From Science to Morality - And back Again?
- 15 Nov 06, 08:50 AM
Have you ever heard the scientific term "feedback loop"? It's a good one, it's how most of life is regulated and it might help this chasm of uselessness that exists between us lay people and the unweildy spectre of climate change that hangs over us.
In the first PEuT show to be broadcast next Monday at 21.02 GMT BBC Radio 4 (online R4 Website, Science ) - Listen again on this blog - you'll hear John Hart from UC Berkeley talking about positive feedback. He's talking about how climate change is heating up the land surface such that the soils release their carbon to the atmosphere in the form of CO2. The carbon dioxide then contributes to global warming exacibating the situation, making the land even warmer and so feeds back on it's own in a building "positive" way. It's like a runaway train. In this sense positive is not a good thing, it purely describes what is happening. So this is a positive feedback loop.
All living things have umpteen feedback loops, both positive and negative, that regulate all our processes. All the chemical messengers in our body are regulated by negative feedback loops. The brain stimulates your glands to secrete hormones to control a function (say digestion), and the presence of those hormones then feeds "negatively" back on the brain to reduce the brain stimulus...this stops the gland hormone being secreted in uncontrollable amounts - it essentially regulates its self.
Ecology works like this. You can imagine a herd of wildebeest roaming the plains of Africa grazing on grass. If the grass is good, the population increases and so do the number of predators. If the grass is poor for successive years, the population goes down and so do the number of lions hunting them. Inherent in the web of life is regulation.
James Lovelock et al have much to say about this in his concept of Gaia - here the whole planet regulates its self as one vast living organism.
You could also defend capitalism and democracy being economic and political models which base their existence on feedback mechanisms. Consumers dictate markets and voters decide who is in power.
Can an understanding of feedback loops help us to tackle the challenges of climate change. I think they can.
A year ago we were predominantly hearing about the science of climate change. About nine months ago the idea of ethics crept into the debate...by ethics, how communities should behave within the rules of their society. And then most recently, morality has jumped in. The idea that there is a right and wrong in the anthropogenic causes of climate change.
If climate change is a moral issue then negative feedback to science, industry, communities and political establishments would in principal regulate activities that are damaging to the environment. Put another way, if we as individuals do the right - the morally right - thing, surley that is contributing massively to the feedback loop. Individuals make a difference - managing our waste stream, reducing our energy needs, reducing our transport needs - selective shopping. All of this feedsback through the complex web back to science, technology, industry and policy. This is where capitalism could be the best economic model, because the consumer has power in influence.
I think we need to hear more about solutions to climate change - And to use that rather tarnished word - we need to hear more about how we as individuals can be "empowered" to make a difference.
My next blog is going to be about localism - which I think is on the brink of having the mother of all come backs.