Who needs toothpaste anyway?

Science for the Earth
August 11, 1995

I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth," writes James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, in Science for the Earth: Can Science Make the World a Better Place? He is one of a number of scientists, political activists, economists, educationists, anthropologists and historians who discuss their vision of how science must change, not just its image, but at a fundamental institutional level. Lovelock's own view is there should be far more generalist scientists practising "planetary medicine": "Who would run a health service with no GPs, onlyspecialists?" he asks.

Through a "holistic", interdisciplinary approach, the authors build a framework of cross-cutting themes. Geneticist and television journalist David Suzuki looks at the "perceptual filters" through which we view the world. He examines seven of these key "sacred truths" and then goes about demolishing them one by one. Because we believe that "growth is the criterion of progress", says Suzuki, balance looks to us like death and stagnation. With this attitude, we can never achieve sustainability in our exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation is inevitable.

John Whitelegg examines one such sacred truth in his intriguingly titled "The Pollution of Time". Whitelegg looks at that most insidious of truths: we must "save time". Through this change in perspective, he forces us to look afresh at old assumptions. Though we believe that cars save time, we cannot deny that "a road traffic fatality deprives someone of all their time forever". The time that we do save, says Whitelegg, just gets "mopped up", as facilities move further away in response to the "car culture". By travelling greater distances, we use up more resources and money, and cause more pollution. Governments are no less immune to such "time fetishism", which is used to justify huge investment in high-speed trains, as integrated urban transport schemes are cut. In the crude logic of cost-benefit analysis, this "saved time" helps push through all manner of environmentally disastrous projects.

Tony Cooper and Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute are even more fiercely critical of cost-benefit analysis, carried out by economists on a global scale for the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They argue that through such techniques universal human rights get surreptitiously edited out. Globally, climate change will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, but they set a "cash value" of a life in the United States at ten times that of a life in China. Cooper and Meyer consider this to be no less than a violation of the fundamental right to existence.

While Cooper and Meyer look at ways of effectively managing the "global commons" ("common property" of everyone on Earth) such as the atmosphere and the climate, George Monbiot, a green investigative journalist, learns how indigenous communities traditionally manage their local commons. He laments the way in which these traditional methods have been replaced by modern unsustainable management and the privatisation of common land, which have driven many communities to destruction. Adrian Arbib illustrates this tragedy with a moving photographic essay of the Turkana people of East Africa.

Indian journalist and political activist Claude Alvares pursues this theme when he describes the role that modern science has played in development. He likens modern science to toothpaste - a western import that they didn't need before and could do without tomorrow. Modern science goes hand-in-hand with colonialism and development, says Alvares, as part of the rhetoric which says that undeveloped means inferior and backward. Crucially, modern science has taken away the right to certify knowledge: "Knowledge is power, but power is also knowledge. Power decides what is knowledge and what is not knowledge," says Alvares.

While Alvares throws modern science into perspective in a cultural and geographical context, Harmke Kamminga does the same in a historical context. With extraordinary clarity she unravels our central assumptions about science by locating their origins in time. Since science became intertwined with technology in the 19th century, it has become an important tool for those of all political persuasions. At the moment it supports a particular set of power relations and, says Kamminga, scientists should not be complacent concerning their role in those relations. She finds the way that scientists devolve responsibility about the morality and politics of their work to others "pernicious". Expertise is defined and maintained by power structures, so: "A greater political involvement of scientists is required - not as experts to be consulted, but as critics of the established order. . . Rejecting the label of 'scientific expert' would be one first step towards the making of a science for the people." This brings us back to Lovelock, who makes clear that "science for the Earth" really means "science for the people". We should not speak of "fragile Earth", since it will always bounce back, though we might not.

These are just some of the many important ideas that this short book manages to condense. It is essential reading for all "thinking people" - there's a lot to think about.

Ayala Ochert is studying for an MSc in science communication, Imperial College, London.

Science for the Earth: Can Science Make the World a Better Place?

Editor - Tom Wakeford & Martin Walters (forward by Stephen Hawking)
ISBN - 0 471 95283 4 and 95284 2
Publisher - J. M. Dent
Price - £19.95 and £6.99
Pages - 370

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