The circumstance of science; Episode 4 of 13
And all of these things are insulting if you will the environment of man at a rate that is greatly different from the rate at any past time in our history and I suspect that this is really at the root of our ecological crisis. What we want to be sure is that we shape the future in a way that can be most productive to the human being that with minimal costs to the human being and to life as we know it on this planet. We also need to develop a capability so that the knowledge that is created through basic research activities can be more expeditiously then now fed into the bloodstream of our economy so that this knowledge can be applied more quickly to curing the ills of our society our ecological crisis. One program in the series the circumstance of science exploring the forces of contemporary science and technology and their possible effects
on society our ability to alter the balance of natural forces has increased to the point where error or failure to predict the consequences can be irreversible. The words of Secretary of the interior Stuart Utah before a Senate subcommittee last year in the last 20 years man has been altering our environment at a rate almost catastrophic by nature's standards. In this program we will attempt to explore our country's eminent ecological crisis. The crisis has historical roots. Dr. Donald Hornig the president's advisor on science and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Explained these big environmental changes going on for a long time. For example most of the world's grasslands were created by the in primitive times because forests were burned over and in the process of hunting game. These are big logical changes the Romans deforested and overgrazed much of Europe and changed the topography of Europe in the
process. The great cedar forests of Lebanon biblical times are gone in just a few trees remaining on our own continent the great Illinois forest of Mid Continent America. Has been replaced by a rich farming land so that these changes have been going on. All over the globe for many many centuries and up until now I think biological adaptation has averted calamitous situations and even the problems of the cities have precedence you know that there's been smoke and smog and fog in London from the burning of soft coal since the 13th century. As I have discussed by the parliament in the 13th century and for 500 years the British Parliament has shown the intermittent concern about the pollution of the Thames River so that any notion that these problems have just come up is just wrong I what has happened though is that the first place the human
population has grown enormously and above all of the industrialization of the world has led to a scale of activity which makes all of these activities which change things slowly in the past begin to change things very rapidly so that we can't simply adapt to what happens as it goes on were going to happen we're going to have to look forward I think in the sense secretary would always quite quite correct I mean the pace of change because of the scale of change has increased the pace of change has increased so that we're going to have to learn to react faster. Dr. Barry Commoner director of the Center for the biology of natural systems at Washington University. I think the reason for Secretary utils as to the situation with which I certainly agree is that. The scope and intensity of our technological power has increased so rapidly that it has begun to match the power of natural processes themselves. For example there is in the
United States a natural turnover of the nitrogen atom in what's called the nitrogen cycle and this can be estimated to be of the order of 7 million tons of nitrogen a year. We now by our technological processes intrude on this cycle on a scale which is about equal to the size of the cycle. As a result we cannot look on the environment as something which operates on its own. The processes which now go on in the environment are intruded upon by events which are under our own control. In other words we have begun to affect the environment on a scale of the environment itself. What is it in the process of environmental change that is fundamentally different now than before the thing. That is different about this crisis now from before is the terroristic rate of
change of technology of the powers of man and the resulting enormity of the forces that are being brought to bear on the environment. Dr Walter Roberts director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the memory of a person alive today for example has come the development of the whole history of flight from the first primitive airplanes for example to the giant jet airliners and supersonic transport that are on the horizon. These things have come in one lifetime things that it took many centuries to develop before. At the same time has occurred a great explosion of population throughout the world. These forces have brought an enormity of
rate of change of the impact on the environment. There are just too many of us and we have every increasing power at our disposal. We have fantastic numbers of automobiles. We have machines we have the capability to build giant factories and all of these things are insulting if you will the environment of man at a rate that is greatly different from at any from from the from the rate at any past time in our history and I suspect that this is really at the root of our ecological crisis. There is another thing about it though and that is the consciousness of change that we have today as the result of our improved communications. People in every continent can view the lives of people elsewhere. And this not only makes the rate of change more rapid but
also it makes makes us conscious everywhere. The way the world is changing so that the thing that's different is the rate of change and the magnitude of the force brought to bear and also the consciousness of people of this change I think the acceleration the rate of change is impressive very cumulation of the effects of change. The rest of the state of the art in measuring these things were in a state of the art of all words commonplace too. I don't know with certainty. They use substances in parts per billion words all of a very few years. We are in parts per million. This is really you see that three orders of magnitude increase insensitivity of our methods of
determination of substance. This is a real factor. We can say here it is from before we didn't even know it was there. Why are we so concerned and we have been in the past. Well I think the awareness of the environment brought about by some of the very large changes. One of the ways is commonplace those small Arabs everybody who wear them Somedays the air is very clear and we are as old as I was remember when at least we think it was healed over the course of the bills a lot of continuing concern over radiation fallout which made public awareness very great indeed. Dr TC by early director of the Cooperate of state Research Service of the United States Department
of Agriculture. Dr commoner agrees that the intensity and scale of our intrusions into the environment now become so much greater than they used to be. And he cites a specific example for the development of atomic energy. The total experience of human beings with radioactive substances awash with radium and the amount of radium that we handled the represented perhaps some 10 grams you know with the testing of nuclear weapons alone. We have disseminated the equivalent of billions of grams of radium into the environment. This is an example of the enormous increase in the scale of our intrusion on the environment. And I think this is one thing that is certainly new now. Another situation that's in there too is the speed with which new scientific developments are translated into technological change. In former times technology was
kind of accidental product of basic research. It simply represented opportunistic development of. Ideas and discoveries which emerged from basic science. Now this is become changed now. For example industry and the military now look on basic science as a direct way to get at whole new systems of technology. And there is a much shorter time between a new scientific discovery and a technological development from it. For example in the case of the transistor which is simply remade electronics I think there were not more than two or three years between the point of the basic discovery and its technological development. In other words we not only do things on a larger scale but we move more quickly from the initial
discovery to technological intrusion. What this means is that we often don't have time to understand the full consequences of the technological intrusion in former years when technology developed gradually. We could make our mistakes on a small scale from time to time. Understanding the kinds of problems that might arise. And so let's say with the development of the steam engine gradually people understood from boiler explosions how to master the problem of the safe development of a steam engine. Now with the rapid development of nuclear reactors. You know we really don't have the opportunity for that kind of trial and error a catastrophe with a nuclear reactor would be so enormous as to put a halt to the whole development. In other words we are moving faster on a larger scale. And the situation is certainly very different than it was before. As Dr commoner mentions a great deal of public awareness of the magnitude of science and
technology developed from the events surrounding the Atomic Energy Commission program of testing that was conducted in Nevada about 12 years ago. Professor E-W Pfeiffer now at the University of Montana was one of the two researchers who first studied high local concentrations of fallout near the Test side. Dr. Pfeifer highlights some of the complications I think we can now say with some certainty that the Atomic Energy Commission did not know exactly what it was doing and when it started the Nevada tests stated in 1953 that there were no harmful effects from fallout to any of the residents outside of the Nevada test site in 1965. Despite the fact the Atomic Energy Commission it said 12 years earlier there was nothing to worry about. In 1965. The U.S. Public Health Service and the state of Utah's health service launched a cooperative study into
the possible effects of fallout on the residents of southern Utah. There was no indication that there may have been some damage to the population in that area. Is our emphasis on time make a nuclear experiment is increased in your estimation. Have we provided means to ensure proper safety procedures and proper prediction and control of the side effects that might be associated with the use of nuclear energy. This is a long and complicated question. I'll try to answer it in two parts. I want to talk about proper prediction of side effects. First I would say from. Recent information from Atomic Energy Commission scientists that procedures have been worked out for predicting doses that were not available 15 years
ago. These appear to be very sound procedures. I think we now know enough so that we can predict what the doses to surrounding populations will be with a given size of a nuclear device. I think the problem is whether the people all of the people concerned will abide by the restrictions imposed by these procedures. I think also that the side effects that we can be expected that can be expected from a certain dose levels are known in a way that they were not known 10 years ago. And once again if if the people who are interested in testing these nuclear devices will
listen to the recommendations of of their scientists. I think that we are not in trouble but there is the Utah milk incident which is cause for concern because. And I'd like to go into that for a moment. In 1962 I think it was there was a rather extensive venting of an underground explosion which resulted in a very high contamination of Utah milk by radioactive iodine. Now at this time by 1962 the federal government had established a radiation protection guides. That is if the amount of contamination in a quart of milk reached a certain level. They then recommended that this milk be seized and taken off the market for a while it actually sent to a processing plant where instead of being consumed immediately it would be stored on the radioactivity would
decay and it could be made into pasteurized milk that sort of thing. They didn't recommend throwing it away just holding it off the market until it could decay. Now in 1962 these. Actions were taken by the Utah State Health Department. That is the good bit of the milk was taken off the market and held. And they were conforming to the recommendations of the federal radiation Council that this be done because the milk had reached the range three and when milk is contaminated in the range in this range the procedure is to take it off the market. Well this of course caused a great deal of confusion to say the least. The farmers had to be paid. It was a very complicating situation not only that there was indications in other parts of the country that the levels of iodine in milk were going to go up the range three and we had the peculiar situation where the
secretary celebrates the then secretary of Health Education and Welfare changed the interpretation of the radiation protection guides to in effect make them meaningless. And I think that that is our situation at the present time. We really don't have any effective. Procedures for controlling contamination at the present time and we really retrogress. And so I would say that we have the means to ensure proper safety procedures but we don't carry them out. You know is is followed something that the public should still be concerned about. Or has this arrow passed. No I believe that the public should maintain a concern not not a hysterical alarm concern but a deep concern about the problem of radioactive fallout. I think as long as the test ban treaty is in force we do not have to worry about the fallout that is still of
course coming down. I hope we don't. Right the aspect of the FAR problem that concerns me is that if the public does not maintain alertness on this and a concern we are liable to see a gradual erosion of the test ban treaty we will probably or the government has made a decision to go into a limited anti ballistic missile system to develop this you know order to do this. There will have to be considerable nuclear testing. This of course will have to be done underground if we are to abide by the by the test ban agreement. But it would be very easy I think to show who to blame and some other power for violating the test ban which would then give us the right to go into atmospheric testing and the pressures to resume atmospheric testing are going to be very great if we in fact to get into this
antiballistic missile development. It is impossible to really know whether an anti ballistic missile system works unless you do it in the atmosphere. Now the public concerned about the effects of renewed atmospheric testing can and it knows about the fallout problem and lets its congressmen know that it doesn't want to go through this another cycle of atmospheric testing and contamination of food products. Is the public good I think when they exert pressure to to prevent any breaking of the nuclear test ban. Recently interior secretary you'd all established an office of ecology to help deal with the ecological crisis that we are facing. The director is Dr. John Buckley who explains ecology as the study of the relationship of one organism to another and to the environment around it. We asked Dr. Barclay to describe the basic goals of the office of ecology. Many parts of the department interior have programs in ecology and
have had programs in applied ecology for very many years but. There hasn't been any way of bringing these together or having a focal point for them in the department and it was for this reason that Secretary Udall decided that he would establish such an office. You know the basic goal was to bring together information and the areas of ecology so that they can be more effectively utilized. Well I think that's one of the major goals. There are several things that we're interested in first. We'd like to make sure that that we don't have any unplanned overlap between programs of our various bureaus. We also want to make sure that we have adequate coverage and frankly I'm I'm more concerned about about not covering areas than I am about to creation of tween. And
thirdly. Department has a need for some basic research in ecology which is seldom done by the individual bureaus simply because their air missions are more specifically of particular things that they need to do. Reasonably their programs therefore are far more applied than some that we think are desirable here. The result that we think that with some fairly small modifications or major. Increases in basic research can take place. Our so-called ecological crisis has historical roots of course an alteration of the physical and social environment is not new but it seems all of a sudden the process of environmental change is going to a great deal of attention. What is it that's fundamentally different now than it was
before. Well I think there are several things different about it but I think perhaps the major difference is the scale on which things happen. The this occurs for two reasons first of course there are more people who individually therefore make up a larger in fact but perhaps even more important is the fact that our capability to effect changes is much greater. A man with an axe is. Or a brush hook is fairly slow at cleaning off the landscape on the other hand a man with a bulldozer and the energy that he commands in this way is able to make much larger changes. So it goes through many other kinds of activities like concern for environmental change has reached the Congress. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine held committee hearings in the spring of 967 to establish the need for a select committee on technology and the human environment. And in the House
Congressman Emilio Dario of Connecticut has called for a group to monitor the side effects of new technology. Of course a lot of things happen with or without the benefit of technology. With or without a push from technology that. Ran about irreversible changes in our environment. Sen. Muskie a man himself without very advanced technology achieved the disappearance of the carrier pigeon. Other wildlife species have disappeared simply because of the age of man to kill. And this had nothing to do with technology but technology does produce irreversible change the automobile like to make it has produced irreversible change. We're never going to go back to the horse and buggy age or to the age when man relied on his legs to get about. So that there is change and much of it is irreversible as we
go along. And so we have to learn to live with it to try to shape it in the most constructive ways for the shared growth of people number as in this continent going to forever change the climate of America and the environment of America. We can't do anything about it. Going back to the time when only the Indians lived here and saw that when we talk about the need for dealing with the problems created by technology or of or avoiding mistakes that can be created by technology. We're not talking about rolling time back to some previous must algae cage. And we're not saying that it's possible to avoid change that's irreversible but we want to be sure that we shape the future in a way that can be most productive to the human being with the minimal costs to the human being and to life as we know it on this planet.
I think what makes it important at the moment is that these problems now show themselves in our society to such an extent so that public opinion is developing in order to overcome these things. Congressman Dario people have noticed that their rivers were being polluted in the past they noticed that smoke didn't rise over their cities at one time. They looked upon this is a sign of. Of advance a sign of undocked industrial development. But as a society has improved it recognizes that these things are harmful to society. Public opinion begins changing instead of thinking this is good it thinks it's bad. It recognizes there are some health consequences and wants to do something about it for health reasons for aesthetic reasons. For a multitude of reasons and the situation having changed the capability of the society to overcome these things being developed the feeling to support these
developments having arisen this is the time for us to do something about it and I think that the people are demanding that the government and industry and their municipalities at all levels do something about it. Rene DuBois has commented that your subcommittee report on scientific research and development in the 89 for Congress expresses the feeling that the scientific establishment is not addressing itself with sufficient pointedness and energy to the problems created by modern living. And by the changes in our environment. Would you agree with this observation. Well I would agree with it partially but I don't know that I would be as pointed about the lack of scientific. Capability in this particular area. What we have been concerned about and I think what we have developed a chain of thought about is that the scientific community has been involved very forcefully in the area of basic
research. We have felt over the course of time that basic research needs to be supported. It is the basis upon which all our technology is developed but that we also need to develop a capability so that the knowledge that is created through basic research activities can be more expeditiously then now that into the bloodstream of our economy so that this knowledge can be applied more quickly to curing the ills of our society. That's really what we've been saying. The warning then seems to be that our new technology brings great promise. But we must use it with caution. Many believe that science has become a two edged sword which creates new problems as fast as it solves old ones. In our next program we'll discuss some of the major problem areas of the ecological crisis and a proposal for an early warning system for environmental protection. You've been listening to the third program in the series the circumstance of
science exploring the forces of contemporary science and technology and their possible effects on society. You're invited to be with us for our next discussion. Part two of our ecological crisis a transcript of this program is available without charge from the W-K our Michigan State University East Lansing. This series is prepared under a grant from the Lewis W. and laud Hill Family Foundation of St. Paul Minnesota produced by Steve you shave for Michigan State University Radio. This is NPR national educational radio.
- The circumstance of science
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- Episode 4 of 13
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- Michigan State University
- WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
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- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- The Circumstance of Science. Documentary series. No information available.
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Producing Organization: Michigan State University
Producing Organization: WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
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- APA: The circumstance of science; Episode 4 of 13. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-k9316q2h