We’ll Have To Science That

Filed in Science and Health by on November 29, 2010

The December issue Scientific American is out and it covers some world changing ideas among many other issues. As one leafs through the issue, a reader could easily skip From the Editor, but this month’s column is interesting. Two items that Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina brings up are what are we doing about global warming and what role does science have in solving our problems.

First, what if we stopped feeling frozen by uncertainties associated with climate change and—at least for starters—simply began applying good resources management within existing human experience?

[snip]

I’d like to see us, in the near future, facing our problems by saying: “We’ll have to science that.”

What I found interesting about this two basic ideas is that these questions are a good response to free market’s frequent failures, because when capitalism fails, it fails spectacularly. I won’t go into particulars, but when capitalism manages our environment, things go pear-shaped — people tend to get hurt or irreparably harmed, and some even die. So why not manage our land, air, water and energy better? Why this constant fight? Capitalism has shown that it is for short-term (3 to 5 years) goals only and we need to think long-term (10 to 100 to 1,00o years). It’s time to take capitalism out of managing our resources.

And, lastly, the free market shows its true colors by only embracing science when it sees a profit. Anytime science leads us to discover problems on a grand scale, capitalism retreats to the board rooms and country clubs of short-term thinking. I’d love to see the Republican Party incorporate scientific ideas into their platform as easily as they embrace the Bible.

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Comments (4)

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  1. pandora says:

    We’ll have to science that.

    What a great line – and one we should hear more often.

  2. Auntie Dem says:

    I have been a capitalist all my life and yet I am a liberal. Because, if you take the long-term view the only way capitalism works is through a responsible, liberal framework. Otherwise you are looking at possible disaster.

  3. cassandra m says:

    simply began applying good resources management within existing human experience?

    In many ways, this is *supposed* to be the mission of organizations like the EPA or DNREC. Some of the difficulty comes in via the regulations that these groups have to operate within. All too often, those regulations are the way that resources are mismanaged — not because the regulations are necessarily bad, but because those regulations give the folks with the shorter time horizons room to play and to negotiate.

    The free market and custodianship of the environment do not have to be at odds. You can point to the successful mitigation (not elimination) of Acid Rain in the US as a remarkable success. And there are other means. I’ve always thought that we SHOULD open places like ANWR or the Gulf to drilling. But these would be the conditions:

    1. Withdraw all oil subsidies to date.
    2. Lease lands at a real market price and tell the people doing the leasing that they have to drill or lose the lease in 5 years.
    3. Drillers have to submit to the government a performance bond worth enough money to get the site cleaned up in case the driller leaves it in bad shape. This could also be a retainer of some type — like 1-5% of the well’s revenues deposited in an escrow account. That money is used to spills and end of life cleanups. The driller can have the money back if they conduct themselves free of incidents and they leave the site as they found it.
    4. Drillers have to submit to periodic environmental inspections that might tell them their liabilities for cleanups and let the government re-negotiate the retainer.
    5. Drillers have to commit to real incident response plan and they have to do periodic drills on that plan.
    6. Liquidated damages for environmental damages in addition to costs for cleanup.

    You get the idea. None of this stuff is new. If your backyard was a new oil find, you’d be well within your rights to demand a contract with all of this stuff in it in return for permission to drill. But the problem in our current setup is that the custodian of the natural resources simply don’t have these kinds of incentives built in to make it happen. The regulatory incentives ARE ENTIRELY set to make sure that businesses get every bit of help they can get from the government.

    So don’t believe the BS that government is over-regulating or needs to get out of the way. What is needed is for the government to ensure that the REAL COSTS of damaging resources are completely bourne by these businesses and not offset to taxpayers.

  4. There was a story on NPR this evening along the same lines. The head of the National Academy of Engineers was detailing a lot of really important discoveries that came out of government-funded research – like the Internet, lasers, most modern pharmaceuticals, Google, etc. It’s so very important to fund a wide variety of fundamental science and it’s a relatively cheap price. I’m worried that we’ve become a “can’t do” nation. We seem to no longer have vision. Kennedy told us we’re going to the moon. Today’s politicians think it’s too difficult to harness the wind or the sun. It’s sad.

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