Environmental science

Wed, 26 Jun 1996 15:28:03 EST

Thanks to Keith Miller for some good stuff on the biblical backgrounds of
creation stewardship.

Continuing on in reference to environmental science, I believe that to some
extent we must respond to suspected environmental problems in a manner
different from say genetic engineering. Genetic engineering would be much
like building a space shuttle where everything has to be as close as possible
to "perfect and flawless" and fully substantiated before you commit to action.
Going into space is not something we have to do. Neither is genetic engineer-
ing. In environmental science, however, we are dealing with the sources of
life being threatened so you need an entirely different mindset. for instance,
I think that the analogy to the Titanic is realistic here. It is one thing to
be on shore in Liverpool engineering an "unsinkable" ship, and an entirely
different thing to be onboard the Titanic in an ice field operating an "unsink-
able" ship. It is (was) pretty stupid for the ship captain to steam full bore
into an ice field with the attitude that unless you can prove to me we are
sinkable, I'm going to continue on full speed.

With environmental science, it seems to me, when you detect strong indications
of threats to life and survivability, you are forced to act on far less
evidence -- if you are smart! That is why I get pretty impatient with econo-
mists like Calvin Beisner and economic think tanks like the Competitive Enter-
prises Institute, the Cato Institute, and so forth who talk about cost/benefit
analysis in reference to environmental regulation. I'm sure that kind of
analysis was done for the Titanic and they decided that in order for them to
make good money, they had to shorten the time of an Atlantic crossing. But
when the ship sank, their analysis was meaningless. When you are dealing with
environmental integrity, it is often pretty stupid to do a cost/benefit analy-
sis. My argument with economists is that the economy is built on a healty
[healthy] environment, not the other way around.

Because we are dealing with survival in reference to the environment, you will
also get more emotional involvement -- and that always spells trouble in the
science community. And because you have strong emotions, you are also going
to have unethical behavior and careless language. There will also be less
objectivity. This is where I think Christian people of science are so critical
in this area. Our belief in the sovereignty of God and in His ultimate control
can make us perhaps more objective, but it should also make us more patient
when we see emotionalism and the tendency to act on less evidence than we
demand in non-essential issues of science and technology.

In reference to the environment, I think we are in the ice field. We have not
struck the iceberg yet. But we must be humble and careful and exceedingly
careful -- ready to act decisively with each threat. What is not apropos is
technological arrogance that merely assumes that with our skills and with
our tools we can do anything and fix anything.

One final analogy. As I hobby I make hiking staffs (staves?). When a young
sapling dries it often bows. I have learned now how to heat a bowed staff and
with foot pressure make it straight. What is required is when the staff is
hot you must press it back well beyond the center line in the opposite direc-
tion almost as far as it was out of alignment the other way. When it springs
back and is then cooled down, it stays straight. The analogy almost says it
without explanation in reference to our behavior and rhetoric concerning
environmental degradation. I am willing to allow some exaggeration beyond the
center line in the opposite direction so that when things cool down, you have
them straight. For instance, I think it may be wise to declare a complete
moratorium on harvesting timber on public lands, not because I think we should
not cut trees, but in order to stop all abuse instantly and force the forest
products industry to prove they can do things right on their own land before
they are ever allowed back into the public forest. This is what I think is
bowing the staff beyond the center line in order for it to come back to
center. We don't have to resort to lying or misrepresentation, but we can be
bold and decisive and require some tough discipline in order to set things
right again. After all we usually learn more from our economic setbacks than
we do from our days of extravagance.

Dean Ohlman
Cornerstone College