3. Science, technology and society
We now turn to the roles of science and technology in achieving a just, sustainable future. The actual practice of science cannot be isolated from the societies in which scientists conduct their research, especially not from the priorities of those societies. This is notably true in a world that is today dominated globally by multinational corporations whose primary aim is the accumulation of capital, an aim which competition makes necessary.
Even if the ethical standpoint of public science is consonant with the aims of a just, sustainable society and the conservation of nature, as the author believes to be the case, not all science is conducted in the public sphere. Nor are those who work in this sphere uninfluenced by the priority given by the private sphere to profitability over the well being of people and nature.
Even less can we assume that science is applied to the development and use of technology in a manner that is consistent with the aims of a just, sustainable society and the conservation of nature. Therefore, an ethical filter is needed to judge the practice and application of science, at least so long as capitalism exists and its practices influence human judgement and action. In particular, it is argued here, such a filter will be needed to effect a transition to a just, sustainable society.
The cornerstone of the world view argued for in this essay is perhaps so obvious now to the reader as to go without saying. But to avoid any misunderstanding and to highlight our aims, the following is advanced as a thesis on the intended relationship between science & technology, on the one hand, and society, on the other:
Thesis 1. The ethical filter to be applied to investment in science and in its application through technology to society is that it serve the aims of a just, sustainable society and the conservation of nature.
Our understanding of the nature of science and its relationship to technology rests on the contemporary view of science as elaborated, for example, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in its proposal for school curriculum (AAAS, Science for All Americans, 1989). As elaborated there and used here, science refers to knowledge of nature and knowledge of society. It includes both the results of scientific investigation and the intellectual methods used to obtain that knowledge, including rules for what counts as science. The social policy advocated in this argument includes education for scientifically informed, democratic decision making. Science, education and democracy, filtered by ethics, are arguably essential to any hope we might have of addressing successfully the challenges we now face, primarily the environmental ones, where scientific knowledge and democratic action are the key elements.
To science, education and democracy, we need to add technology, but in its broader meaning (as elaborated in C. McFadden, Editor, World Trends in Science Education, 1980 and in subsequent publications of the Unesco affiliated International Organization for Science and Technology Education - www.ioste.org). Sometimes mistakenly understood to include only the physical tools we use for changing our environment, technology should also be understood to include the intellectual tools, including systems and methods. Understood in this broader sense, technology includes, for example, not only carpenters’ tools, but methods of construction management, not only computers, but teaching methods that utilize computers.
Technology responds to such questions as how to build a better mousetrap or how to more effectively and efficiently educate our children. Science and technology, of course, are related, but they are not the same. To build a better mouse trap, scientific knowledge of mouse behaviour can be utilized. To develop more effective teaching methods, scientific knowledge of human learning can be applied.
Technology can precede as well as follow science (which the reader can trace in detail in J.D. Bernal’s, Science in History, 4 vols., 1954). The science of thermodynamics (heat as a form of energy), for example, largely followed the invention of methods of using heat for doing work (such as the steam engine). On the other hand, most modern technology, including electronic devices and educational methods, are the result of direct application of advances in scientific knowledge (including in the case of electronic devices, the application of electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics, and in the case of education, the application of educational psychology).
For the purposes of this argument for a just, sustainable society, one of the relationships between science, technology and society can be expressed as follows:
Thesis 2: Continuing development of technology is a necessary adaptation to the conditions, especially problems, created by past technological development. Science is today the principal source of that development.
Social, economic, political, educational, managerial, governmental and all other institutions, systems and methods created by humans are part of our technology. As such, they have a continuous history of development and can be developed further. Problems created by the use of past technology give rise to a need for new technology, which might include, for example, changes in the way we organize energy distribution as well as the invention of improved tools for capturing it.
The reader is invited to reflect on the historical changes associated with the development of fossil fuel technology. If the use of fossil fuels is now problematic, as each climate induced environmental crisis reminds us is the case, how should we respond? What energy sources and kinds of physical tools do we need to avert the problems created by the use of fossil fuels? What changes are needed in our economic, governmental and other social systems and practices? While these questions are now being given vigorous attention, it is especially this last question that may be in greatest need of attention and resolution.
It should be underscored that capitalism and communism, the two political-economic systems that were the object of so much political strife during the twentieth century, are also technologies. Created by human beings, institutionalized and constrained by laws also made by human beings, one or the other or both of these systems can be reshaped or replaced by human beings. A just, environmentally sustainable society and the conservation of nature, not loyalty to any particular political-economic system, need to be the aims of green social democratic policy.
Historical knowledge offers us a warning about the consequences of inaction or inappropriate action, however. The clues left by lapsed civilizations tell us that resource exhaustion and class strife played decisive roles in their demise. The ability to migrate to less exploited territories, the development of new physical tools and the building of new social systems played roles in permitting new civilizations to arise, more resources to be harnessed and the global human population to grow. (See for example: Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress, 2004).
Thanks in large measure to the world-wide peace movements, humankind has so far been able to avert nuclear war and other threats of mass destruction. But how long will we be able to do so? With a so-called war on terror being led by those who have more interest in war than peace, a powerful peace movement is as needed today as ever.
Will we also be able to meet the challenge of human impact on the environment, for example by averting catastrophic climate change and mass species extinction or at least mitigating and adapting to the level of change we cannot prevent? For this we will need to rely on the development of science and technology, their mastery through education and their application through informed decision making to address the many related environmental challenges. However, for we the people to be in a position to put science, technology and education fully to work to preserve the environment for future generations, nothing short of a political revolution will do, including closing the revolving doors between government and the fossil fuel industry.
Can the peace and environmental movements succeed, however, if the majority of working people are persuaded by the ruling neoliberal capitalist elites that such successes would only come at their expense, that war and environmental destruction are the cost of decently paid jobs? Our contention is:
Thesis 3. The unity of the labour, peace, environmental and social justice movements is a necessary condition for any of these movements to achieve their goals. For that, each must make a more just distribution of income and wealth part of their agenda, sufficient to ensure that all have basic material security as well as the security of a peaceful, just, environmentally healthy future.
The reality, however, is that wealth inequality has grown over the most recent decades, and with it the power of the wealthiest among us. If there are insufficient barriers to the exercise of this concentrated power over government and economic management, the result can be a civilization-destroying spiral downwards, one that could make the fall of the Soviet bureaucracy almost inconsequential by comparison.
The super-rich and their representatives, like the rest of us, face a future of declining per-capita natural resources. One option for the wealthy minority is to continually capture a larger share for their own protection. There is a mountain of historical precedence for such short-sightedness, but none more persuasive than the recognition that all boats come aground, no matter how large, when the water evaporates. In any case, hoarding vast amounts of wealth is not an option for the majority. Evidence of the risk from concentrated political power in minority hands is the fiscal deficit of the United States and other countries, where the wealthiest have achieved dramatically reduced taxation rates since the end of the Cold War, making it difficult for centralized and local governments to meet their social obligations.
Clearly, the way society is organized and functions matters. A just, peaceful, sustainable future will require nothing less than a transformation of our political and socio-economic systems.
This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic policy. Please check out the new 2013 version of the essays that comprise our core document, TOWARDS A GREEN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY: A 21st Century Manifesto for a Just, Sustainable Future listed on our home page, beginning with the Introduction Also check out Tax the Rich, End Poverty, Save the Planet! Policies for a just, sustainable future which argues for political movements with an alternative program to neoliberal capitalism. All current and archived features can be found from the tabs in the header. If you are a returning visitor, see What’s New.
A green social democratic world view (substantially revised from prior version)
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