Getting Away from the Science of Dr Strangelove
David Bellamy and Alastair McIntosh say that science policy is failing
both children and nature. In a plea for conservation, they argue that the wisdom
of the ancients should inform the practice of science.
in The Guardian (education pages), 9 April 1996, pp. 2-3. This text is based on
the address that we jointly wrote and which David delivered in defence of the
Centre for Human Ecology at the Lothian Regional Council Chambers on 2 June
1995. It contributed towards the University Court agreeing a say of execution,
which lasted for a year.
When Sir Ron Dearing reviews the
universities, might he entertain posthumous evidence? Take Gandhi. What might he
have said about universities? About their purpose and national contribution? And
Lots. For when asked what had
been his greatest disappointment in life, Mahatma Gandhi replied, "The
hard-heartedness of the educated."
Gandhi saw that education does
not necessarily serve the poor. If based on an individualistic meritocracy
without co-operation and service, it causes social stratification. Those who are
“fit” - that is, those fitting the dominant culture, have the option to get
up, get out and lose touch. Leadership deficits may then further impoverish
those left behind.
So who, and
what values, do the educated serve? Community of the Earth and all its peoples?
Or the fears and greed of those holding grant and consultancy pursestrings spun
on wheels of violation?
Back in 1943
Ananda Coomaraswami, the great Anglo-Sri Lankan thinker, spelt out fears
pertinent to the educator. He warned: “... the contentment of innumerable
peoples can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our
civilisation; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which
the responsible maker by art cannot compete; the vocational structure of
society, with all its guild organisation and standards of workmanship is
undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a
‘job’; until finally the ancient society is industrialised and reduced to
the level of such societies as ours, in which business takes precedence of life.
Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other peoples?”
Both Gandhi and Coomaraswami
lived through a century which, in Sri Lanka for instance, has seen 280
indigenous varieties of rice reduced to a mere 27. They witnessed a world being
destroyed with, too often, the supposedly "educated" at its helm:
destroyed by those who hide behind a facade of rationality at the expense of
feeling; by those who thereby deliver a language of public and corporate policy
standardised to the global monoculture and
sterilised of ethics.
In contemporary Britain perhaps
the most influential example of such language is the 1993 White Paper on
Science, Technology and Engineering. This is effecting an influence on many of
our universities which extends far beyond science. It has become a metaphor for
Government policy on higher education. To evaluate it we need to reappraise, in
Newman’s words, the very “idea
of a university.”
In the West the idea of a
university started with Socrates and Plato. Plato established the “first”
university, The Academy, in 387 BC in a grove outside Athens. This lends us the
word, “academic.” Our highest academic qualification remains the PhD -
literally, a doctorate in philo-Sophia - “love of the Goddess of Wisdom.”
And the concept of academic “excellence” is rooted not in narrow
disciplinary endeavour, but in the Greek understanding of all-round excellence
in life - “aretê.”
It was with Phaedrus, in a grove
by the river, barefoot and inspired by the spirituality of nature, that Socrates
put forward his thesis that the endeavour to know love is the central motivation
and goal of the philosopher. Without love there is no wisdom; only dry learning.
And intriguingly, coming as it does from one of the greatest “dead white
males” of them all, Plato’s Symposium tells us that Socrates derived such
philosophy from a wise woman - Diotima of Manitinea.
This call to wisdom is the
origin of the word, "vocation." A "professor" is one who
professes their vocation; who honours their calling. Too often we forget such
radical roots in the groveless academy of the modern university where cars
outnumber trees. We risk producing graduates more comfortable with the virtual
conviviality of a computer than with flesh-and-blood community. We risk turning
out virtual academics processed to fit a virtual world which bears virtually no
sentient relation to the real world of nature and human nature.
The 1993 science White Paper
illustrates how far the prostitution of the universities is being pushed. It
calls, fundamentally, for "key cultural change" to accord academia
with the needs of government and industry. It predicates competitive wealth
creation, seeking interaction on an escalating scale "between scientists
and businessmen involved in the day-to-day business of selling in competitive
markets." A whole chapter on the military-industrial complex, including
“spin-in” from civilian research, underscores the dearth of ethics, the
ethics of death. And the only example of environmental technology is listed as a
Our young are to be induced into
all this by the Government having embarked upon "a radical agenda of
changes in the education and training system, including changes in the school
curriculum ... for the whole of compulsory schooling."
Of course, there are
praiseworthy points in the White Paper. And nobody denies that we need industry
with first rate scientific brains behind it. No. But gone is serious
acknowledgement of the value of science, of academia generally, in offering to
society a philosophic guiding hand. Gone is the classical scientific notion, as
in Plato’s Timaeus, that we can better heal the disharmonies within ourselves
through coming to know the harmonies of nature. Wisdom is out. Only the values
of the market are valued.
And the big picture is worse,
because all this is happening in the context of other geopolitical policies
which are freeing-up world trade for those who presume the freedom to trade
“freely” (and with due limited liability).
The White Paper remarks that,
"The history of the United Kingdom has shown the intimate connection
between free trade, the application of science to tradable products, and
national prosperity." It goes on to attribute to the British industrial
revolution the creating of "the modern world," and warns, in
self-fulfilling prophesy, that, "In a world where ever fiercer competition
prevails, history's lessons are highly pertinent."
Meanwhile, in India and
elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of the world's poorest farmers have
demonstrated and remonstrated with their Government not to sign GATT - the
Global Agreement on Trades and Tariffs. Through setting up the World Trade
Organisation (WTO), GATT has established the policing of trading freedom in a
pre-emptive absence of socio-ecologial responsibility. Little wonder the
Department of Trade and Industry can feel comfortable in advising British
businessmen to exploit the low wages of a country like Vietnam ...
... What is going on here?
Nothing that Gandhi and
Coomaraswami did not see coming. WTO armed with Trade Related Intellectual
Property Rights (TRIPS) means, for instance, that village market places in India
or Sri Lanka can be flooded with low-cost genetically engineered crops. The
selling of local varieties will be undercut.
In just a few years strains
ideally suited to the vicissitudes of local conditions -
often low-input low-output (LILO) varieties - will be further squeezed
out of the gene pool as
“uneconomic.” The human culture underpinning such traditional agri-culture
... the implicit meanings of many local practices ... will vanish forever. Often
these codify time-proven social and ecological sustainability.
Specialist seed-supply and
agrochemical industries will further spread like translocated species. And in
capital cities the architects of such policies will toast their wisdom and award
themselves honorary doctorates for having ratcheted up new steeples of GNP;
pointedly pointless monuments along the “Hell’s merry-go-round” racetrack
If Fortress Europe further shuts
its doors on the cry of nature and the poor, all Coomaraswami’s prophetic
warnings about the “withering touch of our civilisation,” perhaps including
“fear and hatred” of Western peoples, will fall as a self-ordained
curse upon our grandchildren.
... Indeed, what is going on
here is that our science and related economic policy fails fully to recognise
the social and ethical context in which it rests. It hijacks the altruistic
motives of many of our scientists. It ignores service in and to the fullness of
humanity. It desecrates nature’s intrinsic value.
Such science without social and
ecological justice is the science of Dr Strange-love. It is a travesty of
The time has come for true
academics - those with a foot in both the ivory tower and the grove - to reunite
the two great philosophies: moral and natural. In working with power, which we
all do, we must insist upon naming, unmasking, and engaging the powers in order
constantly to transform them. The power of love must supercede the love of
power. We must spurn educational hard-heartedness just as trenchantly as we
reject sloppy thought. The task of education must be literally to bring us to
our senses: head, heart and hand.
Only in being prepared to speak truth to power and
exposing the shameful sham of any hemlock cup do we prove professionalism.
Socrates saw this as the “gadfly” role, upsetting comfortable complacency by
“never ceas(ing) to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading,
reproving every one of you.”
Academia, activists, industry, government and aware
people can together deliver an ethic of world conservation if there is
co-operation. Recent news that the rate of ozone layer depletion is slowing
The future is bright, potentially. The pathways
towards sustainable livelihood are apparent, substantially. But universities
must not be displaced from educating towards these humanitarian ends by
directives like William Waldegrave’s 1993 White Paper. We need better than an
arms dealers’ charter from the same stable as the Scott Report. Our children
deserve better. Dearing might recommend better. The Earth itself hangs in the
Professor David Bellamy is a botanist and
broadcaster. Alastair McIntosh directs the MSc course at the Centre for Human
Ecology, presently under threat of closure by Edinburgh University. His critique
of science policy leads the current issue of the philosophical, Environmental
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