The rightful place of science: putting us in ours

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.

Categories: deep time, environment, public science, ranting
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Comments (10)

  1. Kevin says:

    “Science puts us in our rightful place – if only we would listen to what it tells us”
    I have been following this discussion on the various SciBlogs. In a single sentence you have said all that needs to be said.

  2. chezjake says:

    Very well put. Thanks for the long range perspective, Chris.

  3. Mark says:

    Best thoughtful blog posting I have read in a long time anywhere – the contrast of Deep Time with our frantic economic-centric consumption is something everyone should read. It really forces a different perspective.

  4. DrA says:

    Too many people, because they’ve been taught that way, think science is just one more “narrative”, one more opinion, and if it differs with your opinion or ideology, then it can be ignored, or you counter with your “experts” who express another opinion. Witness the very successful tactic of the recent past administration which rather than argue the science they sought to discredit the science as just “their” opinion. It was very effective in shifting public attitudes about climate change away from a science based discussion. So for science to return to its rightful place, people have to acknowledge that science represents our best attempt to understand reality.

  5. Eric the Leaf says:

    Great essay. The best I have read in this series. Still, we are not the only species to have outstripped their resources at one time or another. The process among humans has only accelerated in the past 500 years and in many ways science has been an accomplice. Since the industrial revolution, of course, we have mined a bonanza of essentially free energy unheard of in the history of the species. The number of years in which energy will remain cheap may well be counted on one hand, and the possibility of dwindling energy resources and energy scarcity is within sight (peak oil, peak natural gas, peak coal). Indeed, we may already be in an overshoot situation. It may still be possible to act on and to choose our own sustainable level of population and consumption, but it seems to me more likely that, even despite fervent efforts by some, nature will choose for us.

  6. Erin says:

    This is my favorite answer so far.

  7. Great fucking post, holmes!

  8. Great post – the idea of listening to what science tells us is something that itself needs to be listened to. We – scientists and society – should be humbled as well as stimulated by science. And this is an appropriate time – the Year of Planet Earth and Darwin celebrations carry deeply humbling messages.
    The recent book, The Earth After Us, by a geologist, Jan Zalasiewicz, is an excellent lesson in being humbled and an example of the perspective gained through listening to what science tells us. I recently posted a piece on the book on my blog.
    Keep up the good work!

  9. Carlos Rocha says:

    Very well put Chris. I have been lurking around your blog for a while, and after this, certainly will be stuck here.

  10. Matt says:

    Only recently discovered your blog, but this piece has also forced me to de-lurk. It’s one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve seen on the internet to date, and deserves to be widely read.