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FROM THE PRESIDENT

Were Eiseley and Schweitzer Correct?

I pen this message on the first day of the new century and millennium, which may account for my musings about the extraordinary events of the 20th century. I am struck by the copious evidence of societal gains and losses derived from advances in technological knowledge. Over the past several months we've been showered with stories of the achievements of the century: longer and healthier lives, mobility, comfort, communication, pollution control, security and a fullness of life that comes simply from greater understanding of the world. What a feast so many of us have enjoyed, sampling the fruits of research and discovery!

It is easy to rejoice and be glad. At the same time, one only can be sobered by the awesome manifestations of human greed and destructiveness that largely have been enabled by advances in technology. The same machines and chemical processes that have increased productivity have played havoc with environmental conditions and the health of the natural world.

The noted anthropologist Loren Eiseley lamented the losses in the "natural" world caused by humans and spoke darkly of the future in The Firmament of Time:

It is with the coming of man that a vast hole seems to open in nature, a vast black whirlpool spinning faster and faster, consuming flesh, stones, soil, minerals, sucking down the lightning, wrenching power from the atom, until the ancient sounds of nature are drowned in the cacophony of something which is no longer nature, something instead which is loose and knocking at the world's heart, something demonic and no longer planned—escaped, it may be—spewed out of nature, contending in a final giant's game against its master.

Were he alive today, Eiseley's question to us would likely be: "Why can't researchers devise ways that enable people to enjoy life and the fruits of discovery without devastating nature in the process?" His critique of the "technological man" has been echoed by others.

Indeed, it seems incumbent on our community to fully participate in, if not to lead, efforts to assure that the powers of our inventions are not misappropriated.

Understand, dear reader, that I share your frustration that it is grossly unfair to place sole blame upon technologists for the imperfections of technology. Powerful new ideas can be used for good or ill. But it is not unfair to expect the research community to fully participate in the wise governance of technology.

We possess unusual skills in systems analysis, modeling and other means to explore future implications of present developments—what is sometimes called "technology assessment." In one of its most lamentable moments the 104th United States Congress killed its own bipartisan, bicameral Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995.

About a half-century ago Albert Schweitzer stated that "?man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end up destroying the earth." Schweitzer wrote those words during the depths of the nuclear Cold War, but threats still abound. We desperately need to increase our attention to global population growth and rapidly changing demographic transitions because they threaten to undo heroic efforts at environmental and resource conservation and feed the monsters of frustration, violence and terrorism. New talk of "taking the High Frontier" by putting weapons in space may represent disastrously faulty logic with profound and destabilizing consequences. It is imperative that our community join in these debates. After all, our inventions have enabled these issues to take form.

Were our colleagues Eiseley and Schweitzer on target? Can we take up the challenge as the century dawns and play a more definitive part in assuring the future? I say we have no alternative.

John H. Gibbons
President, Sigma Xi

 

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