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Some People Don't Like Science, but Science Is Good for Us

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Message Seymour Patterson

The Club of Rome put out a book in 1972 titled Limits to Growth, and in a follow-up article, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (published in November 2005), it acknowledged that technological advances can increase resource growth only linearly.

Today, the torrid advances in technology are beyond astonishing, but the economic output technology makes possible comes at great costs. The U.S. economy and other countries like China not only produce more output but also more crud. In the spirit of the Club of Rome, variables such as population, industrialization, pollution, food output, and resource depletion increase, too, albeit exponentially. Notice that two things are happening together: there is more output due to advances in technology, which is a good thing; but there's also more waste--a bad thing--as a by-product of the increase in output. This is a problem, because in a closed ecosystem such as planet earth, entropy (the process of running down) increases over time. And something else seems to be happening, perhaps more insidious: the production of waste may be exceeding the earth's ability to cope with it and to renew itself.

Scientists tell us that industrialization is contributing to global warming. The production of GDP (goods and services) comes with a by-product, i.e. crud or waste, and production for an ever-expanding population in a closed ecosystem such as earth depletes its natural resources seemingly exponentially. From the point of view of humans, the goal must be to find a sustainable feedback profile to get accommodating growth trends among the variables listed above. Prudent stewardship of the environment needs to be the goal of our policymakers.

There is no need for hysteria about climate change; however, the real possibility that the earth is warming should not be brushed aside. We ought not to be willing to sacrifice the welfare of the planet for business profit. This is a shortsighted strategy. It is far better to err on the side of science, which has provided evidence of global warming, than on the side of ideology (and shrill voices charging hoax). We might not have reached a critical inflection point in the struggle between crud and goods. And it might not be too late for the world community of countries to start taking measures to insure that our world never crosses a climate event horizon from which there can be no turning back.

Balanced growth might be a way around the insidious effects of industrialization and environmental (air, land, and water) degradation. Such a balance would require that all sectors of the economy grow at the same rate, without bottlenecks that lead to efficiency losses. You don't want demand to be such that we overstress limited non-renewable resources. Another way to approach the problem is to have the government promote policies that enable businesses to grow output and capital at the same rate as population growth. This would make managing world population growth central to good stewardship of planet earth.

In response to both resource depletion and global warming concerns, additional sources of energy that might involve drilling in ANWR (Arctic National Wild Life Refuge), the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline, squeezing oil from shale, and alternative sources obtained by fracking for gas, increased use of solar panels, mining coal, expanded use of wind turbines, and nuclear plants, are all being explored. In the political theater, one party is prepared to let the marketplace decide not only output levels but also resource use and pollution levels. The other party is willing to intervene where there is market failure, set standards for air quality, and promote green energy technologies.

At the international level, there is agreement that humans can affect the well-being of the earth. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol is connected to the UN Framework on Climate Change. It sets binding targets for 37 developed countries and the EU for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The fascinating thing about this is that Senate Republicans failed to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities treaty, and the United States steadfastly refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol that it signed. The point, though, is that the government or governments (the UN) have to collectively address issues like climate change because of human activities. Science opens doors, businesses walk through them, and governments try to balance scientific findings, the business profit motive, and environmental quality.

But the players--businesses, government, and scientists--have different objectives. The business model emphasizes profits as its raison d'être, though it is often couched under some variation on the theme of "increasing stockholders' share value." In any case, production using labor and capital produces two things: goods (i.e. food, shelter, clothing, etc.) and waste (pollution). Businesses have no inherent impulse not to pollute--i.e. to clean up either the atmosphere their smoke stacks emissions contaminate or the industrial waste that pollutes the streams with down-stream effects on third parties. Doing the right thing by victims of pollution increases production costs and eats into profits.

Government's Role in Protecting the Environment

The role of government, on the other hand, is best captured by a phrase in the Preamble to the Constitution that says "... promote the general Welfare.... " Government carries out this mandate by stepping in to correct bad industrial practices. This is why EPA and the FDA exist, and why there is Cap and Trade that makes firms pay for pollution rights. There are lots of examples of government intervention to make both firms and ordinary citizens do the right thing. Who doesn't remember the objections to mandatory seat belts in cars as an attack on freedom? For instance, "I don't need my mother or my government telling me I must have seat belts on my kids, Sen. Terry Spencer, R-Layton, said Thursday during the first floor debate on SB12." There were similar objections to the use of catalytic converters to control carbon monoxide emissions from automobile tailpipes. But the upside to the Clear Air Act 1970 can be appreciated from the following paragraph:

"It turns out that the  federal government  is the hero of the catalytic-converter story. Over the objections of carmakers, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, imposing strict emission standards on automobiles. Among other things, carmakers predicted that the regulations would reduce performance and fuel efficiency. Instead, not only has pollution dropped dramatically, but also carmakers have steadily improved fuel efficiency, in part to meet the demands of the pollution regulations. The Clean Air Act's rules had another dramatic effect: Because catalytic converters are damaged by lead, their widespread use meant that lead had to be eliminated as an ingredient in gasoline. As a result, lead, a dangerous toxin, has all but disappeared as an environmental pollutant." [C. Fishman.]

Then there were the negative reactions to banning smoking in public places. Some of us can still remember the pre-ban period, when going to a cinema, restaurant, or nightclub, or riding the bus or flying, meant coming away with red eyes and reeking of cigarette smoke--and never mind the correlation between smoking (including secondary smoke) and lung cancer. In the end, the resistance to banning smoking in public places was overcome, though I can recall hearing clamors for a repeal of the ban on smoking in public spaces.

Protection of the Ozone Layer

In the mid-1980s countries negotiated and agreed, in 1987, to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Some of the substances with deleterious effects on the ozone layer that were used commercially include chlorofluorocarbon (FEON) in aerosol spray, fire extinguishers, industrial solvents, coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators, hospital sterilants, and refrigeration. It was science that discovered the culprit--FEON. The victim was the ozone layer, which consists of three molecules of oxygen. The ozone layer hovers high in the stratosphere, 30 miles above the earth, and protects us from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) are man-made chemicals that are stable in the atmosphere. Once CFCs enter the atmosphere they tend to stay there and eventually are broken down by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the Sun. For the science-minded, the interaction of CFC and UV releases free chlorine, which reacts with oxygen through a chemical process that destroys ozone molecules. Three oxygen molecules replace two ozone molecules. Chlorine reacts again with oxygen molecules to destroy the ozone again and again, thousands of times per molecule.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can be deadly to humans. Exposure to UV rays can lead to cataracts, skin cancer, suppression of the immune system, and premature aging of the skin. These are the negative effects of sunlight, i.e. UV ray exposure. One positive effect of this exposure is the generation of vitamin D. The irony is that CFC is man-made. It is the product of science, broadly speaking. But its use has had unexpected and unintended side effects. However, in a collaborative sort of way, scientific research informed government regulation that restricted some kinds of Freon usage in cooling devices. For example, the restriction of Freon in air conditioners and refrigerators made it possible for the ozone layer to begin to repair itself.

The Place of Science in Society

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Seymour Patterson received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma in 1980. He has taught courses and done research in international economics and economic development. He has been the recipient of two Fulbright awards--the first in (more...)
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