the university system. Nor will it flow from conservation interests focused on “biodiversity” in all of its myriad meanings and forms commonly preserved in parks and refuges. It must become a core purpose of government, assigned as a responsibility to each nation to preserve the functional integrity of its land and water in the interest of preserving a biosphere as the habitat of all life. Success is not simply defined for the chemistry required is in fact detailed and demanding. Many industrial processes rely on dumping wastes that are inconsistent with these interests and must be abolished or changed fundamentally.
Science has s big role in defining purposes, methods and tools of government in meeting its obligations in protecting the public welfare, now and into the future. That role is not the business of universities, although they can and do claim it on occasion. And it does not necessarily flow automatically from government or governmental agencies which become from time to time political tools and must be redirected. There is now a new, soaring need not only for non-governmental environmental action agencies pursuing conservation law (NRDC, EDF, CLF) but adjunct agencies defining the essential qualities of the biosphere and how to restore and protect them. Those are biophysical essentials, some esoteric such as pheromones and some as common as bees and pollination.
Scientists have a large new job to pursue on an emergency basis. Our institutional job is leading that transition. Well defined it will be well supported with private as well as public funds.
George M. Woodwell
August 8, 2013