Remarks for the

Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values
Harvard University
March 21, 2001

Philip Shabecoff

* * *

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, an unusual document called the "Heidelberg appeal," signed by several thousand scientists and "intellectuals," including a number of Nobel Prize winners, was first circulated to the public. The document expressed concern about what it stated was—and I quote—an "irrational ideology," presumably environmentalism, which, it said, is seeking a return to nature at the expense of scientific and industrial progress.

The appeal then went on to assert that—again here is a direct quote—that "humanity had always progressed by harnessing Nature to its needs and not the reverse."[1]

Those are, to me at least, profoundly disturbing statements, especially if they represent the view of a significant segment of the scientific community at the beginning of the 21st century.

First of all, environmentalism is neither irrational nor an ideology. It is a highly rational and pragmatic response to the degradation of the physical world and the assaults on human health caused by human activity. Much, perhaps most of this damage has been the result, intended and unintended, of science and technology. But, aside from a small radical fringe, environmentalism is not anti-science or seeking a return to nature. On the contrary, environmentalism is built upon science, upon the information that scientific inquiry and discovery have provided about the effects of human activity on the biosphere. The solutions proposed by mainstream environmentalism to our ecological dilemma also rely heavily on science and technology.

Even more disturbing is the assertion that humanity always progressed by harnessing nature to its needs and not the reverse. Certainly that was true in past centuries when humanity had only recently emerged from its cave, where it huddled around its meager fire in dread of the tooth-and-claw enemies that filled that natural world outside. Indeed the science of the modern world was founded on the notion that the welfare of humanity required that nature be harnessed, or subjugated or conquered. Francis Bacon, a father of modern science, declared more than 400 years ago "The world is made for man, not man for the world.[2] In his essay "The New Atlantis," Bacon foresaw a Utopia of abundance and comfort created by the exertion of complete scientific and technological dominion over nature.[3] Even in the 20th century, Sigmund Freud could pronounce that "The principal task of civilization, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature." [4]

But surely we know by now that we have harnessed too much nature; that nature now needs defending from us, not we from nature, that we must defend nature to defend ourselves. As Leo Marx noted in remarks to this forum a few months ago, we cannot, if we ever could, regard humans and the world we have created as separate from the natural world. "What is the use of conquering nature," asked Lewis Mumford some years ago, "if we fall prey to nature in the form of unbridled men"[5]

Science and its functional offspring, technology, have provided the tools for the subjugation of nature. We can no longer ignore the fact that many of those tools are inflicting harm, sometimes enormous harm, on the biosphere, including its human inhabitants and potentially compromising the very course of evolution.

Some 2500 years ago, Aeschylus’s Prometheus proclaimed:

. . .I led men on the road

Of dark and riddling knowledge; and I purged

The glancing eye of fire, dim before,

And made its meaning plain. These are my works.[6]

There have been many signals to warn of us of the potential dangers into which the Promethean fire of science and technology were leading, most of them I am sure familiar to you. Writing as the industrial revolution was building momentum in the 19th Century, George Perkins Marsh observed that ". . .man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord."[7] In the early part of the last century the Russian mineralogist Vladimir I. Vernadsky observed that the created world of human thought and its works, which he called the "noosphere," had become a large-scale force capable of inflicting major disruptive change in the geosphere and biosphere.[8]

By the middle of the 20th century, any pretense of innocence about the potential of science for creating harm and evil was dispelled forever. The road of dark and riddling knowledge on which Prometheus had led humankind came in 1945 to a desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico and from there to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The answer to the riddle of Promethean knowledge had become all too plain.

Since then we have had Silent Spring and the Closing Circle; Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez. We are witnessing the rapid change of the Earth’s climate, a spasm of extinction of living species unmatched in millennia, the acidification of soil and water across the globe, the loss of forests and the spread of deserts, the toxification of the flesh of every living being on earth. The very face of the planet and the flow of its cycles of elements are being changed by the cumulative consequences of science and technology.[9] As a report by the National Academy of Sciences warned a decade ago, science and technology are being used to conduct "an uncontrolled experiment with the planet."[10]

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not a Luddite or a new Unabomber. I appreciate, of course, that our civilization and its blessings are built on science and technology. For a substantial portion of the human race they have made possible material abundance exceeding even Francis Bacon’s expansive vision. For those of us who live in the developed world, science and technology have satisfied our hunger, shielded us from the cold and the dark, eased our labor, reduced the terror of disease and illness and substantially expanded the span of our lives. They enable us to travel between continents in hours and to communicate around the globe in a fraction of a second. They have empowered us to peer into the heart of the atom and out to the far reaches of the universe. We could not do without science and technology even if we wanted to. Our civilization is too complex and the means we have devised for our survival and comfort are too intricate to extricate ourselves from dependence on science and its works. And we would not do so even if we could. Life in pre-scientific, pre-industrial society was difficult and tenuous for most humans.

It is little wonder, then, that science and scientists were long regarded with respect and even reverence. Because of its astonishing works and perhaps in part because its language and culture became increasingly arcane and alien, its concepts inaccessible to the ordinary citizen, science has been accorded by many the blind faith offered to deities of earlier ages. It is also understandable, therefore, that some scientists, at least, fell victims to hubris in the conviction that they are the repositories of immutable truth, accountable only to the integrity of their own work and to others in the priesthood of their specialized disciplines.

In recent decades, however, science and technology have begun to slip from their lofty pedestal as their actual and potential negative effects on our environment, our health and our posterity became increasingly and dismayingly apparent. Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, who have examined the state of modern science, found that because science is now widely perceived as a cause of evil as well as abundance, it is "losing its ideological function as the unique bear of the True and therefore the Good."[11]

One central reason for the declining prestige of science is that in large measure it is employed in the service of corporations and is directed by the vagaries of the marketplace. This service is often contrary to the real needs of society and frequently is a direct threat to the public and the environment. As many economists have pointed out, the negative consequences of economic activity, such as pollution and human illness are treated as economic "externalities," irrelevant to the functioning of the market. This kind of economic activity is usually result of the deployment of science and technology. There is, of course, a long list of environmental and public health catastrophes caused by the products of science introduced into commerce—from DDT and PCBs to thalidomide, leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. Incidentally, Thomas Midgely was one of the most honored scientists of the first part of the 20th century for his invention of two useful products: CFCs and leaded gasoline.

Unfortunately, some scientists have been willing to sell their services to industry for what I consider to be unethical and unsavory practices. Scientists have accepted money from the tobacco industry to support industry’s claim that cigarette smoking is not dangerous.[12] When Stephen Viederman of the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation asked Monsanto company scientists who were developing synthetic hormones to increase milk production by cows, if they had considered the social and health implications of their research, they replied, "they had no responsibility to consider these so-called by-products of their work.[13] Scientists have taken money from fossil fuel interests to dispute the compelling evidence that burning coal and oil are a major cause of global warming. A small army of scientists, in fact, has been mobilized by sectors of corporate America to "brownwash" environmentally destructive practices. Science is seen by many as adversarial rather than objective, serving the interests only of those who pay for it.

No doubt a majority of scientists try to conduct their work in an ethical fashion. But the market does not require the cooperation of unethical scientists to abuse or misuse science for profit. Corporations manage quite nicely on their own. Take for example, the manufacturers of drugs that fight AIDS that price their products far beyond the reach of millions people in Africa and elsewhere in the world who are dying because of the epidemic. Since I first wrote this example down a few weeks ago, several U.S. manufacturers of AIDS drugs have announced they will lower the prices of some of their products in developing countries. But they did so only in the face of enormous world-wide criticism and after a company and India began selling the same products at a much lower price. And the new prices announced for the drugs are still beyond the reach of millions of infected Africans.

Then there is the company that marketed genetically modified Starlink corn, which has not been approved for human consumption, as cattle feed. The corn, which could pose a serious health threat to humans, contaminated corn products used in Taco Bell shells and other foods. Inexcusably, genetically modified foods and other products are being thrust into the marketplace without the knowledge or consent of consumers and without exhaustive research into the long-term effects of such technologies.

The prospects for future misuse of science and technology and the potential dangers to human welfare and the environment can be frightening.

There was a story in The Times a few weeks ago about two companies that have unraveled the genetic code of rice. The story noted that the feat could lead to improved strains of rice. But it could also mean that a basic staple supporting human life could be increasingly controlled by a handful of companies. And without adequate safeguards, it is least conceivable that this basic crop could be tampered with to the point that it cannot provide the nutrition that is an absolute necessity to a large proportion of humanity. Around the same time I read a short item in the Boston Globe that was even scarier. It reported that scientists in Australia, conducting genetic experiments on the immune system of mice, had accidentally created a new, extremely deadly virus. Let me quote the item: "Similar tinkering with other viruses could, with relatively little effort, make new strains with unprecedented lethality to humans. The researchers announced their results hoping that other scientists will be careful not to repeat their error with human viruses, but there are clearly very ominous possibilities lurking in the future."[14] End of quote.

Harnessing nature in this fashion is clearly not advancing human welfare and in fact is placing it in grave danger.

The truth is that at the beginning of the 21st century there is no workable system of governance of science and technology. There are no acceptable or accepted standards to set priorities for research and development to assure they serve human welfare and make the best use of financial, material and human resources. There are no adequate controls of the products of science and technology to safeguard human health and the environment. We may be enjoying the miracles of science but we remain dangerously vulnerable to the misuse of science and the great and growing unintended harm its deployment causes. The burden for proving that science causes harm still falls largely on those who suffer the harm.

Government attempts to set priorities are beset endlessly by politics and to a large extent are directed by the money of special interests. And Government efforts to protect the public from the adverse effects of science and technology through agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of issues, institutions and products they must deal with. For example, a report by Inform Inc. a non-profit organization that monitors industry, estimated that there are some 70,000 chemical compounds now in commerce that have never been adequately tested for their effect on human health and the environment. And, of course, these agencies are also subject to political and interest group pressures.

Moreover, government science itself has been tarnished by intolerable ethical lapses. I am thinking about soldiers exposed to the radiation of nuclear explosions without their consent or knowledge, or the experiments with venereal disease on African American men.

Self-governance by business and industry, an approach that seems to be favored by the new administration in Washington, is an even thinner line of defense. There are industry standards such as ISO 14000, but such standards tend to reflect the lowest common denominator acceptable to industry and often are ignored. A growing number of companies are finding that changing their operations and products in the name of the environment and public health is in their own long-term interest. But corporate behavior is always subject to the hair trigger of the markets, particularly the equity and money markets. The modal response of industry to complaints that their activities are harming the environment is not a shift to more benign technologies, it is public relations campaigns. The invisible hand of the market, let it be remembered, is headless.

So where can we look for rational, effective governance of science? Obviously the first place is to the scientific community itself—to scientists and their institutions. To a substantial extent, scientists are already responding. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility and other organizations have been active for years in trying to assure that the scientific enterprise is used to benefit, not endanger, humans and the natural world of which humans are part. Shortly after the Earth Summit a group of over 1500 scientists, including most living Nobel laureates, issued a statement that was very different from the Heidelberg Appeal. It warned that "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course" and called for urgent change from humanity’s present course.[15] In 1997, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, then president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, proposed in her address to the association’s annual meeting, that the scientific community enter into a new "social contract" to address the unprecedented physical and social changes caused by the effects of human activity on the planet.[16]

It also appears that individual scientists increasingly understand that they have a responsibility that goes beyond dedication to their discipline and work. They are recognizing that as citizens as well as scientists, they have a duty to alert the public about the consequences of their science and to help influence public policy to respond appropriately. I am thinking, for example, of James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Space Center who risked and received censure from peers for stating publicly in 1988, when the scientific community was still being ultra cautious in the face of mounting evidence, that global warming was in fact upon us. His testimony before a Senate committee produced sharp public reaction and stimulated long overdue policy initiatives. Because of the damage the products of science can inflict on the natural world, the scientific vision has begun to shift from the reductionist approach adapted by many disciplines over the past century toward a more holistic view of how science ought to be conducted.

I would submit, however, that science is too important, that the stakes are too high, to leave entirely to scientists. They are, like the rest of us, fallible human beings subject to their own biases, illusions, greed, and ambition. They are vulnerable to pressures from funding sources, from peer expectations, institutional requirements and personal value systems. Every scientific discipline is laden with its own set of values and methods, which often obscure their broader responsibilities to society. Looking at the world as it is, we see that their institutions are unable to do a remotely complete job of overseeing the physical and social results of the scientific enterprise.

The message of the Heidelberg Appeal, as I see it, is that despite the harm that science and technology have done and can do in the future, the rest of us should continue to trust science and scientists and simply leave them alone. But as I have argued, we can no longer do that. Given the gravity of the threats to the biosphere, the crucial role that science and technology will play in determining the future of life on Earth, we can no longer continue to accept the bad along with the good that science gives us.

I would suggest, therefore, that what is urgently required is greater societal control, more democracy in the process of deciding scientific priorities and the deployment of technologies produced by the scientific enterprise. Normally, citizens participate in broad decision making at the global, national, state and local level through their elected governments. But as I noted earlier, governments have not performed well in this area. And the prospects for the foreseeable future are not promising. The emerging energy policy of the new administration in Washington, for example, promises to be an ecological and economic travesty. It relies on more destructive fossil fuel development and the easing of rules that protect health and the environment instead of using the resources of the federal government to encourage the efficient use of energy and to develop new sources of renewable, non-polluting energy.

As most of you probably know, there have been a growing number of proposals in recent years for more direct citizen participation in guiding the course of the scientific enterprise. These proposals come under the general rubric of "civic science" or as Funtowicz and Ravetz describe the process, "post-normal" science. It is post-normal because, in contrast to "normal" science, which excludes outsiders from the dialogue among practitioners of a particular scientific discipline, civic science would employ an extended peer review, which expands the dialogue to include a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the enterprise. These might include, among others, community activists, environmentalists, lawyers, doctors, local government officials, journalists, and scholars such as ethicists, economists, ecologists and sociologists who are not part of the normal peer review process.

The idea here is not to interfere with basic research. It is not to have delegations of lay people looking over the shoulder of scientists as they peer into their microscopes—although after reading that story about the accidental production of a lethal new virus I wonder about that too. The idea is to have a broader public and a greater, more diverse breadth of knowledge participate in the process of deciding where we want to put our scientific resources to work and when, where, how and if to deploy the products of science and its technologies.

The concept of increased social oversight of science is not new. More than a quarter of a century ago the Ford Administration looked into the idea of "science courts" as a means of resolving disputes over science. Sheldon Krimsky suggested in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the creation of "citizen courts," to be appointed by local governments to evaluate and help guide science policy. Civic science would not dictate the course of the scientific enterprise but would serve as a safety net to keep the enterprise from going astray. It would, for example, routinely apply the precautionary principle to the introduction of radical new technologies into the market place and the environment. It would seek to shift the burden of proof about negative effects of science and technology away from potential victims.

Kai Lee, in his book Compass and Gyroscope, proposed that society find its way to appropriate scientific policy through a long-term process of trial-and-error learning which he calls "adaptive management." To steer a proper course through this process, he wrote, we can make use of two powerful navigational aids—the compass of the physical and social sciences and their rigorous disciplines to point in the right general direction and the gyroscope of democratic debate to keep use from veering off course.[17]

In many ways the practice of democratic oversight of science is already entrenched. Public comment periods required for government regulation is one example extended peer review, although those tend to be dominated by experts and vested interests. Local zoning and permitting processes often involve questions of appropriate technologies. Monitoring and reporting of the process and effects of science by the media and by environmental organizations also is a form of extended review. A growing number of companies are seeking outside advice about how to be more responsible environmental citizens. For example, I served for a number of years on the Dow Chemical Company’s Corporate Environmental Advisory Council, which reviewed all company operations and products, and even basic company philosophy, to help them improve their environmental performance. It might be said that tort law is an iron-fisted version of extended peer review—albeit an expensive and inflexible version.

The time may now be ripe for a putting a broader system of civic science in place. The environmentalists have been educating the public about the consequences of science for decades. A growing number of tools is making information about science accessible, tools such as the toxic release inventory, the wealth of material on the web, the environmental audits published by a growing number of corporations and right to know statutes. The Internet provides a magnificent mechanism for organizing and briefing extended peer groups.

For a system of civic science to be established would require a deep reevaluation of itself by the scientific community and thereafter its reorientation and full cooperation. It probably will also take some new scientific calamity to jolt the public into demanding such a system. But I believe it can happen.

To conclude, I would like to read a few excerpts from a lecture by the German philosopher Hans Jonas. The lecture was delivered in Munich in 1992 but I only read it a couple of months ago when it was sent to me by a couple of friends who had translated it into English. The lecture is about the past and future of philosophy, but it is very much to the point of what we are discussing here today.

"As we awake from a hundred years of technology’s blithe plundering of the planet and its triumphant celebration of its successes, its Utopian dreams of happiness for the entire human race, we are discovering a previously unsuspected tragedy in the gift of the sixth day of creation. . .At the height of its triumph, the mind is placing the species endowed with it before an abyss. But the very fact that it is beginning to see this abyss offers the glimmer of a chance of preventing the plunge over the edge. . .we must work on the idea of a peace pact between mind and nature, for the sake of which arrogant humans must renounce much of that to which habit appears to entitle them. . .All the sciences concerning nature and human beings, concerning economics, politics and society, must cooperate in drafting a planetary statement of condition along with suggestions for arriving at a budget balanced between human beings and nature."

". . .From the abyss that is now becoming visible there arise questions we have scarcely ever asked before. . .Can nature continue to tolerate the human mind, which it created from its own substance? Must it eliminate the human mind because it finds that mind too destructive of the natural order? Or can the mind ultimately make itself tolerable for nature once it has become aware that it is intolerable?[18]


[1] http://www.rt.is/ahb/sol/heidelberg.html

[2] Quoted in Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy, Cambridge U. Press, 1977, p, 30.

[3] Francis Bacon, "The New Atlantis," in The Harvard Classics, vol. 3, (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909), p. 181

[4] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927), quoted in Barbara K. Rodes and Rice Odell, A Dictionary of Environmental Quotations (New York: Simon &

Schuster, 1992), p. 197.

[5] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), p. 366.

[6] Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound.

[7] George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature, ed. David Lowenthal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 36.

[8] Quoted in Lynton Keith Caldwell, International Environmental Policy, 2d edition, (Durham, NC: Duke U. Press, 1990), p. 32.

[9] See inter alia, Robert W. Kates, B.L. Turner II, and William C. Clark, Eds. The World as Transformed by Human Action (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press and Clark University, 1990).

[10] Cheryl Simon Silver with Ruth S. Defries, One Earth One Future (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1990), p. 2.

[11] Silvio O. Funtowiscz and Jerome R. Ravetz, "A New Scientific Methodology for Global Environmental Issues," in Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability, (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1991), p. 137.

[12] Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We’re Experts! (Tarcher/Putnam) quoted in TomPaine.com

[13] Interview with Viederman

[14] "Most deadly virus," Science Notes, Boston Globe, Jan. 21, 2001.

[15] "World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity," statement and press release issued Nov. 1992 by Union of Concerned Scientists.

[16] Jane Lubchenco, "Entering the Century of the Environment: A new Social Contract for Science," president’s address at annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Corvallis, OR, 15 Feb. 1997 (text reprinted in Science, 23 Jan. 1998).

[17] Kai N. Lee, Compass and Gyroscope, (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993).

[18] Hans Jonas, "Philosophy at the End of the Century: A survey of Its Past and Future." A lecture delivered on May 25, 1992 in the Prinzregenten Theater, Munich. Translated by Hunter and Hildegard Hannum and reprinted in Social Reearch, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Winter 1994)