Can science save the world?

Outlining possible solutions to the crisis, he suggests there is little we can do about escalating population and the global economy. He pins his faith in greater energy efficiency and a growing dependence on renewables such as wind farms and solar power.

This comes from Michael Billington’s review of 2071, a theatrical ‘documentary’ on climate change, featuring Chris Rapley, a man with a distinguished career in science. Billington describes the production as ‘better than good…necessary’.

Chris Rapley

(image from Guardian article linked above)

The quoted statement made me think. It seems to be an example of how the scientific community contributes to our political and social failure to take the problem on. It encourages us and our political leaders to believe that science and technology can get us out of this, without changing our economic systems and cultural assumptions. The global economy can go on its merry way, pursuing endless growth, and population can continue to expand, because the scientists will save us.

Some scientists may be happy to take on this messianic role, but it might be better if they, along with the rest of us, acknowledged its hubris. Billington’s phrase ‘pins his faith‘ is telling. It is faith, not science, that supports the idea that science can protect us from catastrophic climate change, and it is a faith that seems to be driven more by the thought that it’s the only option; we can’t change economic and social forces, even though we know they are hugely significant, so we have to solve the problem technologically. A scientist, who naturally looks to science for solutions, sees that population control or global economic trends are not within the remit of science. So the scientist focuses on the aspects of the problem that he or she can address, and hopes that that will be enough.

The other elements of the problem, population, economic growth, consumerism, involve changes in the behaviour of masses of people. This is why it seems so intractable and why people often resist calls for more sustainable practices on the grounds that one individual’s actions can have no effect, or even one country’s. ‘What’s the point,’ they say, ‘when China is building all those coal-fired power stations?’* Human behaviour on this scale falls under the scope of the humanities, sociology, history, etc. The only branch of the humanities that we tend to look to for solutions to anything is economics, but in this case it seems that economics is part of the problem.

The things that do influence behaviour on such a large scale are religions and ideologies, which are even more remote from current individualistic and scientific outlooks. But perhaps this is where we should be looking. I do not mean to say that some traditional religion or god can save us, any more than science can. Rather, the kind of change in world-view and values that we need is akin to a religious movement, an ethos, both in content – a vision of how we ought to live – and in that it needs to provide a basis for a new social, cultural form of life, for individuals and communities in a global ecosystem.

This train of thought may have got carried away to a rather sweeping, utopian place. Another, smaller inference might be that (in spite of what I said in the previous paragraph) existing religions could have a role to play, by offering alternatives to prevailing economic orthodoxies and by reaching large sections of the population. But that would require global religions to seek common ground among themselves and with science, rather than enabling conflict – to act as unifying forces, not as divisive ones. History is not terribly encouraging on that point.

So let’s be wildly utopian and imagine a Green Reformation, where scientific solutions combine with social change, rather than being an excuse for social, political, and economic inertia.

*Shortly after I wrote this, the USA and China announced their agreement on deadlines for cutting carbon emissions – so that’s a step in the right direction and dare we hope a sign that change is coming? At least it makes it harder to give the ‘what about China?’ excuse for apathy.


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