Popular science books are all about wonder and discovery and a bit of woe about the state of the world, but that’s what science says, not what science does. In the western delusion of words over actions, science is portrayed as a hero in the fight against climate collapse when in fact is the primary villain. Because that book came on a truck, and that truck ran on diesel, and that diesel was refined from oil, and that oil came from the ground, and the people finding it and digging it up were all scientists.
The fact is that there are far more scientists (and science graduates) working to cause climate collapse than there are scientists working to stop it, whatever that means. The fact is that your average poor person simply not consuming much is doing more than the most vaunted scientists jetting around the world to ‘save’ it by ‘raising awareness’. It’s all a preening hypocrisy really. The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.
If you judge science by its works and not its words, science should be judged by the thousands of scientists who ‘discovered’ fossil fuels and continued to discover even more violent and invasive ways of fracking them out of the Earth; well after they should have figured out that lighting dead ancestors on fire makes the world hot and the gods angry. Science is justified as a state religion of capitalism because it produces real miracles, like abundant store shelves wrapped in plastic and time-saving products. But at what cost? As Frank Ocean sang, “if it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.”
In another example, the Seneca people of Turtle Island understood crop rotation through a story of three sisters (corn, beans, and squash). This along with much other wisdom was dismissed by science and reformulated as the nitrogen cycle. Taking this knowledge (without understanding) scientists have used natural gas to pump nitrogen into fertilizer and tie our food supply (frankly inextricably) to fossil fuels. We literally eat natural gas. This works miraculously, but it works in the sense that a deal with the devil does. It works miraculously for a while, but the devil always gets his due.
Science as opposed to religions advocated progress as opposed to balance or apocalypse. There is no concept of humanity as fallen or ‘below’ anything, it is always rising to the top. But this is hubris, like Icarus, and we are the generation getting our polyester wings scorched.
The fact is that scientific understanding is only superficially used to wonder at and revere the world. It’s about as sincere as using a cartoon chicken to sell fried chicken. While a few scientists write books and give talks about how we shouldn’t end the world, a dozen more are actively ending it. That is indeed what science is for. That is why it is funded. Nuclear knowledge is (and likely was) most actively pursued for killing massive numbers of people for the military and scientific knowledge is most avidly pursued for killing off the Earth for industry. All of the warnings and whining are just the marketing layer over big business, which is the master science actually serves.
The response then is what about solar panels and more efficiency and the green revolution to come. Yes science technically got us into this hole, but it’s also going to get us out. Which is to say, when you’re in a hole, keep digging I guess. Literally. The ‘green revolution’ requires digging huge amounts of lithium and copper and other rare earth minerals out of more and more obscure reserve (using massive amounts of diesel of course). This captive revolution is not in fact a revolt against the power relations and godless philosophical rot that both run and ruin the world. It is just more window dressing on a burning house.
Electric batteries will not square the circle that person vehicles are wildly inefficient. What we need public transport and the destruction of roads and cars, not more inventions catering to peoples laziness and greed, which is what science is focused on right now. They are effectively deck managers on the Titanic, asking if you’d like a virgin mojito instead of the alcoholic one. The ship is still running on massive inequality, extraction, and fundamental ignorance, and the ship is still going down.
Shoveling ‘green’ energy into the same voracious greed of the 1% and the heavily marketed dream of everyone else living like that simply isn’t going to work. The fact is that science is being used to change the engine on a train that’s simply on the wrong track. It will still reach its destination, which is collapse.
At that point the tools of science (which are agnostic) can theoretically be used to balance the thermostat, just as cyanobacteria figured it out after they froze the Earth with their oxygen emissions. But that requires wisdom, accumulated over millions of years by our photosynthetic ancestors. Scientists—like children finding their fathers gun—have dug up and burnt those very photosynthetic ancestors and marveled at their own power. But it was all stolen glory, and now the climate is taking it all back. The debt incurred by scientific hubris yoked to capitalist greed is the death of 90% of species, including much of our own.
Science is thus not a way out of climate collapse. It is its most proximate cause. The way out means going backwards through science to philosophy (whence it sprung) and unfucking that. It involves going even further to the gods and stories that west Asian philosophers discarded and scorned. Hence the answer is not in the popular science novels you see in airport bookshops. They (and you) are part of the problem.
The answers are in the ancient (and frankly superior) civilizations crushed by western science and technology crashing on their shores, in the ancient wisdom rejected as superstition, and in the simple experience of being a human on earth, sitting still, not consuming much, and inhaling and exhaling oxygen under the trees. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that we’ve got to go much deeper than science. We’re in a hole. The answer is definitely not more blind faith in the shovel.
Have I written this before? Sorta — How Science Is Not Good