In his post-inauguration speech, President Obama spoke of restoring science to it’s “rightful place”. Seed’s new ‘Rightful Place’ project asks the obvious follow-up: what is the rightful place of science? The fact that Seed’s initiative talks of ‘reviving science in America’ almost takes as a given that scientific thinking, and a respect for scientific results, should be a central plank of enlightened government. To the extent that Obama seems to be a fully paid-up member of what one of his predecessor’s minions once contemptuously referred to as the “reality-based community”, the new President seems to agree, and I can’t deny that I find this encouraging. But in some ways, I’m not convinced that we’re actually asking the right question here. I feel that it’s not so much a matter of us putting science in its rightful place, but letting science put us in ours, by forcing us to acknowledge some unpalatable truths about our world – and ourselves.
We all struggle – some of us more than others – with the way that science almost impertinently rubs our face in the fact that our planet is not the centre of the Universe, that our species is not the pinnacle of all existence, and that our tenure on this planet that we call ‘ours’ is just a last-second afterthought to the grand sweep of history. This final humbling conclusion, the great insight offered by geology, is often the least acknowledged, perhaps because it leads to some decidedly disturbing conclusions. Our entire species has graced the Earth for less than a tenth of a percent of its existence; our increasingly rapacious civilisation only really got going in the last tenth of a percent of that tenth of a percent.
Science – if we let it – enables us to see things from the perspective of Deep Time, and shows us that the frenetic pace of human development and consumption does not mesh well with the more sedate rhythms of our planet – its response to our actions today will still be playing out when President Obama is as remote in history as Julius Caesar is to us. It demonstrates just how fundamentally unsustainable our present course is: our civilisation is fuelled by geological fruits – oil, mineral ores, soil – that have often taken many millions of years to ripen, and we are consuming them at rates many orders of magnitude faster than the Earth can replenish them.
But too often, we do not really take this on board. We refuse to acknowledge that we are physically limited by the world we live in. We endlessly debate the economic cost of deviating from ‘business as usual’ without seeing that what we regard as ‘normal’ is in fact profoundly abnormal. We are too many. We use too much, too fast. We will run out. But the chance is there, whilst we still live in a time of relative plenty, whilst we still have access to cheap energy and resources, to change course before we hit the wall. Science tells us that ‘sustainability” is not just some airy-fairy tree-hugging aspiration, it’s a necessity for securing the long-term future of humanity.
Science puts us in our rightful place – if only we would listen to what it tells us.