Saving Science

Last week may just find its place in the history books as the point in time when peak oil became a social fact. Combine a drastic spike in oil prices – up US$16 in two days for one widely watched benchmark grade of crude oil –with an announcement by General Motors that the Hummer, that overblown icon of an era of excess, will no longer be manufactured, and you’ve got a snapshot of the transformation now hitting an unprepared and unwilling world.

As this particular milestone takes its place in the rear view mirror of contemporary history, it’s important that we try to glimpse the upcoming milestones on the road ahead. The one I’d like to address here, as I suggested at the end of last week’s post, is the need to preserve the heritage of modern science through the challenges of the coming deindustrial age.

From today’s perspective, mind you, it may seem silly to suggest that science may need saving at all. Not only does scientific research play a huge economic role in modern society, science has become an ideology that fills most of the roles occupied by religion in older civilizations than ours. Scientific institutions have profited accordingly, expanding into an immense network of universities, research institutes, foundations, and publishers, subsidized by many billions a year in government largesse.

Yet the same thing could have been said about the priesthoods of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and his fellow gods in the glory days of the Roman Empire, or the aristocratic priest-scribes of the Lowland Maya city-states in the days before Tikal and Cop├ín were swallowed by the jungle. Civilizations direct huge resources to their intellectual elites, because they can, and because the payoff in terms of each civilization’s values are well worth the expenditure. The downside is that the intellectual heritage of each civilization becomes dependent both on the subsidies that support them and on the ideological consensus that makes those subsidies make sense. In the decline and fall of a civilization, both the subsidies and the consensus are early casualties; thereafter, the temples of Jupiter get torn apart to provide stones for churches, and the intricate planetary almanacs compiled by Mayan astrologers rot in the ruins of the temples where their authors once contemplated the heavens.

Project the same process onto our own future and the vulnerabilities of science are hard to miss. Imagine, for example, a world forty years from now in which rates of annual production of oil, coal, and natural gas have dropped so low that only countries that produce them can afford to use them at all, and then only to meet critical needs. Half the surviving population in the nations with remaining fossil fuels, and 90% in the others, labors at subsistence agriculture, and most of the remainder work in factories converting salvaged materials into needed goods with hand tools. Worldwide, dozens of nations have collapsed into violent anarchy, and whole populations are on the move as sea level rises and rain belts shift. In America, the old canal network is being reopened by men with shovels, as fuel shortages hit a rail network that never recovered from its 20th-century dilapidation. Meanwhile army units face guerrilla forces in the mountain West, while refugees from starving Japan, packed into the hulks of abandoned container ships, ride the currents en masse toward the west coast.

In such a world, what role will modern science have? Certain branches of applied science, especially those applicable to energy and the military, will get funding as long as anything still exists to fund them. Most other applied fields will have to scrabble for scraps, though, while pure research will go begging, because the resources to support them in their current style won’t exist. The facilities that make advanced research possible will be boarded up when they haven’t been looted for raw materials.

Significant science could still be done in such a future. It bears remembering, after all, that such epochal scientific discoveries as the theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics were made with equipment would be considered hopelessly inadequate for a high school science class today. The problem is that the entire mindset of today’s science militates against research on this scale. The transformation of science from a pursuit of gifted amateurs to a profession supported by government and corporate funds was complete most of a century ago; today it would be hard to find many scientists who would be able to pursue their research unassisted in a basement lab with homemade equipment, and I’m by no means sure how many of them would be willing to do it without pay, on their own time, after their day jobs.

Thus science faces the same predicament as other elements of today’s cultural heritage: it needs a constituency to carry it through the process of decline and fall, or it risks vanishing entirely. James Lovelock, one of the few scientists to glimpse this problem, has suggested creating a single large book containing scientific discoveries – “the scientific equivalent of the Bible,” in his phrase – that can be printed on durable materials and distributed widely in advance of the crash. This begs a crucial question, though: when we talk about preserving science, exactly what are we trying to save?

That word “science,” after all, includes a great many things under its umbrella. It’s common to divide them by subject into disciplines such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. In the present context, though, another division has more value. We need to look separately at science as product, science as profession, and science as process to make sense of our predicament and craft a strategy for its survival.

Science as product is the sort of thing Lovelock is discussing: those facts and theoretical models about the universe currently accepted as true by the majority of scientists in the relevant fields. This is in some ways the easiest part of science to save, since a single book preserved in some dusty library could preserve a huge amount, the way that Ptolemy’s Almagest preserved nearly the whole body of Greek mathematical astronomy intact. Just as the Almagest became a millstone around the neck of later astronomers, though, science as product easily fossilizes into dogma. By treating science wholly as product, Lovelock’s proposal risks reducing science to the rote repetition of doctrines accepted on the basis of blind faith.

Science as profession is the system of trained personnel and infrastructure that keeps today’s science going. This dimension of today’s science is fatally vulnerable to the impacts of decline, for reasons already discussed; the economic troubles, political chaos, and desperate exigencies of an age of decline will shred the support system for today’s science in fairly short order. In a time when the destructive legacies of technology may loom larger than its fading benefits, too, the possibility of a violent popular backlash against science cannot be dismissed out of hand

That leaves science as process: the scientific method, that elegantly simple fusion of practical logic and applied mathematics that was birthed in the 17th century and gave birth in turn to the modern world. This is the dimension that arguably deserves saving ahead of anything else, since it allows science to be done at all; ironically, it is also the most vulnerable of the three, since few people except professional scientists have any exposure to it. Lovelock’s appalling dream of scientific Holy Writ, to some extent, simply reflects current reality; science as product has eclipsed science as process, so that people outside the scientific profession are taught to accept scientific doctrines on faith, rather than being encouraged to practice science themselves. If today’s professionalized science faces extinction over the next century or so, there’s a real possibility that it could take the scientific method with it to the grave.

A number of eloquent voices have argued that this might not be a bad thing. Such writers as Theodore Roszak and Lewis Mumford have pointed out that the practical benefits of science must be weighed in the balance against the dehumanizing effects of scientific reductionism and the horrific results of technology run amok in the service of greed and the lust for power. Others have argued that scientific thinking, with its cult of objectivity and its rejection of human values, is fundamentally antihuman and antilife, and the gifts it has given us are analogous to the gewgaws Mephistopheles brought to Faust at the price of the latter’s soul.

These arguments make a strong case against the intellectual idolatry that treats science as a surrogate religion or a key to ultimate truth. I’m not convinced, though, that they make a case against the practice of science on the much more modest basis to which it is better suited, and on which it was carried on until quite recently: that of a set of very effective mental tools for making sense of material reality. As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, and the reach of our sciences and technologies scales back to fit the realities of life in a world of strict ecological limits, the overblown fantasies that encouraged people to make science carry the burden of their cravings for transcendence are, I think, likely to give way sooner rather than later.

At the same time, the survival of the scientific method will be crucial to the task of creating sustainable societies in the future ahead of us. That process will be very hard to pursue without the touchstone of quantitative measurement and experimental verification. Thus I suggest that preserving the scientific method as a living tradition belongs tolerably high on the priority list as the Long Descent begins around us.

How could this be done? With today’s institutionalized science unlikely to survive, at least two options present themselves. The first is that other social forms better suited to withstand the rigors of an age of decline might choose adopt the practice of scientific research. One example is emerging just now in the movement I know best, the modern Druid community. I don’t think it’s a secret to many people that Druids care passionately about the environment, and are interested in learning about nature; the Druid order I head, for example, requires participants in its study program to learn about the natural history of the area in which they live.

With that as foundation, we are building a framework for Druids to take part in environmental sciences as active participants. It takes very little in the way of hardware to identify pollinators visiting a backyard garden, or to track turbidity and erosion along the banks of a local stream; it takes very little more to turn the knowledge gained in these ways to the work of ecological healing – providing nesting boxes for orchard mason bees, seeding erosion-controlling plants, and many other small steps with potentially huge consequences. A grasp of scientific method will be crucial in this work, and if it proves valuable to the survival of human communities and the ecosystems in which they live – as I am convinced it will – the method will be handed down to the future.

Now it’s only fair to say that Druidry, as one small religious movement among many, has no special privilege in this regard. Any other religious tradition, or for that matter any nonreligious one with enough passion and commitment to survive the coming troubles, could make a similar choice, adopting some branch of science useful to its work. It’s a tried and true method – trace the survival of Greek logic by way of Christian and Muslim religious traditions, or the parallel survival of Indian logic in Hinduism and Buddhism, and you’ll find a similar process at work. I hope other groups rise to the challenge; in the meantime, we Druids are doing what we can.

Yet scientists themselves might explore the possibility of creating new social forms to keep science going as a living tradition once today’s lavishly funded institutions become tomorrow’s boarded-up buildings and another century’s crumbling ruins. How those new forms might take shape, and how they might best cope with the crises ahead of us, is anybody’s guess just now; my own background leads me to imagine something along the lines of Freemasonry, say, or the occult lodges that kept Renaissance esoteric traditions alive during the age of science, using the keys of narrative, symbolism and ritual to turn dry philosophies into unforgettable experiences; still, this is only one option among many.

The crucial point, it seems to me, is to recognize that no special providence guards science, or for that matter any of the opulent cultural heritage we enjoy nowadays. It has been said, and rightly, that nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of collapse, or so invulnerable as an army on the eve of total defeat. Like the broken statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, a few fragments of today’s science might someday stand in an metaphorical wasteland once filled with the cyclotrons and observatories of a vanished age. Our job, as I see it, is to salvage what seems most likely to be of value to the future while we still have the chance.