We scientists don’t know how to do that

Charlies Brown Football rational thinking age of limits

I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Gus Speth Canadian Club of Rome
Gus Speth

Information and analysis to do with climate and resource issues comes mostly from the scientific community. Scientists are rational, so they tend to go where the data takes them. For a generation or more they have believed that a simple presentation of the facts is all that is needed. When presented with these facts governments, companies, churches and individuals will, it is assumed, take the necessary action.

But that has not happened . Most people continue to live their lives as normal; they have done little or nothing to address climate change issues. Indeed, many people continue to deny the very validity of the scientists’ claims.

Even when they do take action, people and organizations will generally attempt to have their environmental cake and eat it. With few exceptions, people are not willing to voluntarily reduce their standard of living in order to achieve a higher goal. And no politician will run on the platform of, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living”. Such a program is a sure way of becoming an ex-politician. Politicians simply cater to our demands.

Which brings us to the quotation at the top of this post. (It is from the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome.) The problems (actually predicaments) that we face are the consequences of human action. Simply stating that we have a problem achieves nothing unless it leads to a change in behavior — the “cultural and spiritual transformation” described in the quotation.

Achieving such a transformation may seem like a hopeless task. But isn’t it what the church has been trying to achieve for the last two thousand years? (And not just the Christian church — many other faiths have similar goals.) All that has changed is that the goals have changed.

If this is the case then the church needs to be a leader in persuading people to make serious cuts in their standard of living. It is not enough to have environmental committees that promote activities such as recycling, the creation of community gardens, advocating for changes in government policy and installing solar panels on the roof of the church. These are all worthy activities, but they tend to occur in intellectual isolation. We need a theology for our times — a theology that faces up to the harsh dilemmas that confront us.

George Mobus, author of Question Everything blog
George Mobus

The limitations of the rational/scientific approach were further reinforced by a recent post from George Mobus, a retired professor from the University of Washington Tacoma.  He says,

I honestly did not expect to be a witness to the end of civilization when I started blogging those many years ago. Though I thought I could clearly see where the trends (energy, climate, social) were heading and tried to lay out the arguments for why we needed to change our ways, I thought that the really bad outcomes would post-date my life. I grieved for my children, of course. But never really thought I would be witness to the end game itself.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact I think that recent developments in climate science, energy science, and political science make it clear that we have entered the end game already.

. . .

We will not be able to save civilization as we know it by any kind of technological magic. The rate of onset of climate change (notice the weather anomalies of late?) and the catastrophic collapse of fossil fuel energies (fracked wells are falling in production as we speak) not to mention the collapse of fisheries, soil depletions, and the insane left-vs-right political strife all mark the clear signatures of collapse, but this time on a global scale. 

. . .

I’m calling the game over. I just cannot see a solution that has humanity going on in any kind of lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to in the 21st century.

. . .

My advice is head for the hills.

. . .

And, good luck.

Mobus has, for many years, represented the rational, scientific way of thought. In this post he seems to have given up hope that human society, at least in its present form, is going to “make it”. The only hope that he offers is to suggest that humanity may develop sufficient wisdom in coming years to, in effect, start again. And we do this through an understanding of systems science.

Basically I argue that we evolved to pass a threshold of cognitive capacity that makes us humans unique animals. It isn’t intelligence, but the capacity to develop wisdom over a lifetime. Except that the average human being is just above that threshold, so their capacity is yet weak.

What I sincerely hope is that some of the survivors will attempt to preserve knowledge, key knowledge (as in systems science) with which to restart the social process

And what is theology but Christian “systems theory”?

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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