The Responsibility of Scientists in the Anthropocene

Scientists must engage in politics to overcome the challenges of the Anthropocene 

Writer: Adhiyan Jeevathol
Editor: Gracie Enticknap
Artist: Lia Bote

At the beginning of this year, an event of considerable human importance occurred. The doomsday clock, a metaphor for global catastrophe, was moved by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to 100 seconds until midnight. Describing it as “The most dangerous situation humanity has ever faced”, Edmund G. Brown and Robert Rosner from the Bulletin cite the prospects of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe as the primary reason for our dire state of affairs. Both these problems are, in part, a result of our scientific knowledge. With the increase in scientific power, both the good and evil in human nature have been magnified culminating in the nuclear age, where the threat of nuclear war looms large, and a new geological epoch, called the Anthropocene, where human actions are altering the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Considering this, it is natural to ask what is the responsibility of scientists in the Anthropocene. 

Writing in 1968, the public intellectual and author Paul Goodman argued that scientists should “engage in political activity to try and undo the damage that they have cooperated in producing”. Scientists don’t just have this responsibility because of their complicity in creating our current condition. According to the linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, such a duty also arises from the privileges they have over the average person as he explains in his essay Responsibility of Intellectuals: intellectuals “have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth”. Thus, for Chomsky “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.”

Scientists have, by and large, spoken the truth by warning the public of the issues we face, but the impact of this has been limited. Even today, climate change and nuclear war scarcely receive the attention they deserve. Though his tweets received widespread coverage, Trump’s intention to withdraw the US from the major nuclear arms treaties was barely an issue during the Presidential election. Similar attitudes are prevalent elsewhere. Speaking about Israel’s response to predictions that the region will become uninhabitable due to climate change, the leading Israeli environmental activist Professor Alon Tal observes: “The Jewish state has looked humanity’s ultimate challenge in the eyes and said: ‘Forget it.’”

This is because the truth has often been drowned out by the lies and distortions that emanate from politics and even from the intellectuals themselves who, according to Chomsky, present a certain conception of reality to the general population. This in turn creates the “ideological justification for social practice”. In relation to climate change and nuclear war, this ‘social practice’ has been apathy.

For example, in his 2018 Nobel Prize lecture, the climate change economist William Nordhaus presented the ‘optimal’ path for addressing climate change. In this scenario, the global average temperature would increase by 2℃ as of 2050 (despite the IPCC report advocating a maximum of 1.5℃) and 4℃ by 2150. Shockingly, Nordhaus claimed that we should accept the risks of a rise in 4 degrees. Science journalist Mark Lynas explains the consequence of this apathy: “Whole areas, and indeed whole island nations, will be submerged. In Europe, new deserts will be spreading in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey: the Sahara will have effectively leapt the Straits of Gibraltar.” 

Steven Pinker, the widely acclaimed author and intellectual, is another case in point. For Pinker, human history is becoming increasingly rational and so, there’s little reason for panic. But his premise is faulty. As an example, he explains how the Cuban nuclear missile crisis of 1962 was only avoided by Kennedy and Khrushchev’s “intuitive grasp of game theory”. One wonders, however, where this rationality went in the creation of the missile crisis and where it’s gone as our eminent statesmen have continued to escalate the threat of nuclear war.

By downplaying the scale and urgency of the issues we face, these are the kind of intellectuals that encourage humans to say ‘forget it’ while looking ‘humanity’s ultimate challenge in the eyes’. Scientists, who retain some authority in the eyes of the public, are in a good position to confront this by engaging in political work that will reverse this apathy. 

However, political engagement should not only be considered by official scientists. Many of us at UCL also have the ‘political liberty’, ‘access to information’, ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘training’ to ‘speak the truth and expose lies’ and so we too must confront similar questions of responsibility.

Such questions will become ever more important as scientific knowledge progresses; with it so will our power to destroy and create. Avoiding the former will need a corresponding increase in wisdom which will inevitably require scientists to engage in politics. The pandemic has given us an insight into the consequences of apathy but, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explain, the disease will eventually recede. However, with the looming threat of nuclear war and climate change, next time the doomsday clock may actually strike midnight. Much will depend on how scientists meet their responsibility in the Anthropocene.

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