Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 16 September 2011

The perspective from outer space

This is an interview with astronaut, John Grunsfeld, and it juxtaposes humanity’s greatest achievements against our greatest destruction. Grunsfeld points out that, in just over half a century, we went from experimentation with canvas and wire flying contraptions to manned space flight: Wright brothers in 1903 to Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Who would have predicted that the two achievements could happen in the same century?

Grunsfeld, according to his own testimony, has witnessed, over many space flights, the deforestation in the Amazon, a symptom of our worst excesses in the 20th Century. He points out the irony of our technological prowess compared to our unparalleled and unstoppable destruction of the planet’s largest ecosystem.

Part of the problem is the disconnect between science and politics, worldwide, which I’ve commented on many times on this blog. Politicians see science and technology as a tool to drive the economy and to push our finite resources to their absolute limit. When scientists try and disseminate messages that are politically unpalatable, they are either ignored, or their warnings are watered-down. We can’t have the public drawing their own conclusions, without the filter of political spin. Politicians can only provide positive messages – any negative message is political suicide – such is the dilemma of living in a democracy.

The best-known current example is climate-change. But a quarter of a century ago it was the ozone hole, and, whilst it took decades to achieve political action in the face of corporate opposition, it’s one of the few scientifically driven political success stories. It will also take decades for action to be realised on climate change, but by 2030 I expect public opinion may overtake political inertia.

And public opinion is what drives these debates. Unfortunately there is a huge public distrust of science that politicians and special-interest groups love to exploit. Almost everything one touches in a Western society is dependent on science yet people can somehow make a disconnect between the past and the future when it comes to trusting science.

The other half of this equation, that Grunsfeld leaves unmentioned, is the economic paradigm that’s driving population growth and the decimation of the planet’s resources. I spoke about this in my last post so I don’t have much to add. We have the technology to save the planet from ourselves but we don’t have the political will or the vision to do it. Without a change to our economic paradigm of infinite growth, neither the political will nor the vision will eventuate.

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