The Social Responsibility of Scientists
ANNOUNCEMENTS, 31 May 2021
A New Freely Downloadable Book
26 May 2021 – I would like to announce the publication of a book that discusses the duty of scientists and engineers in trying to prevent the catastrophes that currently threaten human society and the biosphere. The book may be freely downloaded and circulated from the following link:
Three Major Threats to Human Society
Science and technology have conferred many benefits on human society, but as we start the 21st century, most thoughtful observers believe that our science-driven and information-driven industrial civilization has entered a period of crisis.
All indices are increasing rapidly – population, total wealth, industrial output, rates of scientific discovery, and so on. But it is clear that the total human footprint on the face of nature has become too great. A sixth mass extinction of plants and animals is already in progress. Insects are disappearing, and with them, birds. Tropical rain-forests are being lost at an alarming rate. Ice loss at both poles is increasing. Temperatures worldwide are rising at an accelerating rate because of greenhouse gas emissions. There is a great danger that if immediate and drastic action is not taken, feedback loops will be initiated which will make human efforts to prevent climate change useless. Thus there is a threat of an ecological megacatastrophe, of which catastrophic climate change is a part.
Another serious threat comes from nuclear war. Despite the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which makes them illegal, the nuclear powers retain their weapons and even spend enormous amounts of money “modernizing” them.
A third threat is an extremely widespread famine, which could occur by the middle of the 21st century from a combination of population growth, climate change and the end of the fossil fuel era.
Catastrophic Climate Change
A major problem with mobilizing the political will needed to take strong action to prevent the catastrophe is a contrast between time-scales. Action must be taken immediately if feedback loops, such as the albedo effect or the methane-hydrate feedback loop are to be avoided, because if these feedback loops take hold, human attempts to avoid disaster will become useless. But although drastic action must be taken immediately, the most disastrous effects of climate change lie in the long-term future, centuries, or even thousands of years from now.
I personally do not believe that catastrophic climate change will lead to the extinction of the human species; but I think that since it threatens to make most of the earth’s surface uninhabitable, it could lead to a drastic reduction in the global population of humans.
An All-Destroying Nuclear War
Mr. Javier Prérez de Cuèllar, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, emphasized the insanity of nuclear war in one of his speeches:
“I feel”, he said, “that the question may justifiably be put to the leading nuclear powers: by what right do they decide the fate of humanity? From Scandinavia to Latin America, from Europe and Africa to the Far East, the destiny of every man and woman is affected by their actions. No one can expect to escape from the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war on the fragile structure of this planet. …
“No ideological confrontation can be allowed to jeopardize the future of humanity. Nothing less is at stake: today’s decisions affect not only the present; they also put at risk succeeding generations. Like supreme arbiters, with our disputes of the moment, we threaten to cut off the future and to extinguish the lives of innocent millions yet unborn. There can be no greater arrogance. At the same time, the lives of all those who lived before us may be rendered meaningless; for we have the power to dissolve in a conflict of hours or minutes the entire work of civilization, with all the brilliant cultural heritage of humankind.
“…In a nuclear age, decisions affecting war and peace cannot be left to military strategists or even to governments. They are indeed the responsibility of every man and woman. And it is therefore the responsibility of all of us… to break the cycle of mistrust and insecurity and to respond to humanity’s yearning for peace.”
The eloquent words of Javier Pérez de Cuèllar express the situation in which we now find ourselves: Accidental nuclear war, nuclear terrorism, insanity of a person in a position of power, or unintended escalation of a conflict, could at any moment plunge our beautiful world into a catastrophic thermonuclear war which might destroy not only human civilization but also much of the biosphere.
An Extremely Widespread Famine
Unless efforts are made to stabilize and ultimately reduce global population, there is a serious threat that climate change, population growth, and the end of the fossil fuel era could combine to produce a large-scale famine by the middle of the 21st century.
As glaciers melt in the Himalayas and the Andes, depriving India, China and South America of summer water supplies; as sea levels rise, drowning fertile rice-growing regions of Southeast Asia; as droughts reduce the food production of North America and Southern Europe; as ground-water levels fall in China, India, the Middle East and the United States; and as high-yield modern agriculture becomes less possible because fossil fuel inputs are lacking, the 800 million people who are currently undernourished may not survive at all.
The Duty of Scientists Is to Prevent These Catastrophes
The three threatened dangers to human civilization just mentioned are linked to the rapid changes that have resulted from advances in science and engineering. Therefore scientists have some responsibility for helping to prevent the disasters that threaten us today.
Many scientists have accepted this duty to act. For example, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs is an organization that was set up by scientists to deal with the global problems that scientific work had created.
Scientists Who Have Consciences, and Those Who Don’t
In “The Social Responsibility of Scientists”, we look at the lives of several scientists who had a social conscience – for example Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling.
However, not all scientists and engineers have a sense of social responsibility, and many seem to have no conscience of any kind. They prostitute their talents to the war industry and to the fossil fuel corporations which offer them lucrative jobs. Without them, modern warfare would be impossible. Without them the dangerous extraction of fossil fuels would be impossible.
We must educate our scientists in such a way that the acquisition of a sense of social responsibility will be part of their education. It has been suggested that graduates in these fields should take an oath, analogous to the oath taken by medical students, never to use their education in a way that could harm human society or the biosphere.
Other Books and Articles about Global Problems Are on These Links:
I hope that you will circulate the links in this article to friends and contacts who might be interested.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website: https://www.johnavery.info/
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 May 2021.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: The Social Responsibility of Scientists, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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