A Brief History of Science and Implications for the Environment
Science is the key to societal betterment; it is also crucial to environmental action. Throughout history, cultures that have embraced science have flourished, while societies that have eschewed science have declined. Now science is driving efforts to find more sustainable means of producing goods and providing services.
Science offers balanced and objective technical information on environmental issues. An ever-growing body of scientific research indicates that the Earth's climate is changing and humans are a significant contributing cause. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) State of the Climate Report and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Surface Temperature Analysis indicate that the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has increased by about 1.2 to 1.4ºF since 1900. Other aspects of climate are also changing, such as precipitation patterns and extreme weather. According to the IPCC, most of the warming in recent decades is very likely the result of human activities.
Although the public is increasingly accepting a science based understanding of climate change, there are still many who resist the facts. The fossil fuel industry and others have the support of some politicians who resist climate science. In the U.S., these politicians refuse to support the energy and climate legislation required to significantly reduce America’s footprint.
Some maniacal interests are even employing devious tactics like pseudo-scientific think tanks to actively undermine people's understanding and acceptance of environmental science.
A brief historical review makes a compelling case for the value of science. This point is made abundantly clear in the great civilizations of the ancient world, and later by the Islamic world, Europe and America.
Science and technology in ancient India (3300 BCE) covered all the major branches of human knowledge including mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering, architecture, shipbuilding and navigation.
The strength of ancient Egypt (3150 BC) was built on their scientific achievements in areas like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, and technology. The greatness of ancient China (c 2100 BC) was also premised on significant advances in the sciences, including mathematics and astronomy.
Ancient Greece flourished during the 5th to 4th centuries BC. The rise to prominence of ancient Greek society was premised on advances in a wide variety of scientific domains, including the earth sciences, biology, botany and zoology. Thales of Miletus is regarded by many as the father of science and he contributed to a culture that was based on logical thinking rather than superstitions.
Islam was once one of the world’s leading civilizations. The open intellectual environment of early Islam gave rise to its cultural and scientific wealth. The Abbasid dynasty, which ruled Baghdad from 750 to 1258, provided the peak of Islamic civilization. The Abbasid’s greatest achievements were in the areas of mathematics, physics, chemistry and medicine. They studied, preserved and translated the Greek classics, they learned from their predecessors and eventually surpassed them.
Islam's golden age came to an end with the closing of the "gate of ijtihad" (independent thought). Islam's embrace of the culture of science contributed to its rise, and its rejection led to its fall.
The Renaissance (14th–17th centuries) was based on scientific knowledge and directly contributed to European preeminence. During this period great scientific advances occurred in Italy and throughout Europe in areas like geography, astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, manufacturing, and engineering.
The King of Prussia, Frederick II (aka Frederick the Great) worked tirelessly to create a culture that values science. He stood out from other rulers of his period for his religious tolerance and his support of the ideas of enlightenment. Frederick ll came to power in 1740 and sponsored many mathematicians and scientists at his court, including Euler and Voltaire.
Due to his reliance on science, he succeeded in making Prussia into a great power. His role in history is undisputable; under his leadership Prussia joined the group of the great states of Europe.
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, also used science to realize his national ideal. He was quoted as saying "science is the only true guide in life." With this as his guiding principle he helped to make Turkey into a world power.
From 1923 to 1938, Ataturk helped to create a modern Turkish State by learning from the rest of the civilized world and adopting policies premised on rational scientific thought. Ataturk believed that mankind must constantly adapt as reason demands and he further believed that this process must be driven by science.
In both Prussia and Turkey, Frederick the Great and Ataturk each created successful states by embracing the culture of science. This is also true in America where supremacy in science has made the U.S. the world’s lone superpower.
America has always passionately embraced the culture of science. The US was born during the Age of Enlightenment (circa 1680 to 1800), a period in which thinkers emphasized the powers of reason and useful knowledge that would improve the lot of all citizens. Two of America's founding fathers (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) were leading scientists of their day. The culture of science is fundamentally sewn into the fabric of the nation. It is even mentioned in the Constitution, which gives Congress the power "to promote the progress of science."
It is tragically ironic that rather than using science to inform their values, a new Yale study indicates that Americans now use science to corroborate their preexisting beliefs. This research says that American apathy on climate change is not about a factual understanding of science it is about cultural values that are rooted in dogmatic preconceptions.
Great civilizations are premised on a culture that values science. Great civilizations are also alike in that they learn from those that preceded them. In our times more than ever before we need to learn from our predecessors.
This cursory review of history reveals that civilizations that rely on a culture of science flourish while those that eschew science are destined to decline. The implications for the environment are obvious; we can either pay heed to environmental science and prosper, or deny it and suffer catastrophic consequences.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Planetsave.com