I spoke with a fellow parishioner today about our children. This well-meaning, socially aware good fellow (an attorney) was extolling how well his son was progressing in his Ivy League undergraduate education. And, I asked, what was he studying? Environmental sciences. Ah, I said…that’s an interesting and certainly timely field of study: had he been of a technical or scientific bent in high school? Not really. Did he enjoy studying the sciences? Not really. Was he taking any scientific courses, like physics, biology or chemistry? Not really. In fact, he really wasn’t very interested in “hard” sciences at all and did not plan on studying any of them. So…what did he plan to do with an “environmental sciences” degree? Go to law school. He wanted to make policy, you understand. He was going to make the world a better place.
So, in an age where everything involving the environment demands a basic scientific knowledge, whether it be understanding the engineering challenges of alternative energy; the underlying geophysics, chemistry and biology of climate change; or the physics, engineering and biology needed to address the Gulf oil spill disaster, the term “environmental sciences” has now been degraded at the Ivy League level to a hack policy-making discipline where know-nothings can expound their ideologies free from the tyranny of facts. It is, in fact, the divorce of science and reason from sound environmental management. There was a time when “environmental science” was a noble field…an applied science that drew from many hard disciplines. No more, apparently.
If we are left to wonder why the government is so absolutely inept at dealing with real-life disasters, perhaps it is because “policy” has become politics divorced from material reality. It has become lazy: it’s so much easy to huff and puff utopian ideals and solutions when one need not trifle with facts and consequences. Solutions appear so much simpler when distilled down to simplistic “just plug that d*mn hole!” rhetoric and blithe “solar and wind power” propositions. We live in a hyper-complex age that demands the breadth and depth of Renaissance thinkers and solution providers. Instead, we are left to draw upon the talents of shallow social policy makers and academic rent seekers. It was Sir Isaac Newton who observed with humility that “I was able to see further because I was standing on the shoulder of giants”. Today’s crop of philosopher-king wannabes suffer no such humility: they slouch on the shoulders of dwarves. And they will lead us to disaster.