The Political Realities of Science Work

Photograph Source: Eric Golub – CC BY 2.0

In his recent piece “Geo-engineering is a Scam“, Josue De Luna Navarro points out a fact that has always been true of the engineering profession (and also most other highly refined professions) that its students, first seeking education, and then as graduates seeking employment and lengthy careers, are destined to serve monied patrons, the Golden Rule: “those that have the gold make the rules.” Four to five millennia ago those patrons would have been called “Pharaoh,” and later “king,” “caesar,” “emperor” and “queen,” and in more recent centuries “the company” and “the corporation.” Professional expertise, like high art, has a dependency on patronage by the wealthy, without whose largesse professional ambitions would be nearly fruitless (for there are always some successful independent scientists, like Charles Darwin).

My engineering education and physics career (1968-2007) was funded (besides by my parents paying my tuition and living expenses during my undergraduate years) by U.S. government money (the public) funneled through the military. Most decent paying options for employment after schooling were with manufacturing, electronics or energy corporations, defense (war industry) corporations, and government agencies. A tiny fraction of engineering science jobs were in academia. In any case, all such engineering science employees were servicing the aims of the Big Money: profitability for the corporations, greater military power through advanced technology, and the combination of both as greater global political power for the policy-making elite of the nation. Same as in Khufu’s day.

Because America’s militarism-backed capitalism is fossil fueled, both in my time and Navarro’s the oil and gas industry has been a major buyer and owner of engineering and science talent, as Navarro states. The great challenge for any engineer and scientist working in today’s government-funded paradigm of science professionalism is to try to keep body and soul together through corporate and government (and academic) employment while at the same time trying to produce work that is as much in the public interest as possible. A very difficult ideal to achieve, and not all engineers and scientists even try to. Our engineering professors were reluctant to talk about the political realities of our profession, and our economic captivity by the Big Money and its Capitalist Government, because they saw no alternative to it.

Navarro is right to excoriate the fossil fuel industries’s efforts to corrupt the intellectual integrity of the engineering and physical sciences, by urinating money on our professions’s training academies to drench them in the odor of the narrowly self-serving corporate mindset of fossil fuel burning forever, and for the endless profitability of oil and gas (and coal) extraction. Even so, it is up to each individual engineer and scientist to learn the facts about global warming, and climate change and environmental degradation, and the unfortunate political realities governing the economics of their profession, as a matter of professional ethics and personal integrity. This is the necessary first step for them to have any possibility of producing work for the public good.

Navarro is correct to call geo-engineering to attenuate global warming a scam. It’s like trying to design a more effective helmet that would allow you to continue playing Russian Roulette. The most energy efficient, cost effective, socially beneficial and rapid solution to the fundamental problem is to simply stop the damaging behavior, which in the case of climate change is greenhouse gas emitting capitalism. But, that would be economically leveling and fatal to militarism, so unacceptable to the courtiers of capitalism, in all their national factions.

Like all engineers, I like machines and gizmos and gadgets, and I especially like flows of energy. But the best use of such engineered mechanisms are as adjuncts in harmony with the workings of nature for the beneficial maintenance of a sustainable society. There are so may delectable challenges to be enjoyed in the fashioning of a non-fossil fueled civilization, a Green New Deal, that operates within the natural tolerances for the continuation of a stable and benign (interglacial) global climate, that all the 21st century engineers could be fulfillingly employed for their lifetimes to help fashion and maintain that kind of world society. The immediate challenges are twofold: transform energy systems and industrial and food production operations to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and toxic chemical pollution, and stop environmental damage and engage massively in environmental restoration of lands and the oceans. Planting trees and cleaning up plastic pollution are just two examples of specific tasks that easily come to mind.

So I circle back to the same conclusion as always: our problems are not technological but political.

As long as our politics are bad — our economics held captive by fossil fueled capitalism and militarism, to the general detriment of the public — our technologists will be directed by the self-interests of the Big Money and the War Industries, and not by the public good of engineering and managing a decent society in harmony with Nature.

Manuel Garcia Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net