A scientist

Posted: 01/04/2014 in Mandtao, ONE planet, Science
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Mandtao 6/5/12

I was going to call this “A Man of Science” but this applies to all scientists and I couldn’t find an appropriate phrasing. A scientist has a field of expertise, and this field has usually developed through the scientist attending university moving into research, writing papers – even a book, and then being recognised as an expert. Effectively this scientist has become immersed in a field of study, and propagates that field of study by their way of life – papers lectures etc.

All of this is reasonable until you begin to question the context of this field of study. I am thinking of someone I know who would qualify as this type of scientist. He has become immersed in his field of science and the way he applies it. He is a strong man so this immersion is complete and shuts out those who don’t accept it. He appears not to have questioned axioms, and delivers his scientific knowledge unquestioningly. For most people he is extremely sure, and he brings that assuredness into his personal life where people admire his confidence and the assured way he deals with life and his family. I do hear him fend off inconsistencies such as chi with barbed wit and determined challenges, dismissing chi as non-existent and suggesting that those who exercise using chi somehow gain physical strength by “swatting flies”. A past master of this barbed wit is Richard Dawkins. His dismissal of religious understanding is completely destructive, and his popularity amongst intellectuals merely creates barriers to understanding rather than using his intelligence to develop a wider agreement.

I compare such scientists to thorn bushes. A thorn bush is strong and impenetrable. In its life its branches grow spouting more thorns that protect it. In a detached way a thorn bush appears isolated often distanced from other plant life in deserts or other barren surroundings, yet in reality this bush is an integral part of life itself. How does the thorn bush grow? In Nature. Underground its roots require water, its minimal foliage takes water from the atmosphere, and its breathing is as much a part of plant life as any plant. So whilst the thorn bush might profess insularity it is part of what Thay calls interbeing (For Thich Nhat Hanh, nonviolence is a natural and necessary part of Buddhist religion. To understand his teachings, then, one must start with the most basic religious foundation: “In Buddhism the most important precept of all is to live in awareness, to know what is going on…to be aware of what we do, what we are, each minute.” When we are totally mindful—in direct contact with reality, not just images of reality—we realize that “all phenomena are interdependent…endlessly interwoven.” This is the foundation of Nhat Hanh’s approach, not only to nonviolence but to all of life. He calls it the principle of “interbeing.”).

So what is the knowledge of the scientist? Even though s/he might be immersed in a particular discipline that discipline fits into a whole sphere of knowledge with integrated disciplines – an interbeing of knowledge. Whilst the scientist might focus attention narrowly that is a choice, an approach to learning, Whilst the scientist might be considered innovative within her/his field the reality is that the branches of the thorn bush are growing but the thorn bush still remains isolated. It is this separation that I characterise as important to much that is science.

But in truth this is not the way Capra sees science. In chapters 2 and 3 he describes a systems approach that perceives science as overarching networks that he calls “Web of Life”. This fits in with the deep ecology he described in Chapter 1, and that I have called ONE planet; it is not inconsistent with accepting ONE planet as axiomatic, but without asking I couldn’t say whether he would accept ONE planet in this way.

So if science is developing towards ONE planet where is the problem? The problem lies not with the direction of science but the direction that is imposed on it. Fundamentally systems thinking is an anathema to the 1%. The 1% likes a mechanistic model, a model of separation. This atomism allows business to create a plant and products that yield profits. But then it doesn’t have to be responsible for further consequences. I see this most obviously in the production of plastics. Science discovered the flexibility of using plastics, and business designed plants for productivity and profit. Over the decades as these plastic products have worn down there have been environmental consequences such as the gyra (see clip).

Once environmentalists determined that produced plastics were creating these problems they sought solutions. Unable to budge the 1% from their sole focus on profits the environmental lobby seeking some sort of solution targetted ordinary people in the hope that these people would improve the environment. But that approach can never be a solution whilst business continues to churn out all these plastics. So whilst a significant proportion of people have developed an environmental conscience concerning plastics the global environmental problems just worsen. World forums such as COP17 could seek solutions but rather than deal with the problems the 1% refuse to let go of their profits. To effect this the 1% have promoted climate-denial institutes such as Heartland, whose ambit is to promote the notion that the environmentally-damaging policies of their businesses are not causing “global warming” – and that they are not responsible for any damage that their policies in the past have caused. This is the exact antithesis of systems thinking in which responsibly lies with the totality of the systemic consequences.

What is worse in the case of plastics is that the problem can only be solved by business, because plastics are not biodegradable (like natural products such as made from wood). Plastics can only be recycled by production plant, and business as opposed to local authorities are the only people with the finance to create such plants. All that local authorities can do is remove the eyesores from one neighbourhood – and create eyesore landfills containing the plastics. These landfills are on the increase as are the numerous gyras.

Not only does business refuse to clean up the plastics they also ignore the alternative recyclable solutions, here are some examples.

The way the 1% dodge their responsibility for the environmental damage connected with plastics is atomistic thinking. Basically they examine their own little thorn bush, and determine that they need to do such-and-such to make a profit, and then they use their power and influence to blame everyone else.

Here is a bit of systems thinking that deals with plastics. It is a recognition that we are all part of ONE planet. It uses existing infrastructure, marginally increases the cost (thus excusing the 1% from participation), but would be clearly beneficial. The atomistic approach that is in place, for example with regards to bottled water, is that the 1% misuse government authority to go in and take the water they need from wherever they choose. Then they build plant to make the plastic bottles and then deliver the bottles to their supermarkets for sale. This is an atomistic process that enables them to make their profits, disadvantages the communities they collect the water from, cause lung disease where they are making the plastic bottles and leaves the bottles to be dealt with “by society” after they have been consumed. If it wasn’t so common place we would look at this process and wonder how we could have allowed it.

Note here, drinking water from plastic bottles is not a healthy option, and I don’t recommend it.

Given that we wish to continue consuming bottled water, what do we do? This requires an examination of the system which includes the consumer, sanitation, and the bottled water business. Once consumed the bottles are in refuse or in plastic bottle banks. The sanitation department takes the refuse and sorts it – this is an additional cost. The refuse is divided up into refuse that can be disposed of sustainably, paper products that can be used for recycling, plastics that can be stored awaiting collection. The sanitation department provides collection points where business can collect this “refuse” and business would collect it as part of its routine for delivering to the supermarkets. The materials for recycling are then delivered to plant where the new item for sales is manufactured. Here is a clip that talks of the potential of plastics:-

It is described as malleable but it is not malleable for you or I, however business can make anything if they invest in plant. So if business invests they can profit from recycling in coordination with sanitation and the consumer. As it stands at the moment, if this system were to be introduced business would get their puppet government to develop the new sanitation aspects, they would use the media to impress upon people the need for recycling and charge them more taxes, raise prices because of the increased costs due to recycling, and then make huge profits from the new plant and the new recycled resources. But by a system approach these additional costs would be shared as would the increased profits from the recycled manufacturing.

With a systems approach based around ONE planet we have an equitable solution, under the 1% approach the problem is denied until we are forced to act, then they take advantage of politics to profit from the outcome. System solutions exist but no matter what approach is offered the 1% can exploit, again pointing to a recognition that paradigms are not the solution when you are dealing with the 1%.

I have another example of a system that works, or at least I think it did. I had a friend who managed a company with a turnover of approx 1 and a half million a year. According to him, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, he worked hard as did his team of workers. In the end he was shattered and retired in his 50s to build a castle in the sky. Now I don’t know how ecologically sound his product was, and from that point of view how his production fitted into the wider system, but it sounded a fair system to work for based on mutual interest, respect and compassion. This man called himself a capitalist – as would many, but he was just running a small business. He made a reasonable living, worked too hard as probably did his workforce, but together they made it work. Within the business itself exploitation was minimalised.

Compare that with a transnational whose structure is based on coercion and exploitation. The transnational is run by the 1% but at all levels of management there is coercion based on career structure. If the middle and upper echelons of the transnational wish to progress they have to exploit the people under them on the ladder. The people employed in the factory are never encouraged to have loyalty, and they know there will be none in return – if the workers don’t accept exploitation, the low wages and try to unionise then the transnational moves its plant to another country. And who ensures that? The immediate manager, and if there are doubts the manager is pressurised up the ladder. 1% transnational companies function on coercion and exploitation, an approach that lacks a system that can work sustainably. It matters little to the 1%, they cut and run. That is the system, atomistic exploitation whose only guide is the profits of the 1%.

Contemporary science has begun to alter the axioms of science, and one example is Capra’s Web of Life. But even if science does alter this “worldview”, does it have any real impact on society? How connected is this new scientific knowledge to the reality of daily life? Clearly 1% influence is more powerful than that part of the scientific establishment that is recognising a systems approach. It is almost a clash – the atomism of the 1% and the systemic development of knowledge of ground-breaking science such as Capra. How do these forces exist together? That is the question that governs any paradigmatic change.

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