Science and Technology
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Introduction: The Context
In my view, the next 50 years will be critical for humanity. I believe the climate crisis will dominate everything in ways we can barely imagine. It creates the context. What actually happens depends in part on what we do and how we respond.
If we depend only on politics, or only on science and technology, or only on faith, we will not only miss our opportunity to evolve into something better and truer to our potential, we probably won't survive as a civilization and perhaps as a human species.
We will need imagination and synthesis in our thinking and feeling, clarity and empathy and compassion in our communication, and consciousness and altruism in our actions. All areas of endeavor will be tested in light of these needs. They will all require skills, and acquiring and using those skills will be our most important tasks.
Science and technology will be part of the solution only if we learn these skills. But by the same token, the skills alone won't be enough. We need knowledge, as well as the wisdom to use it well. We need tools and techniques, processes and methods, to enable us to act, as much as we need to know how to act more wisely.
Science can be a path to this knowledge, and technology is nothing more really than tools. Science, broadly speaking, can also help us gain these skills, and acquire enough wisdom to meet the challenges of today and of the next generations.
- The Technologies of Destruction
Throughout the twentieth century, industrial nations created monstrous technologies of destruction. Many of these were deliberately destructive, to be used in war, and most of them were so used. The culmination of these resulted in thermonuclear arsenals, which few think about anymore but which are still very dangerous.
But at points of highest tension, these few nations succeeded in not destroying civilization. The next 50 years will amount to at least as great a challenge as that, but the choices and their consequences will be less clear, and will require more sustained and varied efforts by many more nations.
Science and technology of the next 50 years, as well as international relations and most everything else, will be dominated by the climate crisis, which is beginning as the world nears the end of oil reserves. The future of civilizations will depend on how humanity responds.
The climate crisis is a result of industrial technologies not meant to be destructive, but which were, and will continue to be. Their effects on health as well as climate will be an acknowledged or unacknowledged challenge that will be part of the climate crisis era.
- Two Sets of Challenges
The climate crisis presents two sets of challenges. First will be technologies and other attempts to deal with the effects of the climate crisis, not the causes.
That's because there is nothing we can now do that will change the course of the climate crisis for a long time, probably our lifetimes. The effects we will be feeling in the immediate future were caused and set in motion by what humans did in the past, mostly in burning fossil fuels to such an extent, with greater and greater intensity for the past century. We can't stop what's going to happen. We can only find ways to cope with it.
The second challenge will be technologies and other attempts to slow down, limit or stop the climate crisis for generations unborn, and for the future of the earth as we know it.
It's important that we understand there are two sets of tasks, and it is important that we separate them and make sure we address them both in our lifetimes.
For example, a gradual or even a sudden transfer to clean energies, especially sustainable energy systems, will benefit us in many ways, including our health. But it's unlikely they will do anything to change the course of the climate crisis in our lifetime.
We will probably need to adopt these technologies for other reasons, especially the depletion of oil reserves and the health effects of pollution. But to develop and use clean energy will be a test of our maturity as a thinking and a moral species, because it will principally benefit people and the planet long after we are gone.
- The First Challenges
Can we work together as a global civilization to address the "symptoms," the effects of the climate crisis, when they are felt more acutely in some areas of the world than others?
Or will we seek advantage, ignore need, and pave the way for an era of highly destructive conflicts, with concentration on the technologies of war?
It could happen, if, for example, global heating results in competition over fresh water--conflict that might arise even without the climate crisis.
Here new energy technologies and scientific breakthroughs can be very important, because industrial growth, particularly in the so-called Third World, using today's techniques and technologies will deplete earth's resources in many parts of the world, causing conflict. Add to this the continued greed and resistance to new technologies and needs by the current industrial superpowers, and the situation is even more volatile.
It is because of these oncoming crises in climate and resources, that I personally believe many of the exotic technologies for genetic manipulation, etc., will never come about. Partly because the predicted effects are based on oversimplified science, but mostly because society won't be able to afford them. We'll have our hands full.
- Information and Possible Worlds
The dominant technology story of the past 20 years was computer/information systems. These technologies developed very quickly and prospered in the U.S. because this is now a consumer economy, and this technology led quickly to consumer products and services, including new ways of selling consumer products. At the end of the 90s, the investment speculation bubble burst, and with consumption growth slowing, so did investment. But though development may be slower because fewer resources and bright minds are in it now, it is still a dominant area of technology.
But the major battles of the immediate future involving these technology, in the next 5 to 20 years, will be resisting attempts by governments and corporations to control the flow of information, by controlling the Internet or whatever the Internet evolves into, as well as aspects of the Internet (like blogs and email), and by mandating various controls and monitoring systems in communications technologies, in the guise of "fighting terrorism" or some other more specific enemy, or in efforts to enforce "morality."
Biotechnology will also be a primary area of controversy and conflict, from the future of cloning to the present of corporate control of food by monopoly of bioengineered seeds that, through law and biology, replace natural seeds. It is this area of food that is most likely to be the source of major conflict as the climate crisis changes regional agricultural patterns.
The sources of these problems are in policy, society, politics, culture etc. and they will test humanity's maturity. But in science and technology themselves, there are far more reasons to hope than to despair.
- Science of Hope
Though the technology of destruction gets ever more powerful, with ever more deadly unintended consequences, the technology of hope also improves. Though obscured by propaganda and inattention, many clean energy technologies are already practical, efficient and cost-effective, or soon will be. If resources are devoted to them, and other socially beneficial uses of computer technology, then humanity has a fighting chance.
But as usual, it is not the technology or the science that is the chief problem. It's what society does and doesn't do, which is a much more complex problem than any in rocket science.
Science itself is poised to develop a virtual theory of everything in the next fifty years, bringing together physics and cosmology, "brain science," biology, psychology, ecology, systems theory, etc. as well as less currently reputable areas of conjecture. This will be due not only to advances within sciences, but to increasing cross-fertilization among sciences (and those brave individuals who produce books for the general reader that attempt synthesis), and to increasing acceptance by scientists of data from sources and categories previously scorned as non-scientific, such as the investigations into mind that Tibetan Buddhists have been conducting for centuries and the myths and stories and approach to life of indigenous cultures. Even in the past twenty years, previously out-of-bounds ideas have become accepted, such as relationships of mind and body.
But for science to contribute to such advances, and for science to contribute to addressing the climate crisis and other problems without unneeded pain and without making things worse, scientists must work for the public interest.
The public in turn must ensure that scientists can do their work freely, and can bring it to the public honestly. Citizens must become more vigilant and sophisticated about the growing trend of government and corporate control of science and scientific information. Too much of today's science is carried out only because it might profit some corporation, or benefit some political agenda. Scientific findings are distorted by these parties, with the aid of media reporting that, when it isn't clueless, is often itself dishonest.
Political activity to oppose destructive use of technologies and encourage positive uses and development will be important, but its effectiveness is likely to be limited without major shifts in how individuals and polities view themselves and the world.
Science, together with other modes of thought, can provide necessary insights, which would include (it seems to me) concepts from Jungian psychology, Gregory Bateson and systems theory, and Buckminster Fuller's anticipatory design science, as well the insights of centuries of indigenous knowledge and a broader, deeper and more thorough ecological ethic.
--Bill Kowinski Science Officer