Friday, November 30, 2012

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Four

“The Limits of Human Power,” pages 26-34

We needn’t abase ourselves before nature, now that our scientific understanding has developed, but we shouldn’t exaggerate our power, either. Political leaders in both the east and west seem to want to believe they are gods, capable not only of understanding how to work with nature but also to overcome it; Lysenkoism is a case in point. “Such opinions, to my mind, represent a form of insane megalomania entirely alien to the scientific spirit [p. 27].” We see megalomania at work again when those who want to change the world – without bothering to understand it – think that self-assertion generates the knowledge that science cannot provide. Difficult questions about the future prospects for oil, for land, for farming and for population, are sidestepped with confident claims that oil will be protected if capitalism will be replaced, or that Providence will see to the world’s food supply.

Elements, organic material, and life, develop from simpler into more complex forms. Modern industry takes complex raw materials and simplifies them – though the nuclear fusion (and associated hydrogen bombs) that are on the horizon will be a step in the other direction. Accompanying human industry is waste and the inevitable increase in entropy. The huge industrial demands for both renewable (wood) and non-renewable (coal, oil) resources represent “a kind of rape [p. 30].” What took eons to put together is consumed as energy in a quick burst; when the inputs are gone, what then for industry and mankind? Our capital stock is being consumed. “Modern industry is, in fact, a spendthrift, and sooner or later must suffer the penalty of spendthrifts [p. 31].”

The low hanging fruit of accessible energy is being plucked – standards of living will fall as we are forced to look for the less accessible supplies. Industry will grow well beyond what currently exists, but it will eventually decline. We could forestall the problem if we found the political will to curtail the over-exploitation of the earth.

Agriculture despoils the soil, which is a tolerable cost to bear if there is lots of unused soil and a small human population, and if the soil regenerates itself quickly. But we are beyond those conditions, so we see rising food prices. The increasing difficulty of feeding the population cannot be traced to the ideological tint of any current government; rather, its roots are deep in nature. Perhaps scientific advance offers a way out, by making soil unnecessary for crops – but not yet, and the resulting food from such an advance is unlikely to taste as good.

Science might lessen our energy burden, too. Solar power, atomic energy, and the potential for nuclear fission could make energy considerably less scarce. The scientific approach to human problems is quite recent, only 200 years old. “Seeing what it has already accomplished, it would be very rash to place any limits upon what it may accomplish in the future [p. 33].”

On the other hand, scientific advance might hold a poisoned chalice, one from which we nevertheless might sip due to a shortfall of wisdom. The resulting destruction of human life (and maybe all earthly life) might one day be learned of by beings on some distant, indifferent planet, and inspire them to manage their own conflicts better. “If so, man will not have lived in vain [p. 34].”