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Speeches

"SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE STATE OF THE WORLD: Some Reflections After September 11"


It is a great honor for me to be asked to give the Joseph Rotblat Lecture on Science and Social Responsibility. Joe influenced my own trajectory quite drastically in 1973, starting in 1973, when I got off a plane in Helsinki, Finland to go to my first Pugwash conference. I had no idea how or why I had been invited but it was an invitation one didn't refuse. I had submitted a paper on the links between nuclear energy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and I got off the airplane and Joe Rotblat was waiting for me at the gate.

He had never met me before but it turned out he was on a mission. He had had a co-convener of the working group on nuclear nonproliferation become ill at the last minute. He needed to find a substitute and co-convener. He had thought my paper was pretty good and so he had the idea that he would recruit me to this task and as I came through the gate he looked at me. I was not yet 30, I probably looked 19, and this look of shock came over the distinguished Professor Rotblat's face. He was at that time a young 64. He is almost 93. He recovered from the shock and he said, "Holdren, I have a job for you", and he assigned me to be the co-convener of that working group and from that point on I was trapped. He had a job for me for most of the next 28 years and in some sense he still has a job for me tonight because it was the "Rotblat" on this lecture, combined with my long affection for Student Pugwash [USA], that made it irresistible to say, yes.

But I also had been influenced even earlier in my life by another one of the pioneers of Pugwash who was Harrison Brown, a geochemist who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He was the head of chemistry at Oakridge [Laboratory] at the age of 23. He wrote a book, actually right at the end of World War II, he started writing it in 1945. It was published in 1946. It was called Must Destruction Be Our Destiny and it laid out the whole course of a nuclear arms race in 1946, published in January or February of 1946.

He predicted that the United States and the Soviet Union would build fleets of thousands of ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads. He predicted that there would be periodic surges of interests in ballistic missile defense, that always it would conclude when it was re-examined that there was no adequate defense, that defense was a hopeless proposition, that the lesson of all of this was that the only answer to nuclear weapons was international cooperation to constrain their use. There was no possibility of unilateral effective defense against nuclear weapons. This guy figured that out in 1945.

The book that I first read of Harrison Brown's was called The Challenge of Man's Future. I read it in 1958 as a sophomore in high school. He had published it in 1954, and in that book, Harrison Brown laid out a remarkable argument encapsulated in a way in this quote from the book to the effect that the problems of the growth of the human population, the problem of economic development, the adequacy of resources, the problems of the environment, the difficulties of education, and the problems of avoiding war, the problems of international security -- were all intimately intertwined.

He made the argument that those problems could not be understood, let alone solved, without an interdisciplinary approach. You needed to think about it from the scientific standpoint, the engineering standpoint, the economic standpoint, the political standpoint, the social standpoint, and put it all together and for a geochemist he did a remarkable job of weaving it all together in that book. I was so impressed by that book as a sophomore in high school that it changed what I wanted to do with my life.

Prior to that my life's ambition was to become the Chief Design Engineer at Boeing and I abandoned that aim and was persuaded by that book and another book I read a year or so later, C.P. Snow's book, The Two Cultures. [I decided] that what I wanted to do was work on the great problems of the human condition that sit at the intersection of disciplines, the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences where science, technology, and public policy come together. That is why I wanted to talk tonight on a broad theme, the theme of science, technology, and the state of the world, some reflections after September 11th. I want to do that.

I want to talk about that big theme in the way that I think Joe Rotblat would talk about it with you if he were standing here tonight in my place, or the way Harrison Brown would talk about it if he were alive to do so. Harrison Brown passed away in 1986. What I am going to do, therefore, is talk about these issues first in terms of what either was clear or should have been clear about the interaction between science, technology, and the state of the world before September 11th.

And then I am going to talk second in terms of what has become even clearer since September 11th, and I say even clearer because I think that in a way it is the clarity of our understanding of many of the aspects of this problem that have changed the most, not so much the realities, but the clarity of our understanding of it.

And finally I am going to talk in terms of what socially responsible scientists and technologists should be striving to contribute to these issues, not just the issues in the aftermath of September 11th but the still wider ones at this immensely important intersection of science and technology and the human condition.

So let me start with some things that were clear, I believe, before September 11th about the state of the world and the relation of science and technology to that. I like to talk, as again, Harrison Brown would have, about the state of the world in terms of the enduring afflictions of the human condition. What troubles humanity the most and I list five of those enduring afflictions here.

The first one, the persistence of poverty where it has always existed and the erosion of prosperity even where there has been wealth. That clearly is one of the enduring afflictions of the human conditions.

Secondly, the impoverishment of the environment and by that I mean not just pollution, not just dirty air and water, not beer cans in the places where rich people like to hike, but a much broader pattern of erosion of environmental conditions and processes through a broad array of assaults on forests, on estuaries, on coral reefs, on the oceans themselves, on the atmosphere, on the forces that govern the climate that threaten to undermine the flow of environmental goods and services which are no less important to the human condition than the flow of economic goods and services which get so much more attention.

Third, the oppression of human rights in all of its forms - racism, the oppression of women, the denial of participation of people in the decisions that determine their prospects for realizing their aspirations, the pervasiveness of violent conflict which arises in part out of the preceding items on the list but also for other reasons that all of you could enumerate as well as I.

What Joe Rotblat often points out is that this particular item is that pervasiveness is underlined by the realization that there have been tens of millions of people killed in violent conflict in the second half of the 20th Century, a half century which we tended to regard as relatively peaceful compared to the first half. And finally the wastage of human potential that arises from, and is aggravated by, all of those other categories.

Let me underline these propositions with a few magnitudes. I often say the numbers are not everything but they are something and we need to look at them from time to time. The per capita standard of living at the poorest two billion people in the year 2000 was about a 20th, a 20th of the per capita standard of living of the richest billion. The poorest two billion were living at the equivalent of three US dollars a day. That is after correction for purchasing power parity. You often hear one dollar a day. I have given the benefit to purchasing power parity conversion which claim that market exchange rates somewhat overstate poverty so they get the magnificent sum of three dollars and one-half per person per day in real purchasing power.

The rate of species extinction is between 100 and 10,000 times the rate prior to major human influence. If current trends continue, a third of the species in tropical forests will be lost over the next few decades. Fifteen of the 16 warmest years in the last 140 have occurred since 1980, the eight warmest since 1990. Global warming is happening, and fossil fuel burning which is the principal source of the greenhouse gas increases in the atmosphere is still supplying today nearly 80 percent of civilization's energy.

This is going to be a hard problem to fix. The number of people that will be added to the world's population by 2050, the middle of the century we are now in, under the median projection of the United Nation, will be more than the total world population was in 1950 and the increase in world energy use between now and then under business as usual, if nothing changes very drastically, will be twice as great. The increase will be twice as great as the total amount of energy we are using in the world today.

And finally the global stockpile of nuclear weapons, notwithstanding all that you have heard about the end of the Cold War and the reductions of nuclear weapons after the Cold War, has been about a factor of two, roughly, from the Cold War peak. [This] means there are still more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 4,000 of them in the United States and Russia unaccountably, inexplicably remaining on high alert. The stockpiles of additional nuclear explosive materials in Russia alone mostly still inadequately protected are enough nuclear material to make another 50,000 nuclear bombs.

Continuing with what was clear before September 11th, I think it is important to talk about the underlying factors, the contributing factors that have made these afflictions that I am talking about so enduring. One has been the size that the world population has achieved and the growth rates that continue. [Growth rates] are declining, but they are not declining fast enough in terms of the stresses that coping with this growing population places on our capacity to deal with all of the other problems, and particularly in combination with the very high levels of material consumption in the industrialized part of the world.

The misuse and ineffective use of science and technology, some sins of omission, deliberate misuse, ineffective use, non-use of the potential of science and technology to address the central problems of the human condition, the mal-distribution of consumption and investment. That mal-distribution takes a number of forms - too much consumption in the North, too little in the South; too much investment in military activities, too little in civilian ones; too much consumption, too little investment; all kinds of mal-distribution in this category.

Mismanagement and corruption, which is pervasive in developing and industrialized countries alike. Misunderstanding of the implications of change. Most people do not think through where we are heading, what it will be like when we get there, whether or not we really want to go there. Inattention to interconnections among these problems; all of the problems I have listed, as Harrison Brown argued already in 1954, are intertwined in complicated ways and if we do not think about those interconnections we will not be able to get our arms around the problem or its solutions.

Unilateralism and non-cooperation: there is still a belief, and we will talk about that a little more later, that if a country is rich enough and powerful enough it can solve its own problems and make itself safe in the world, that unilateralism will work. It is not true. Powerlessness of the victims is an underlying factor. So often the people who suffer the most are those least able to react in ways that enable them to improve their condition.

Again a few numerical examples, which I call some shortfalls in the policy domain. What are the richest countries in the world doing to help the poorest countries in the world? The official development assistance dispensed by the United States in 1998 amounted to $8.8 billion, about one-tenth of a percent of US GNP and half a percent of the federal budget. When you ask members of the American public how much we're spending on what they still call foreign aid, the typical member of the public thinks it is 15 percent of the federal budget. And then you ask them, and they say, of course, that is too much, we should not be spending 15 percent of the federal budget, and you ask them how much should we be spending, they say, about five percent.

So what the public thinks we should be spending is still ten times more than [what] we actually are. In the United States, which accounts for a quarter of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide and fossil fuel burning, we have been reducing our investments in research and development to provide lower emitting energy technologies, fourfold in real terms over the last 20 years decline in investments in energy [research and development] Rx. Private sector investments in energy Rx have also been shrinking over this period and eight years after the Rio conference and three years after Kyoto the United States has no significant incentives in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I have already mentioned ten years after the end of the Cold War, 30,000 nuclear weapons still [are] in place in the United States and Russia, 2,000 on each side in hair-trigger alert. The nuclear weapon policies of both countries allow first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats.

I believe it was already clear, or should have been clear, before September 11th what we needed to do, what we needed to be aiming at to make a better world, a more sensible world than the one in which we now live and I'll talk about what we should have understood before September 11th. [I will talk about what] we needed to be aiming at in four categories3⁄4security, politics, economy, and environment.

The first two here, with respect to security, we must aim to constrain, and finally to prohibit and eliminate, all of the weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological, and chemical. If we do not eliminate them, they will ultimately eliminate us. We need to build up the multilateral capacities for armed intervention and peacekeeping because unilateral intervention for peacekeeping is increasingly problematic for reasons that are apparent everyday. We need to focus unilateral capabilities on self-defense, not on intervention.

Politics, we need to promote self-determination, the rule of law, protection of human rights, [and] public participation in governance. We need to improve the match of the scale and character of our institutions to the character and scale of the problems that those institutions are supposed to solve. It is often said by political scientists that the nation state is too large a political unit to solve most problems and too small a unit to solve the others. We need a better match. Nation states are the right size for solving some problems but for many of the problems we are talking about tonight, again, one cannot succeed without multilateral efforts. And for other problems, one can address them appropriately only at local or regional scales.

Economics, we need to reduce economic disparities both within and between countries. We need to internalize the environmental and social costs of consumption. In part, to be able to deal with the consequences of globalization which otherwise can be a disaster for workers and a disaster for the environment.

Environmentally, we need to aim to provide clean water and sanitization for everybody by 2015. It is a disgrace that with the technological capabilities at our disposal there are still roughly a billion people in the world with no access to clean water or sanitation. We need to learn to meet rural household energy needs while sharply reducing indoor smoke3⁄4that is the biggest air pollution problem in the world3⁄4differentially affecting women and children. We need to learn to meet urban industrial energy needs while sharply reducing emissions of oxides, of nitrogen oxides, of sulfur, fine particulates and greenhouse gases. We need to put farming, and forestry, and fisheries on a sustainable basis preserving biodiversity and we need to aim to stabilize population worldwide below eight billion by 2100; if we go much beyond, that no matter what we do in the other categories it's not likely to be enough.

Let us turn now to what is clearer after September 11th. It is clearer now or should be clearer that the threats to US security in the post-Cold War are more diverse and not necessarily smaller than they were during the Cold War. The old threats of war between the major powers, including nuclear war, have diminished but they have not disappeared, including in part because of the potential for massive war by mistake or inadvertence out of those 4,000 nuclear weapons still in high levels of alert. And the new threats entail not only regional and intrastate conflicts in which the United States may become involved but also obviously spillovers from those involvements in which aggrieved parties attack the United States with stealth and with terrorism.

The second thing that should be clearer is that our massive and sophisticated military power is of limited utility against terrorists. Terrorists are hard to identify. They are harder to find and they are harder still to target and destroy without large losses of innocent life. And, of course, those large losses of innocent life only feed the rage in the sense of powerlessness in suffering populations, which spawns more terrorists. It should be clearer now that what many supposed was a self-imposed constraint on the amount of destruction terrorists were trying to cause appears to have been removed.

Terrorists clearly have mastered the equivalent of judo - turning the strengths of industrial society against it - jumbo jets as missiles, skyscrapers as concentrated targets, the mail system to distribute biological agents, 24-hour-per-day TV news to propagate fear. They have not yet done or even tried all that they could.

I am not going to go through the recitation of all of the vulnerabilities of our society that have not yet been exploited. You can probably all make your own list but it's not a pleasing prospect.

The biggest dangers may yet come from the interaction of the old security risks and the new, in the form of the leakage of weapons of mass destruction for materials and expertise to make them, from the war machines of nations into the hands of terrorists. These dangers could dwarf even those that horrified us all on September 11th. A one-kiloton nuclear missile, a badly designed terrorist bomb, on the site of the World Trade Center attacks would have killed more than ten times as many people. A more successful terrorist nuclear weapon of perhaps 20 kilotons would have killed 100 times more people than were killed on that site.

What should also be clearer now is that resourceful application of science and technology have much to contribute to reducing the danger from terrorism, including improved intelligence gathering, early warning, and interception or apprehension of terrorists before they strike including reducing vulnerability by raising barriers to attack and strengthening potential targets including limiting damage through improved emergency response and including improving the capabilities to find and target and capture the culprits after the fact.

But all this will not be enough unless science and technology are also brought to bear more effectively against those parts of the roots of terrorism that reside in poverty and deprivation. Perhaps most importantly, nearly all of the relevant approaches, whether they are directed against the roots or against the practice of terrorism, depend on increased international cooperation to succeed. Unilateralism ought to be recognized as dead. It will not work. It does not work. It cannot work against this array of problems.

So let me turn to that question under the heading, are all [of] the lessons of September 11th yet really clear? The unwisdom of unilateralism I give this the alternative title, why the United States needs friends and cooperators and how it gets and keeps them is not necessarily, thoroughly recognized yet. We need to ask how many of the following we are now going to reverse. The Landmine Convention we refused to join; the International Criminal Court in which we refused to participate; the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty we refused to ratify; the Kyoto Protocol we dismissed as hopelessly flawed. The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that we announced we consider obsolete; the protocol to the biological weapons convention, the discussions of which we walked away from recently; financial support for the United Nations only partial payment of what was owed and browbeating the agency into accepting less in the future.

Which of those are we now going to be wise enough to reverse? Are the lessons really clear? Or the nuclear weapons linkage. Before September 11th, neglect of nuclear weapons dangers was already ample cause for concern. There was no timetable for relinquishing nuclear weapons by the United States or the other official Non Proliferation Treaty certified nuclear weapons states. No review of the United States doctrine of first use of nuclear weapons, even after the end of the Cold War. No major de-alerting of intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launch ballistic missiles. No agreement with Russia on deeper cuts. Russia wants to go deeper than we do.

Most members of the public are not aware of this. It is we who are holding the levels where they are now. No transparency agreement with Russia under negotiation for seven years exists yet; a transparency agreement, which would permit increased cooperation to protect nuclear bomb usable material in Russia. The high enriched uranium deal imperiled by privatization and perverse incentives on the US side, the disposition of surplus plutonium weapons bogged down in both countries and the FY2002 budget request of the Bush Administration, [which] slashes funds for protecting Russian nuclear materials and employing out-of-work Russian nuclear weapons scientists, biological weapons specialists and the like.

This was already a terrible set of situations prior to September 11th and what has happened after September 11th.. Even after September 11th, recognition of the links between loose nukes, inadequately protected nuclear weapons, inadequately protected nuclear materials, inadequately employed nuclear weapons specialists still seems absent. Twenty-seven billion of the $40 billion emergency fund for responses to terrorism has now been allocated, not a nickel for the nuclear threat yet. We must hope that somebody will come to his or her senses in talking about the remainder.

The top Department of Energy Nuclear Security official, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Undersecretary of Energy for Nuclear Weapons [are] not even a member[s] of the governmental advisory panel to the head of Homeland Defense, Tom Ridge, not [one is] even a member. How is one to explain this? There is no nuclear dimension in our current response to terrorists, amazing.

Finally, part three, you will be relieved to know what scientists and technologists can and should be helping to provide in the larger arena of science, technology and the human condition. We should be helping to provide a broader conceptualization of science, technology and policy issues. That is what I mean by STP, a more inclusive conceptualization, more comprehensive, more interdisciplinary, more integrative, more international addressing the full range of issues in the human condition to which science and technology are germane.

We should be trying to help provide more systematic attention to priorities based on the assessment of the relative magnitude of the dangers, the challenges and the opportunities, the relevant leverage of alternative approaches, the appropriate allocation of efforts between symptoms and causes. I mean, how could we imagine spending $100 billion on a national missile defense against the only form of delivery of a nuclear weapon that leaves an indelible return address3⁄4the last method that a small nation or a terrorist group would use to deliver such a thing. One hundred billion dollars proposed for National Missile Defense and not yet a nickel, in fact they have been slashing the budgets, for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of additional nations and terrorists. It is a matter of priorities.

We need a wider, deeper public debate on the key questions at the intersection of science, technology, and the human condition. What is the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world? What actions ought we to take to reduce the dangers from global climate change? How should we think about resolving the tension between intellectual property rights and wide access to lifesaving and environment sustaining technologies? Where are developments and information technology and biotechnology and nano-technology and robotics taking us and do we want to go there?

We, the scientists and technologists who care about these things, should be helping to provide more and better education and training starting with ourselves in thinking more deeply about the societal implications of our work, and helping the generations of scientists and technologists coming along to recognize that thinking about the societal implications of their work is a fundamental responsibility of being a scientist or a technologist. We need more, and better education of, interdisciplinary analysts to work full-time at the intersection of science and technology with policy. We need [finally] more, and better education of, policymakers and the public to be numerate, as well as literate, and attuned to the potentials and the liabilities in scientific and technological change.