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The Ultimate Issue—
Conversion Or Ecocide

          Whether the issue be consumer products—adulterated, falsely labeled, or unlabeled, with respect to potential or known toxic materials—or major technological projects, spewing long-persistent toxic pollutants into the environment, the ultimate issues are a livable environment, good health, and a decent quality of human life. That a considerable segment of our industrial-manufacturing-technological activities is seriously uncoupled from these goals is a truism.

          Many are hopeful that by pleading, by exposure, by legal harassment, by public education, and by dedication in the public interest, we shall be able to turn all of this around, and thereby have technology finally begin to serve societal needs and goals. But we might, through focus on details of the injustices and reprisals, indeed win important battles, but lose the war to prevent ecocide. Is there some central theme that underlies all these problem areas, with features that militate strongly against local, isolated solutions?

          We know the shortsighted parochial view of our economics, which fails totally to consider the health costs to society and the environment's deterioration.

          We know the futility to date of the efforts to alleviate these burdens upon our health and future through governmental regulatory bodies. At best, this has produced no real relief, and is not likely to do so.

          We know that the technologist or scientist who speaks out from an industrial or governmental position will certainly meet reprisals, censorship, and, most likely, unemployment.

          Why don't we face squarely the real root of all our problems and ask ourselves whether a realistic, non-utopian solution is possible?

The Promotional-Profit Incentive

          Our society is based upon the premise that initiative, innovation, and promotion, all leading to economic profit, will by their very nature insure the delivery of goods and services that will steadily upgrade the quality of life for the greatest number. The present environmental crisis clearly indicates that such a desirable result is anything but automatic. The threats posed by food adulteration, poisonous chemicals of agriculture and commerce, and radioactivity may, by synergistic activity, guarantee ecocide, with little or no opportunity for us to understand the hazard or to take remedial measures. Indeed, a quest for remedial measures for specific abuses may divert us from effective, broad action.

          We do not think it is particularly meritorious to question the promotional or profit incentive. They are deeply ingrained powerful human motivations. Moreover, it appears that societies which have ostensibly eschewed the profit motive seem as capable of misdirecting technology as we are. And it may well be that desirable innovation should be abundantly encouraged. There is no doubt that skill and inventiveness should enable technology to operate in society's behalf and to provide many desirable and essential innovations, especially until a rational solution to our population problem is found—some time off at best.

          No fundamental law exists, so far as we know, which dictates that a profit-oriented society must necessarily engage in anti-societal, eco-destructive pursuits. No fundamental law says it is impossible to make money doing worthwhile things. We may well exhort industry and technology to develop a sense of public interest responsibility, even to pinpoint the fact that a parochial view of their interests will destroy them along with the rest of society.

          Such exhortations are justified, carry a real ring of morality, and are by no means scaremongering or doomsday prophecies. It seems to us that they will fail, however, because they don't address the real problem. It is one thing to point out wrong directions; quite another to provide a realistic framework for effective solutions.

          To come up with such solutions we must understand some powerful factors which characterize innovative, profit-oriented enterprise:

          (1) The investment of capital by the entrepreneur-innovator. Today innovation and technology are very big business, most endeavors of any consequence encompassing in a short while the effort to distribute goods or services of the particular technology to 200 million people nationally, and to even larger numbers when foreign outlets are considered. Even the early investment is generally very large. If the particular technological entrepreneurial project has gone along for a period of time, the investment of capital funds soon becomes huge, and indeed a matter of considerable importance concerning which the entrepreneur must be extremely protective. It is a characteristic of innovation that there must be initial enthusiasm and promise—and this characteristic makes it very difficult to appreciate the adverse by-product effects, such as hazard to life. Two features operate here:

          (a) The subconscious desire to look the other way for an innovation that holds promise of real utility and profitability.

          (b) The widespread delusion that science and technology will undoubtedly provide a "fix" for any hazard of the enterprise.

          (2) The investment of career by a large body of scientists and technologists who prepare themselves at great cost for the particular enterprise. And if the technology has persisted for any length of time, such men have achieved position, prestige, and a high personal economic stake in the future of the enterprise.

          A case in point is the nuclear energy technology. Whole university departments have devoted themselves to the training of nuclear engineers and related technologists. And beyond the educational level, there are thousands of nuclear engineers, health physicists, and biomedical scientists with well-established careers predicated upon the continuation and growth of nuclear energy technology, in particular nuclear electricity generation. And this doesn't begin to take into account some 140,000 atomic industrial workers with a large stake in the continuation and growth of this industry. Indeed, the governmental regulators themselves have a not inconsiderable stake in the nuclear energy enterprise.

          (3) The investment of ego and prestige by the elite who have thoroughly committed themselves to the glowing promises of the technology, in full public view. Again, the longer the enterprise has persisted before adverse features become evident the greater the ego-prestige commitment of such elite, and the more difficult it becomes for such elite to reverse their positions.

          In nuclear energy, can any fail to understand the difficult position of Chairman Glenn Seaborg who has admitted his position as a prime salesman for nuclear electricity generation? From a myriad of platforms, and in countless printed statements, he has stated that "the atom came to us in the nick of time." Is anyone so naive as to fail to understand why Dr. Seaborg is having difficulty facing the realization that the hazard of ionizing radiation is far greater—20 to 30 times greater than was thought a decade ago? Or to fail to understand why Dr. Seaborg dodges the question of the likelihood of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant? Or to fail to understand why Congressman Chet Holifield, having pushed appropriations of billions for nuclear energy development through Congress, clings to the concept of a "safe" amount of radiation exposure—a concept rejected by a whole series of distinguished scientists, as well as all the scientific bodies involved in study of radiation hazards?

          It should be unrealistic for any of us to hope that dangerously misguided technological-industrial endeavors will come to an end through:

  • Economic suicide of the capital-investing entrepreneur,
  • Career and job suicide of the technologists and workers,
  • Ego and prestige suicide by leaders, promoters, or apologists for the enterprise.

          To argue that a higher morality should guide all these men, with their varied, vested interests, is simply to produce a totally unreal and unuseful image of men. It is obvious that long-range ecocide will necessarily win out over short-range, parochial economic suicide, career-suicide, or ego, prestige-suicide. And morality won't even visibly enter into the consideration, for the mechanisms of rationalization will surface in abundance to protect against even the most obviously indefensible position.

Limited Victories

          Some may point out that, in spite of all the above, we can win the battle in the existing framework. The battles, yes; the war, no. Cyclamates, it will be argued, have been withdrawn from the market in spite of vested producer interests, in spite of shenanigans of the most reprehensible character from the Food and Drug Administration. But for every cyclamate withdrawn, there are hundreds or thousands of compounds in the food additive field that haven't even been evaluated for toxicity in any meaningful manner—and are not likely to be so investigated. Need we point out the uphill battle to introduce rationality into the pesticide-agriculture scene, including the questionable antics of the Agriculture Department and State Legislatures throughout the country?

          Need we point out the charade of the National Academy of Sciences appointing primarily atomic energy-supported scientists to re-investigate the hazards of ionizing radiation—men who have publicly taken a position on the matter at the outset of their supposed "study"? Suppose they do come out with recommendations suggesting a slight tightening of radiation standards. Is this a significant step forward in avoiding atomic energy depredation of the environment and of human heredity?

          The creation of Centers for Adversary Assessment of Technology can fill an important void—can perhaps provide the "other side of the picture" of the hazards and secondary effects of technology at an early phase, before too much economic and ego commitment has occurred for a particular enterprise. Such adversary assessment is an absolute "must" for on-going and proposed technologies. It would be required for any proposed solution, since the "other side of the picture" is an absolute necessity. But unless additional steps are taken, the information developed by the adversaries will be arrayed against very powerful vested interests in all of the areas we've discussed. There is an additional element needed, ultimately, for the adversary activity to function effectively. And that element is conversion, in its broadest sense.


          Industrial conversion from manufacture of war materiel is receiving serious consideration. Obviously, it is highly desirable to encourage industry to cooperate in devising procedures that will make it acceptable not to push and lobby for unnecessary, destructive military expenditures. But this is far, far from enough. We must view conversion much more broadly and be prepared to encompass all types of industrial-technological endeavor—wherever it becomes evident that anti-societal goals are being pursued, no matter how innocently.

          The fundamental premise has to be that industrial-technological endeavors directed toward improvement of the quality of life are necessarily preferable to those which contribute to ecocide. And a second premise is that we must absolutely learn to accomplish transition of anti-societal to pro-societal endeavor soon.

*     *     *     *     *

          Indemnification: At the economic-entrepreneurial level, the necessary ingredient is indemnification against loss of investment when technology assessment dictates a change in direction. We would hardly be impressed by those economists who would say this is unrealistic, impractical, and unworkable. These same economists have failed in the past to include the secondary, and severe, costs to health and environment in their balance sheet thinking about corporate economics. If our suggestions remain unworkable or impractical, it will be because the economists fail to accept a major challenge which faces them to work out details that will be workable. The ultimate in economic stupidity is the degradation and destruction of life.

          In at least two major areas the industrial entrepreneurs arrived at the position they are now in through public and governmental urging. We are not unmindful of complicity by the entrepreneurial lobbies in creating the governmental "urging." Nevertheless it is clear that the public and government did support the cold war concept and did, thereby, help create the vast military industry. Another illustration is in the field of atomic energy. There is little doubt that the Congress and the Atomic Energy Commission worked hard to "sell" industry on the wonders of the peaceful atom, especially the wonder of nuclear electric power production.

          Why would it not be proper to indemnify industry investors against capital loss required by a change in direction? Indeed, a failure to do this may well make it harder in the future to get industry to participate in governmental sponsored areas, some of which, at least, may be quite worthwhile. A punitive approach to investors in technologies which prove to be unwise can only be expected to meet with fierce resistance, subterfuge, distortions, half-truths, and lies in the effort to preserve parochial, short-term economic interest, whatever the societal cost. Far better to meet this problem by learning some economics of indemnification.

*     *     *     *     *   *

          Preservation of Technologists' Positions: It is equally obvious that we cannot afford the luxury of unemployment or prospective unemployment for technologists, or for the labor force which is involved in their technology. For the first group, the technologists (and scientists), the prospect of the disappearance of their technology, their careers, their positions is, perforce, terrifying. Therefore, objectivity in their own assessment of their particular technology is readily buried in a morass of rationalizations and pseudo-science. The second group, the labor force involved, provides an unfortunate lobby to prevent public objective evaluation of the technology and its hazards.

          We must develop techniques to protect both groups against unemployment and the fear of unemployment, if we are to expect them to participate in a constructive redirection of technology where required. Some economists have a tunnel-visioned view of unemployment as a useful tool in curbing inflation. Anachronistic and inhumane though this be, the implication is far, far more serious in a technology-based society. Obviously, where position and total career loss threatens, the technologists and the backup labor force will opt, overtly and covertly, for continuation of an anti-societal enterprise. And they will represent a powerful force to preserve the enterprise by delaying and confusing the hazard issues. Why should we stimulate this behavior—a behavior so human and expected?

          We propose, therefore, when a technological enterprise needs cessation or redirection, that the technologists and labor force be guaranteed continued employment in the redirection of their particular technology. Again, the classical economist may argue that the expense would be prohibitive. And our answer is that failure to guarantee against position and economic loss will be infinitely more costly for society.

          Certainly the legal profession has learned very well the difficulty of getting expert witnesses from within technology to testify concerning hazards of their technology. And they hope that somehow this wall of silence can be broken so as to be able to carry forward environmental lawsuits. Such hopes are, broadly, destined to failure unless the fear motive is removed. And that fear rests in economic and position losses, or potential losses.

          Moreover, it is manifestly ridiculous even to consider unemployment for technologists and scientists (actually for anyone, for that matter). There are indeed many important tasks requiring all of our technological skills and ingenuity. Why waste it? There is little doubt that most technologists can readily be redirected into new areas. The cost of those who perform poorly during the redirection phase would be a small price to pay for the tremendous gains achieved by stopping eco-mad endeavors. And, further, technologists, realizing that redirection would be expected in the course of their careers, would be far less likely to become overly limited in confining their expertise to minutia of a specific technology.

*     *     *     *     *

          Ego-Prestige Loss and Defensiveness: We all are familiar with the expression that "nothing succeeds like success." It seems like a homey little statement, until one considers carefully some of the implications. And this leads us directly to consider some extremely important issues other than the economic ones in the persistence of technological blunders.

          We must ask ourselves seriously about the price of failure, rather than success. As a culture, we place a high ego-premium on being right about what we say, what we do, for essentially all endeavors that are in the public or semi-public domain. It is no secret that in scientific academe some men appear to devote a lifetime of research and publication to proving they were right in their Ph.D. thesis. Who in industry or technology is unaware of the hazard inherent in having to tell his superior that all is not so rosy in the picture painted last month or last year concerning a specific project?

          Defensiveness is the obvious result of the high value-premium we place upon success. And defensiveness breeds tunnel-vision, self-deception, and rationalization—anything but objectivity. Why can't we learn to honor and respect honest admission of error, of failure? While this may require careful nurturing of a subtlety in attitudes, we will fail to learn to change our attitudes at great peril and cost.

          Decisions to go forward in a technological enterprise are not made by bureaus, nor are they made by corporations. Decisions are made by men. It is, of course, entirely appropriate to emphasize this in our endeavor to impress upon men that they will be held accountable for their decisions. This will certainly help in making captains of industry, governmental decision-makers, and technologists exercise more sobriety than otherwise they might. But at the same time we must absolutely refrain from squeezing men into an escape-proof, irrational ego-box.

          Responsibility, yes—but only if we add sincere appreciation and praise for the ability of a man to admit forthrightly that he has changed his view, that what once looked right, now looks foolish. We desperately need to create an atmosphere where a man can proudly admit error. In a vast majority of instances the error is not the result of negligence, not the result of deceit, not the result of irresponsibility. It is simply the result of the great power of hindsight, especially hindsight buttressed by new evidence and altered circumstances. So, we had better see to it that something else can succeed besides success.

          Time Magazine (December 28, 1970) carried a short article entitled "Heresy in Power." The title itself is extremely revealing of our attitudes. Presented in the article is the statement by Charles Luce, Chairman of Consolidated Edison Corporation, that the idea of promoting increased electric power use, representing the wisdom of three years ago, is the "idiocy of today." Why is that revised view of Mr. Luce regarded as "heresy?" It is, rather, a profoundly important realization by a leader of industry that his industry's position of yesteryear is no longer compatible with the real world. And, therefore, his statement deserves praise and admiration. Are we broadly prepared to provide such praise? Mr. Luce seems inordinately capable of learning and forthrightly stating the new horizons opened up by his self-education.

          Thus, instead of the totally defensive attitude of the electric utility advertisers and AEC officials who whitewash the hazards of nuclear power generation because of their commitment thereto, Mr. Luce suggests the highly constructive idea of a tax on electricity bills to provide funds for research and development of new methods of electric power generation compatible with the environment. Since Mr. Luce is thoroughly familiar with nuclear power (his company participates in nuclear power), we can surmise that he refuses to be brainwashed concerning the absolute wonders of that approach to power generation. How many men can escape the irrational ego-box as well as Mr. Luce has? What reception will he receive for his "heresy" among his electric power colleagues?

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