Lecture 35

Science, civilization and society in the 21st century.

There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes


A lecture series on science, civilization and society is a voyage through 5000 years of human history. The last lecture already reached into the 21st century by following the steps to the mapping of the human genome. Now is the time to review the entire development, draw some conclusions and look forward.

One clear outcome from any study of science and civilization is the realization how closely the two have become linked over time. Our civilization today could not have been built without the achievements of science, and science could not have achieved what it did without being driven by the needs of civilization and being supported by its infrastructure.

The public perception of the role of science varied greatly over time. As an activity controlled by the ruling classes science has always found a mixed reception with the common people. Its potential use for the improvement of the human condition has always been recognized, particularly in medicine and surgery and in technological applications. But common people also experienced science in the form of weapons of war and machinery to extract more labour out of men, women and children and rarely rearely benefited from the medical knowledge that accumulated in the households of the nobles. It cannot come as a surprise that ordinary people mostly saw science as something alien to their daily lives at best and potentially threatening at worst.

Differences of public perception emerge when the intellectual climate of different periods in history is taken into account. During the 17th and 18th centuries science was at the centre of social talk in every household of Europe and the topic of debating circles in the houses of the upper class. (Lecture 20) After the industrial revolution this developed into a blind trust that science and technology could provide the means to cure all problems of society.

The belief in science as the new saviour survived into the early decades of the 20th century. It was particularly strong in the Soviet Union, which made support for science a cornerstone of its development. During the second half of the 20th century this glorified view of science gradually gave way to growing scepticism and negative assessment of the contributions of science to society. Degradation of ecosystems, pollution on a global scale, the threat of Earth heating up as a result of human activity - if this is what science can deliver, how can belief in its usefulness be justified any longer? Some science historians were unprepared for this and kept to the belief that the general public saw science in a positive light even in the 1950s. But by the end of the century science faculties of universities in the realm of the European civilization were struggling to attract students to an area of academic pursuit that many regard as the cause of the world's problems, and some philosophers of postmodernism and feminism are taking a distinctly hostile attitude towards science today.

What drives science forward?

Degradation of the environment, changes in the Earth's climate, proliferation of land mines, overfishing of the oceans - would these developments have occurred without advances in science? It is a fair question to ask. To answer it let us begin by looking back over the 5000 years we have covered. The timeline of civilizations had shown us that civilizations evolved and disappeared or were transformed into others. A timeline of science does not display the same structure; it shows continuity because scientific knowledge accumulates over time, although some losses do occur and are only recovered centuries later. It also shows a tremendous acceleration of the increase in scientific knowledge: It took some 2400 years from the invention of the script and number systems to the separation of religion and science in Greece around 600 BC, another 2400 years to the separation of science and philosophy and the scientific revolution in physics during the Enlightenment, but only three steps of 100 years each to the scientific revolutions in chemistry, biology and geology.

When a scientist is asked what drives science forward the most common answer is curiosity. It is a convenient answer, an answer that makes science appear detached from the political and ideological debate of the day and portrays it as being above confrontations of class and power. Closer investigation shows that curiosity is only one motivation among others for research. Crowther (1967) found evidence for five different motivations:

It is true that some scientists are mainly motivated by curiosity. That curiosity should be the strongest force to drive science forward has, however, to be questioned. Scientists motivated mainly by curiosity often show very little interest in publishing their findings; Darwin, Cavendish and Pavlov are prominent examples. Once they discover the answer to a problem and have satisfied their curiosity they consider writing it all down a burden that keeps them from investigating another interesting problem. But without the documentation of research results in written form science cannot move forward. Curiosity alone does not seem to achieve this.

To list the desire to enjoy oneself as an independent motivation appears difficult to sustain. It is hard to see how anyone can enjoy oneself in science without having a curious mind, because without the curiosity much of the work in science is just drudgery and mind-numbing routine. The desire for enjoyment and fun may take over on occasions and is probably the motivation for some of the toys scientists and engineers like Hero invented in Alexandria. But in the ordinary course of science, whether one counts blood cells under a microscope or performs lengthy mathematical calculations, the enjoyment comes from the finding of new facts.

The need to earn a living has often been the motivation for gifted members of minorities who were barred from access to everyday occupations. This explains the prominence of Jews in medicine and other research areas. During the 19th century increased demand for scientists allowed men and occasionally women from the working classes to take up a scientific career. The need to earn a living would have been a strong motivation for them as well. Today it is often argued that most scientists are not particularly well paid and could earn more in other professions, and their preference for a scientific career is proof that financial considerations are not a motivation for science. This disregards the fact that many scientists are not very good at anything except science and cannot easily enter other professions.

The desire for reputation has been a major motivation for several outstanding scientists. It is recognized by the many prizes, awards and honorary memberships of societies available in the academic world. It drives scientists to push for publication not just in any scientific journal but in the most prestigious journal of their field. The most prominent example in history is Isaac Newton, who gave science away as soon as he had gained access to the ruling class. Today a successful scientist becomes a member of the upper middle class by virtue of his or her salary alone and can rub shoulders with politicians and industrialists.

The desire to serve humanity is seen as such a noble motivation that every agrochemical, petrochemical, software or drug company claims it as one of its major driving forces in the search for profit. One has to be wary to see it quoted as motivation for industrial research. Its truth content can be better judged from the lives of individual researchers. The readiness with which many scientists were prepared to serve as senators, ministers, mayors and in other public positions during the French Revolution (Lecture 21) is a strong indication that the desire to serve humanity was a major motivation for scientists of the period. Scientists who - like Benjamin Franklin - had absorbed the Protestant work ethic, were also strongly motivated by their wish to improve the human condition. Franklin refused throughout his life to take up patents for his work, so that it could be of benefit to all. Sir Humphry Davy, the inventor of the safety lamp for mines, refused to patent his invention because his "sole object was to serve the cause of humanity." (Crowther, 1967)

It has of course to be realized that to take the intentions of individuals as the ultimate driving force for scientific progress would return us to the 18th century and to a variation of Adam Smith's basic proposition: that scientists "led by an invisible hand . . . without knowing it, without intending it, advance the interest of the society." Individuals can follow their ideals only to the degree that the laws of society allow them to do so. In the democracies of ancient Greece people could pursue science if they were male and free and could afford to study at the Academy or Lyceum in Athens. In Alexandria they could become state employees and enjoy the intellectual freedom of the Museum. A few centuries later physicians and surgeons who wanted to serve humanity could do so in the great public hospitals of the Muslim empires. During feudalism they had to be subservient to the rulers of the day and serve what Galilei called their "regal sport". (Lecture 19)

The advent of capitalism has set new conditions for society. Its driving force is profit maximization. It is true that profit can only be made with products or services that satisfy public demand. Creating artificial demand is possible to some extent, as is evidenced by the fashion industry, designer labels, ring tones for mobile phones etc.; but the basis of every economy including capitalism is and remains the requirement to provide food, clothing, health and shelter. Capitalism meets these requirements but is not driven by them. It only provides food if there is profit to be made in the process. This is the reason why poverty has taken on a new dimension under capitalism. In all previous social systems poverty was inflicted on people during periods of bad harvests and other natural disasters but did not result from the system itself. Under capitalism science has provided the means to feed every human being on Earth, and industrial countries have introduced elaborate administrative systems to dispose of agricultural produce that cannot be sold profitably. Hunger and poverty are no longer inflicted on people because people find themselves helpless in the face of natural disasters; they are now the outcome of the laws of society.

The laws of society are objective laws that cannot be broken by subjective decisions of individuals. Davy could refuse to patent his invention; he could not stop capitalists to take advantage of it. In the end mine safety was greatly increased, the miners could expect a longer life under the same miserable living conditions and the mine owners higher profits.

The introduction of profit as the driving force of the economy is the reason for the tremendous acceleration of scientific progress since the Enlightenment. Thousands of new chemical compounds that do not exist naturally have been introduced during the last fifty years, with only very rudimentary knowledge of their effects on humans, animals, plants and the inanimate environment. Materials derived from oil (plastics, synthetic fibres etc) have replaced traditional materials that were well understood and proven for centuries. Some new compounds such as DDT and CFC had to be banned, others, such as toxic antifouling paints, are still in use.

Throughout this series of lectures we have said that science develops where there is a need for it. Under capitalism this need springs from the law of profit maximization as the driving force of the economy. Society has a need for shirts; it does not develop the need to replace cotton by synthetic fibre. But profits are higher when cotton is replaced by synthetic fibre, so science produces a new chemical compound, and industry uses it, without much regard for whatever the environmental and social consequences might be.

The subservience of science to the law of profit maximization raises the question whether the explosion of scientific research observed during the last two centuries has to continue if the human species is to survive. To answer that question or at least find some indicators for the future development of science and society it is necessary to briefly summarize the developments since the end of World War II.

National revolutions and the end of Chinese feudalism

The invention of the atomic bomb had prevented a major military conflict between capitalism and communism, but it could not prolong the life of colonialism. The life of the United Nations began in 1950 with 50 member states; in 1975 its membership exceeded 140. Most of the new member states were new nations forged in the struggle for independence from their colonial masters. Some countries, among them Tanganjika, Algeria, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, had to fight long and costly liberation wars. Others reached independence less violently but had to go through long periods of civil strife and unrest.

The era of decolonization, as the three decades after World War II can be called, saw the development of a new type of revolution in which the nascent national bourgeoisie, the emerging working class and the peasants of the colonized countries joined forces to evict the occupying powers. Students and academics and other intellectuals played a leading role in this "national revolution" and provided the first statesmen of the new countries. Leaders like Gandhi in India, Mosaddeq in Iran, Jinnah in India, Lumumba in Congo were and still are national heroes.

Like earlier revolutions in history, the national revolution created a wave of intellectual excitement and moral development, and scientists were active participants in it. During the 1970s hundreds of scientists from Europe and North America ignored travel bans imposed by the USA and organized regular summer schools in Havana to assist the development of Cuban science. The experience of teaching Cuban oceanography students, who with their professors had just completed the construction of their new oceanographic research laboratory - all professional builders' labourers were needed for the construction of housing around the country, so the students and university staff had built it themselves with funds from the government - will remain one of my most cherished professional memories.

Women played an important role in the struggle of the colonies for national liberation. It was therefore only logical that national liberation gave women the right to vote. The liberation struggle had also a great impact on the intellectual life in the "home countries." Opposition against imperialism grew in Europe and in the USA, and the values of the capitalist system were questioned.

The rivalry of two superpowers was of great assistance to the liberation struggle of the colonies, who could exploit it to their advantage. An independent third force emerged during the period in Asia. China had been mostly successful in keeping the colonial powers out of the country, but foreign legations, Christian missions and trading houses had established themselves in some Chinese cities, and Britain, Germany and Portugal had colonial possessions in Hong Kong, Qingdao (Tsingtao) and Macau. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was an early but unsuccessful attempt to force all foreign powers out of China. At the same time Chang Chi-tung, an enlightened state official, tried to bring industrialization to China and modernize its social structure on the basis of Confucianism and imperial rule. But the Ming dynasty agreed to reforms only under pressure and sent its secret police to fight the growing strength of the republican movement. It could not defend its rule and fell in 1912. Attempts by the imperial forces to undermine the republic led to the assassination of the leader of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang); but after a brief period of struggle Sun Yat-sen became leader of the Kuomintang and provisional president of the Republic of China in 1916.

Japan's attempt to occupy China during World War II led to a national front against the aggressors between the Kuomintang under Sun Yat-sen's successor Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. Chiang Kai-shek would have preferred to collaborate with the aggressor and fight the communists, but his own commanders forced him to join the national front. After the Japanese defeat he returned to his preferred line of action and unleashed a civil war. It ended with the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Like the majority of countries in the world, China still faces the task to turn an agricultural society into an industrialized society. Historically this process has been a period of great suffering and much poverty for the population. England went though it with the enclosures of the 16th and 17th centuries. (Lecture 20) In the Soviet Union it took the form of forced collectivization. (Lecture 29) In most countries of the Third World today it occurs in the form of uncontrolled growth of slums in mega-cities that struggle to provide the necessary public services. All three forms produced and produce immense misery. For several decades China was on its way to become the only country so far that may achieve industrialization without paying the price of mass pauperization of the peasants. To achieve this China adopted control of peoples' movement and land ownership. Curtailing freedom of movement and the right to purchase land alone does not avoid pauperization, but it can create the conditions under which an economic development policy can work for the peasants. The jury is still out whether the combination of a free market economy with political control through the communist party will achieve that aim and turn China into an advanced industrial nation without going through a phase of widespread poverty and misery. If it can it will have shown that alternatives to capitalist development are not only possible but can also provide better living conditions for everyone.

Partisan science and scientific ethics

The economic conflict between the imperialist powers and the poor nations has created a new type of science that I call partisan science, wilfully deformed science designed to counter criticism of the activities of the imperialist powers. Partisan science should not be confused with solicited science, given for example to tobacco companies to "prove" that smoking does not pose a health hazard. Partisan science relates to solicited science as pure science relates to applied science: It serves the same purpose as its applied partner but operates on an apparently neutral level disconnected from its beneficiaries.

One area where partisan science has gained a position of influence is climate research. Since the 1980s the production of energy through the burning of fossil fuels in power plants, cars, aircraft and other means of transportation has led to growing concern about the possibility of global warming as a result of growing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. In 1987 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) decided to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with the task to produce a scientific assessment of the situation.

By 2002 the IPCC had produced three assessment reports. The IPCC publicly invites the participation of all scientists and spends thousands of hours to bring together all available observations, from which it draws its scientific conclusions. This includes the use of mathematical models that can assist in projecting climate forward in time, a technique that is necessary because observations regarding the effects of fossil fuel burning exist only for a few decades, but its impact on the climate will last much longer. Involving hundreds of scientists in the research and inviting every scientist to contribute is clearly the most effective way to apply science to a global problem. It is also the most objective way, because it does not exclude anyone with scientific expertise and thus is least likely to miss or misrepresent important information.

Deriving clear climate trends from a few decades of data and identifying the causes for observed trends is a very difficult task. Through the series of its three assessment reports the IPCC has been able to narrow the uncertainty and is now convinced that most of the observed global warming is the result of fossil fuel burning. Most governments concur and signed the Kyoto protocol aimed at bringing the growth in CO2 output under control. The notable exception are the USA, which refused to sign and continue to promote increased use of fossil fuel for energy production. "Think tanks" and economic institutes particularly in the USA are questioning the scientific value of the IPCC reports and promoting the ideology that the world is getting better thanks to modern capitalism. To show some degree of credibility they have to offer their own scientific assessments. They find an ally in partisan science.

Bjorn Lomborg, associate professor of statistics in the political science department of the University of Aarhus and during the years 2002 - 2004 director of the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute, provides a good example how partisan science works. Lomborg begins with some unquestionable observations (Dayton, 2003):

Unlike solicited science, partisan science does not falsify observations or produce bogus experimental results. It combines correct scientific findings with unethical argumentation to promote wrong conclusions. Most scientists agree that the Kyoto Protocol is an extremely weak instrument to combat global warming because the scientific recommendations were severely watered down in a political compromise. But they would not conclude that doing nothing is better. As far as the worries of developing countries are concerned, the Kyoto Protocol explicitly allows them to increase their carbon dioxide output; it prescribes reductions only for industrialized countries. And what is the purpose of saying that "the population increase peaked in the 1960s and has been declining ever since"? Yes, the population increases at a slower rate today than in the 1950s and 1960s, but it still increases and will in all likelihood increase for the next 50 years or more. Lomborg's formulation suggests that population growth does not really present a problem.

The use of established scientific facts allows partisan scientists to achieve respectability. In 2001 the reputable publisher Cambridge University Press published Lomborg's book The Sceptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. The book became a best-seller. It was peer-reviewed by four researchers including a climate scientist, a specialist in biodiversity and an economist. It could not be rejected on the grounds of scientific facts. It should have been rejected on the grounds of scientific ethics; but reviewers are very uncomfortable when it comes to decisions about scientific ethics.

Lomborg's book presents him as a champion of the Third World: Environmental decline will be brought under control - so goes the argument - through rapid economic growth in the developing countries. Again the argument is based on observational evidence: The European population stopped growing as its countries turned into industrialized countries. The discussion in Lecture 9 of future trends in the world population was based on the same observation and argued that it was achieved in Europe through the introduction of a system of pensions and social security.

It is not the observational evidence that makes Lomborg a partisan scientist, it is the ethical dimension of his science. Ethical standards are not arbitrary choices of societies, they are part of the human character and were formed in the process of evolution. (Lecture 1) Standards of "good" and "bad" exist independent of religion and ideology, and it is impossible for individuals to claim that their opinions and arguments are beyond ethical judgement.

The World Economic Forum and the magazine Business Week of the USA are known for their unrestrained support for global capitalism. The Forum named Lomborg a "Global Leader of Tomorrow", Business Week voted him one of the "50 Stars of Europe." (Dayton, 2003) The Competitive Enterprise Institute awarded him its Julian I. Simon Memorial Award. The institutions bestowed these honours on Lomborg because his partisan science supports the practices of the large corporations in their quest for economic domination of the world. Serious ethical scientific analysis would include a study how corporations use patents to maintain their stranglehold on the Third World, attempt to impose conditions on environmental law making and much more.

Lomborg is not the only partisan climate scientist. In 2003 the editor-in-chief and two of the co-editors of the reputable international journal Climate Research resigned in protest over the handling of a partisan science paper by another co-editor and the decision of the publisher to let the paper go to print. (Manton, 2003) The journal Energy and Environment is dedicated to partisan science; its editor Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen says "I claim the right to publish papers critical of the IPCC because this may indeed strengthen the voice of the fossil fuel owners, employees and users, including the developing countries rich in fossil fuel resources." (Boehmer-Christiansen, 2004)

Every scientist who has followed the IPCC assessments and other climate research would agree with Boehmer-Christiansen that the issue of how the climate will change and the details of what causes it is far from settled. Most scientists conclude that under such circumstances scientific ethic requires the adoption of the precautionary principle. The Kyoto Protocol is a timid step in that direction. Partisan scientists present themselves as champions of poor nations by using the same data as other scientists to promote reckless expansion of fossil fuel use.

The success of partisan science is only possible because modern science has long left the area of everyday experience. Ordinary people have no way to judge the truth of statements on climate change, and this is true as well for scientists of other disciplines. The public has to take scientific assessments of climate change on trust. Science then becomes a matter of faith, and the philosophical position of postmodernism that there are alternative versions of science turns into reality. Scientists in the USA already complain about the emergence of two versions of science, one accepted by the government and corporations, the other pursued and taught at universities. There is no doubt that partisan science has gained control of sections of the US government.

Towards a better future?

I chose climate research as an example of the rise of partisan science because it is an area that my training as an oceanographer allows me to understand. Without doubt partisan science will develop in other areas as well, if it does not exist already. It will arise wherever the aims of corporations and imperial powers come into conflict with the precautionary principle.

One such area will be genetic engineering. The possibilities for applications of genetic science are vast, and a huge effort will be required to assess their environmental impact. Public concern about genetically engineered food often leads to calls for a total ban on genetic engineering. There is no doubt that nuclear weapons, anti-personnel mines and other applications of scientific research have to be banned forever and that this ban will include some applications of genetic engineering, such as the use of rBST in dairy farming and others. But genetic engineering can be used responsibly and ethically and can produce beneficial results. Maize has been made resistant to attacks of a species of moth by implanting a gene of the micro-organism Bacillus thurigiensis. As a result less pesticide is sprayed on fields, and the stress on the environment is greatly reduced.

Many foods (mainly soy bean and corn (maize) products) already contain genetically engineered ingredients. Not all of them lead to a better environment. Soy beans have been engineered to tolerate higher doses of pesticides, which makes weed control easier and as a result increases the pesticide load carried by the environment.

The issue is not genetic engineering as such but who decides over its use. The principle of profit maximization will inevitably lead to pressure to disregard the precautionary principle and give rise to the genetic engineering branch of partisan science. First indications also show that it will not necessarily lead to the best use of useful products by society but increase the gulf between rich and poor nations. The Supreme Court of the USA has ruled that the creation of a new bacterium (E. coli) "with markedly different characteristics from any found in nature" through manipulation of DNA is patentable. (Dobzhansky et al., 1995) The principle has since been extended to the human genome: A researcher who can identify the specific role of a particular gene (that it controls the body's ability to fight cancer, that it is responsible for colour perception, or whatever other role it may play) can patent this knowledge and own the use of that gene in all possible applications. Researchers at the Weizman Institute in Israel developed enzymes that can recognize certain cancer cells from the signals they emit during cell division and use that information to correct the DNA. Will this function of the human organism now be patented and the cure of that cancer become the monopoly of a company? Having a monopoly on a desirable product is always the best way to maximize profit.

Patenting the results of research is also a safe way to exclude the Third World from scientific research and uphold the position of the European scientific tradition. The retired Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, leader of the Anglican Church, expressed the common view about the superiority of "Western science" when he said that "no great invention has come for many hundreds of years from Muslim countries. " The archbishop obviously has not seen a North American or European scientific research laboratory from the inside.

The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been running a special program for its particularly gifted students. Yuri B. Chernyak and Robert M. Rose (1995) produced a book of research questions from it. It lists the participants of the class of 1951 as Charu Chaudhry, Antony Donovan, Sushil Panta and Mike Quirk ( tutors) and Mike Allen, Becky Covert, Joshua Goldberg, Kwan Yong He, Charley Hamilton, Brad McKesson, Will Nielsen, Srivatsan Raghavan, Marion Shows, Van Van, Victor Washington, Daniel Weber and David (Chia-Ying) Yang (students). It is clear that a significant part of the research done in the USA is not done by members of the European civilization. Many of these individuals will eventually be absorbed by the host civilization. But it does not follow that the Asian and Islamic civilizations will never again establish their own science traditions. They are obstructed in their efforts by the international economic order and the international system of patents.

In January 2004 the Faculty of Physics and Nuclear Physics of Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran organized the First International Conference on Physics. (Amirkabir University, 2004) Fourteen of the invited speakers were Iranians, including ten Iranians who were working in the USA and Europe. Most of them presented research at the forefront of nuclear medicine and astronomy. All keep their ties with the Islamic civilization; many would gladly return to Iran if the conditions were such that Iran could fund their research and guarantee the conditions of intellectual freedom necessary for science to prosper. Amirkabir University hopes to develop such conditions and make the Conference on Physics a regular event. Creating the right conditions is difficult if the dominant political power of the world declares Iran an "evil" country and attempts to strangle it economically and Iran answers with religious nationalism as a result. It is naive at best and hypocritical at worst to deplore the lack of recent great inventions from Islamic countries under such conditions.

I conclude this lecture series with a few thoughts about better alternatives for the future of humanity. It is not so long ago that international corporations tried to get the United Nations to agree to international legislation that would override the right of sovereign nations to define their own laws. The proposal was made in the interest of facilitating free trade, which is hindered if the degree of legislative protection of the environment, for example, varies from country to country. The corporations wanted to impose uniform (and preferable minimal) environmental legislation on the world. The attempt was not successful, but the intention remains. It is an indication of what we can expect if the principle of profit maximization remains the driving force of society. And as every economist will tell us, capitalism requires economic growth, or it will create unemployment and therefore social unrest.

The question is whether there is an alternative to economic growth. To begin with, a country's Gross National Product (GNP), usually taken to be the measure of economic growth, is not necessarily an indicator for quality of life. If a car wrecked in an accident is replaced this increases the GNP, but the society is not better off afterwards. If the accident involves costly medical treatment this increases the GNP as well, while the individual involved may not totally recover and is in fact worse off than before. When a country in which most land is divided into large landholdings of a few rich landowners repossesses it and distributes it amongst the general population for subsistence farming it may loose export income from cash crop farming; its GNP may suffer severely, but in the long term its people will be much better off than before.

Even if one accepts GNP as a measure of social progress it is clear that perpetual economic growth is impossible. There is a limit to what the Earth can deliver. Arguments such as "Even the total weight of the Earth is not a theoretical limit to the amount of copper that might be available to earthlings in the future. Only the total weight of the universe would be such a theoretical limit because copper can be made from other metals" (proffered by the Professor of Business Administration Julian Simon and reported by the equally questionable Ehrlich, 2003) are simply not worth serious consideration.

The concept of a sustainable economy has found wide acceptance in the area of power generation and some areas of raw materials, particularly the forestry industry. There is no reason why it should not be extended to all other economic activities. This would eventually lead to a zero-growth model of the economy, where the level of economic activity would be determined by the needs of people and therefore proportional to the size of the population.

Supporters of capitalism point towards the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as proof that there is no alternative to capitalism. They ignore that socialism turned the Soviet Union from a backward feudal state into a superpower in a time span of less than 40 years. In the USA the rise to economic domination began with the end of the Civil War in 1865 and was not completed before Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project in 1940.

The three main factors that contributed to the end of socialism in the USSR were a misguided attitude to economic management, a lack of democratic institutions, and economic disadvantage against its capitalist competitors, who had colonies to exploit. To replace the desire of corporations for maximum profit as the motor of the economy by the needs of the population requires public control over the land and the industrial complexes; it does not require the elimination of the profit motive at all levels of society. The Soviet model of socialism eliminated private ownership not only at the level of industrial complexes but also at the level of small business and farming. The only motivation for individuals to perform well in their work that remained was thus idealistic support for the system or fear of reprisals.

A lack of democratic institutions is not necessarily an impediment for economic development, as the Soviet Union's success under Stalin shows. It becomes an obstruction to social progress when misguided economic policy leads to the growth of bureaucracy necessary to push people to work without personal incentives. It is true that Montesquieu's division of power into an independent Legislative, Executive and Judiciary has not eliminated the control of political power by a ruling class, but it is the best known method to avoid dictatorial excesses. Without it the Soviet bureaucracy could abuse political power to its own advantage.

The lack of colonial possessions can be explained to some degree by the socialist ideal of internationalism (the application to 20th century conditions of the ideal of brotherhood promoted by the French Revolution). The existence of the USSR was indeed a great help to the national revolution in the colonies. As time went on, the actions of the Soviet state bureaucracy were determined more by the interest of its members, who saw the lack of colonies more as a regrettable historical development, and internationalism degenerated into a political slogan.

One benefit that one derives from the study of history is a wider perspective on contemporary developments. It took 220 years (from the Civil Wars of England in 1642 - 1651 to the establishment of the Third Republic in France in 1871) to establish modern democracy as the political form of capitalism in the leading industrialized countries, even longer if he history of the republic in Germany is taken into account. 1871 also marked the brief appearance of the Commune de Paris, the first attempt to establish a socialist state. It may well take another 220 years before capitalism is replaced by a superior economic system.

There can be no doubt that the beginning of the 21st century is a period of regression. Most countries that liberated themselves from colonial rule in the national revolution established their own capitalist economy. Their national bourgeoisie abandoned the anti-colonial alliance with the common people and joined the international corporations in the exploitation of the population. The struggle between the imperialist powers and the exploited and impoverished nations is fought without clear leadership and concept and has degenerated into random attacks on targets seen as incarnations of imperialism. The powers under attack declare a "war on terror" to defend their position.

It is clear that the actions of the "terrorists" are a response to the current economic world order. It is also clear that their strategy will not lead to a better society. Such a society cannot be reached by return to social orders of the past, it requires the transition to a new world order. It is futile to speculate what it will look like, but judging from historical experience it is not unrealistic to expect that we will have reached it by 2091. It will not be the society of John Locke nor the society of Adam Smith and may show only the slightest resemblance to the society of Karl Marx. But it will no longer be based on indefinite economic growth for the maximization of profit.

What will be the role of science in such a society? It will be less directed towards expanding exploitation of resources and more towards supporting the Earth and the people that inhabit it. Because the use of new inventions will be based on the rigorous application of the precautionary principle, much more scientific energy will be spent on the evaluation of new ideas than on the search for new ideas. The rate of innovation will slow down, and the current explosion of scientific research will stabilize at a level that matches new discoveries and developments with the ability of science to evaluate their consequences. It will not be Pavlov's vision of "The omnipotent scientific method [that] will deliver man from his present gloom". Let us hope that it will at least be science in the service of humanity.


When I prepared this course material I had not been aware of developments that already point in the direction indicated in the last sentences. In February 2001 a White Paper on a "Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy" issued by the Commission of the European Communities suggested the introduction of legislation that represents a shift from unrestricted innovation towards the precautionary principle. The legislation, originally proposed as "Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals" and now known under the acronym REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), aims at a comprehensive system under which every industrially produced chemical has to be shown to be environmentally harmless before it can be marketed. The task is huge. 100,106 chemical substances were produced industrially in 1981. Some 3000 new chemicals have been added since then. Public authorities responsible for undertaking risk assessments of substances have only been able to identify 141 high-volume chemicals for risk assessment and possible recommendations for risk reduction since 1993; only 27 substances have undergone complete risk assessment. (European Commission, 2004)

Under the proposed REACH system, producers of chemicals have to prove that their products are environmentally harmless, and users will have to show that they use the products in an environmentally harmless way. The role of government authorities will be reduced to registration of the products and verification of the data provided by industry. To minimize the need for tests with animals, results from such tests can no longer be kept confidential but will have to be made publicly available, so that other producers do not have to repeat them.

The proposed legislation has undergone several years of consultation, during which the chemical industry not surprisingly complained about the additional cost of the required proof of environmental compatibility. The original REACH draft has experienced many changes as a result, and it remains to be seen how much of the initial concept will remain in the final legislation. The fact remains that REACH is the first attempt to define the role of science in the area of chemical innovation on the basis of the precautionary principle.

The National Foreign Trade Council of the USA does not share this vision of the future role of science and runs a virulent campaign against the European Commission. It is particularly opposed to the clause that under REACH regulations users of chemicals will have to demonstrate the environmental harmlessness of their use: Chemicals produced in the USA that do not conform to REACH requirements will then be banned from sale on the European market.

It is too early to tell how effective REACH can be under the current political world system. It is a first step to redirect the focus of science from unlimited innovation to protection of the health of our planet. The future will show how long it will take to reach that aim.


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