Science, ethics, and environmentalism

Nickel Tailings, Sudbury, ON (Photo by Edward Burtynsky)

“It is not enough that you should understand about applied science…. Concern for the man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours.”

– Albert Einstein, 1931

It’s often said that people who oppose certain aspects of the fossil fuel industry and industrial agriculture are doomsayers, fear mongering alarmists who know nothing of basic science or technology. Environmentalists, we are told, are waging a “war on science”.

I would argue, however, that it is the neoliberal market fundamentalists who are the most alarmist of all. They abuse not only science, but humanity and life itself. Their dogmatic ideology is one of hysteria: it foretells of immediate global catastrophe if the beast of endless economic growth is not continuously fed, regardless of the environmental or societal costs. For an economy that is based on the exploitation of raw material resources, the very conception of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is a delusion.

Contrary to popular opinion, science is not value-free. There should be no wall between scientific facts and human values. And, for the most part, environmentalism is simply a lens with which scientific truths are viewed through. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues in his book The Moral Landscape, most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge–including (or particularly) science. There is a connection between scientific and moral truth. Einstein also espouses this view regarding the humanistic and moral dimension of applied science. In his essay The Laws of Science and The Laws of Ethics, Einstein endorses a strong conception of moral truth focused on the well-being of humanity.

Sure, some environmentalists are scientifically ignorant. But opposing specific aspects of the fossil fuel industry and industrial agriculture is not inherently anti-scientific. It is simply a distillation of scientific facts through the filter of ethics.