I fully intended to participate in the local New Orleans version of the big March for Science which took place last month. I was especially excited because science informs my Earth-based religious practice, and the march was scheduled for Earth Day. What a grand confluence of politics and spirituality!
Curb my enthusiasm
Yes, I planned to participate, but I did have reservations. Serious reservations. Science is a powerful way of knowing the world, but even comic book characters know that great power requires great responsibility. We humans have not always demonstrated the latter.
Everyone should be aware of the great scientific advances of the last two and a half centuries. But do these advances in our knowledge and understanding lead inevitably to a better world? Science has made possible the banishment of numerous deadly and crippling diseases. But science has also enabled chemical and biological warfare. Science has led to increased agricultural output, but also to overpopulation. For every positive advance, there seems to be a negative counter-example.
Of course, this particular march was intended as a statement at this particular moment, when in America we have a governmental administration that seems bent on ignoring particular aspects of scientific consensus in order to further a repressive agenda. They want to ignore climate change and denigrate the theory of evolution. This agenda must be opposed. That’s why I wanted to join the march.
But what about those reservations of mine? I didn’t want to go out and wave a sign that just said, “Yea rah science rocks!” That would seem naïve, given that science has brought us the atom bomb. And what about that anthropogenic global warming which scientists warn us about? Without science, we wouldn’t be extracting hydrocarbons at such an alarming rate in the first place.
A question of values
Science is never the value-free endeavor that we sometimes idealize it to be. All human activity is inherently political, serving one agenda or another. With science, it’s often a question of who’s funding the research, which determines what science actually gets done.
And let’s be honest. Historically, what are the dominant forces driving most scientific and technological developments? It ain’t pure curiosity and the quest for deeper understanding of the mysteries of the universe. Would that it were! Rather, we have to acknowledge the desire for military conquest and profit.
In other words, science is governed by values that are anything but scientific.
This isn’t to deny the role of humanistic concern, for example, that undoubtedly motivates many scientists. But even noble and virtuous motivations represent values which come from outside the scientific method.
It comes down to this question of values. Which values govern our scientific apparatus? I’m afraid humanism is not the dominant theme, historically. It’s capitalism and imperialism, folks. Don’t take my word for it. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah has a good treatment of this subject.
This question of how to shift our values is one of the most pressing we face. That’s one reason I’m drawn to religious and spiritual practice, as a way to address our deepest ethics and moral perspectives. Surely we need a revolution of hearts and minds if we’re to change our dangerous trajectory.
The phrase that pays
That’s what I wanted to communicate at the march. I wanted to express a desire for science governed by the values we desperately need. How to sum that up on a pithy little placard?
At length, I came up with the following slogan:
Science in Service to Mother Earth
How do you like it? I also thought about Science in Service to the Common Good but that could be casually construed as promoting a narrow vision of human welfare only. I’m keen to promote a holistic perspective that acknowledges the interconnection of all life, as well as the non-living components of our environment. Perhaps the phrase Greater Good would do the job. But I like to remind people (including myself) that we are all progeny of the planet, and I like to namecheck the divine feminine. It warms the cockles of my atheistic heart.
My slogan is not without complications and problems of its own. Science is, after all, an endeavor of humans and our machines. What would it mean to put this endeavor at the service of Mother Earth? Presumably, our efforts must always be guided by human discernment, in all its fallibility. Who decides what best serves this vision of the Greater Good? How can we possibly subvert the powerful forces of capitalism and imperialism to such ends?
Alas, I never made my sign. A virus kept me at home. Science has revealed many things, but the cure for the common cold remains elusive.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.
Bart is also a regular columnist here at HP. His column is called A Pedagogy of Gaia.
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I like to make a distinction between science and engineering. Science is about discerning what is true. It has never done any harm. But science almost inevitably leads to engineering (designing new things or processes) and then the use of those things. That is where all the harm comes in. Ignoring inconvenient truths tends not to go hand in hand with any kind of reduction in the efforts to build or use things. Trump isn’t saying “Bah” to engineering (e.g. pipelines and coal mines). He saying “Bah!” to the truth about climate change and evolution and species and habitat loss and the very deep interelatedness of all living organisms that you wanted to emphasize. That is what the marches were about.
Regardless, I love your motto. Science, and human endeavour in general, in service to Gaia is what I, and SolSeed, is all about.
A helpful distinction which I will aim to keep in mind. Gotta discuss this with my engineer friends! P.S. I continue to use the “Gaia’s Heartbeat” video when I give lectures on related topics.