Anyone who has read my posts on Trust (Apr.08) and Human Nature (Nov.07) will know that I already extol the merits of democracy. In fact, I think it is the best form of governance yet devised by humankind, but, then, I’m one of the few lucky ones who really does reap the benefits from this political system. I live in a country where changes of government and leadership occur without violence, bloodshed or even the need for large exchanges of money. Yes, deals are done, but, as proven by our most recent election, it is the populace who makes the final decision, and in an emphatic manner. To quote Confucius, ‘to rule truly means to serve’, and, in a genuine democracy, if the government doesn’t serve its people then it gets sacked. And, paradoxically, that is part of the problem that I allude to in the title of this post.
Many commentators lament the fact, especially in the current age of climate change, oil shock and looming famine, that, because of our election processes, governments are ham-strung when it comes to implementing long term agendas. But I believe this problem can be analysed in a more precise fashion. Let’s start with oil. I can remember reading in a small unobtrusive column in Scientific American in the late 1990s, of a highly respected expert in oil exploration (no, I don’t remember his name, only that his credentials were solid and his message was dire) forewarning that oil production would become a serious issue before 2010. So we’ve had ample time to pursue other sources of energy as well as more efficient means to use and distribute what we had.
Ironically, when I was working in
An English TV car show, Top Gear, a couple of years ago, revealed that the biggest selling car in the entire world was in fact a Ford pickup truck. The show’s host, Jeremy Clarkson, pointed out that there were more examples of this specific vehicle on the road than people living in
Also, while I was in
As I related in a previous post, Living in the 21st Century (Sep. 07), I was one of a rare few who heard the scientific adviser to the English government (again, I don’t remember his name) give a lecture, at Oxford University in 2000, on the coming ‘pinch’ we will all experience in food, water, and energy as the result of global population pressure. I still wonder today, as I did then, why he was delivering this message to a small audience of academics rather than the politicians who apparently appointed him. The obvious, and cynical, answer is that the message was the wrong one because it would not win votes or elections.
Earlier this week I saw an interview with David Attenborough by Andrew Denton (on Australian ABC TV) whom
What have all these issues got in common? They all involve scientists advising governments, and the population in general, well in advance, that action needs to be taken on a global scale or we will all suffer economically, environmentally and health-wise. So why are they ignored? They are ignored at the time of their revelation because, they are not only future forecasts, and therefore debatable, but they require action and commitment on a large scale, and, more significantly, they won’t be supported by the very people who elect governments into power. And this leads to the problem with democracy: action is only taken when the people who elect governments are directly affected by the consequences of global issues. All scientific advisers will tell you, that, by the time that happens, it is simply too late.
In last week’s New Scientist (14 June 2008) there is a well-researched and well-articulated article written by Debora Mackenzie, entitled What Price More Food? She gives it the sub-heading: ‘It’s the crisis the world should have seen coming’; just like oil production shortages; just like climate change; and just like water crises, both future and present.
Economic growth is the universal paradigm that all governments and politicians swear by. It is the only criterion by which to judge the ‘health’ of a nation. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in Living in the 21st Century, it is currently linked to population growth. Tell any economic rationalist that zero population growth should be the goal and they will have a seizure. I’m merely stating the obvious, but the obvious is easy to ignore when its consequences, and therefore its resolution, can be postponed.
None of this is helped when we have a global religious institution determined to maintain its anachronistic standards on issues like birth control and contraception. Recently the Vatican attempted to portray itself as a 21st Century institution by announcing some new ‘mortal sins’ that include possible research into gene therapy – in other words, the demonisation of science. Personally, I find the Vatican’s stance on birth control and the use of condoms, in particular, morally irresponsible at best, and reprehensible at worst. As I’ve said elsewhere, ignorance is the greatest enemy facing the 21st Century, and unfortunately the
Am I a pessimist or an optimist? Well, I’m a pessimist if we maintain the status quo, but I’m an optimist if we adopt a more politically amenable approach to science. We have both the intellectual ability and the technological resources to change a great deal. Global communication is a key instrument, I believe, in educating people at grass roots level and engaging in public debate, as I’m attempting to do now.
Politicians on the ‘right’ see science as subordinate to economic imperatives. There is still a strong belief that ‘market forces’ will overcome all our global ills, including climate change, food shortages and everything else. They may even be right, but it’s an imbalanced approach when it’s obvious that the global-majority-poor suffer the brunt of these ‘forces’ and the global-minority-wealthy remain the least affected. The wealthy are obviously in the best position to effect the greatest change, but they will only act when their ‘constituents’ are directly affected, hence the problem explicit in the title of this essay.
Politicians on the ‘left’, on the other hand, are more ready to demonise science; they see it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Genetic engineering is a case in point, where they ignore the fact that all of the food we consume today is the result of genetic manipulation by humans over centuries (yes, even before
My point, I guess, is that science can deliver solutions and problems, depending on how it is employed. But we are in a period of unprededented growth (the world population has doubled in my lifetime) being driven by an almost religious dedication to an economic paradigm that is a significant contributor to the problem. There needs to be a balance introduced into the equation that not only allows for zero population growth but actively encourages it. Female emancipation and education is part of the solution, as many people, including Attenborough, acknowledge. But there also needs to be a recognition that scientists are the harbingers of future problems, and we ignore them at the cost to the quality-of-life for future generations. The 21st Century will be remembered, either as the century we turned things around or the century where we lost the best part of what we have gained. I truly, sincerely hope that my pessimism (and David Attenborough’s) is ill-founded.