In a country that has, for many years, been at the forefront of scientific innovation and technological development, everybody (excepting a few religious fundamentalists) claims to value science, and yet we consistently see policies and behaviors that seem to ignore reality.
So what does it mean to value science? Is it like the lip-service version of “valuing life” that goes along with building the world’s most deadly military? Do we value it at a distance, in a sort of abstract manner?
For my part, I feel that if we value science, then we need to consider how its findings connect to other things we value. Take the current example of Flint, MI. We have known that lead is dangerous for thousands of years, and more recently had a refresher of that lesson with the rise and fall of tetraethyl lead. We know that the Flint River is more corrosive to lead than the lake water coming from Detroit. We also know how to treat water so that it won’t corrode the lead in pipes.
At a minimum, valuing science should mean accepting its findings, and acknowledging what we know about reality, but what then?
Then we get to other values. Most people claim to value human life and wellbeing, so it should be a simple conclusion – either avoid water sources with a low pH, or treat the water to protect the population from lead poisoning. Supposedly, Governor Snyder and his “Emergency Financial Manager” made the choices they did because they value fiscal responsibility.
Before we address the financial aspect of this, let’s dwell on the implications here for a moment. The decision to change water sources and the decision to not treat the water were made in order to save money, and that goal was more important than the wellbeing of the people who would be using the water. That is the best possible explanation. That means that to the people making those decisions, human life and wellbeing is worth less than whatever money they thought they could save.
But let’s set aside, for the moment, the moral outrage of valuing the lives of our fellow humans so little, and consider the supposed reasoning behind this disaster. The idea was to save money. With the information available BEFORE the change was made (years, decades, and in some cases centuries before), no responsible financial calculation could have left out the impacts of widespread lead contamination in Flint.
If life was valued, then they would have taken care to treat the water or not make the switch if they couldn’t afford the treatment.
If fiscal responsibility was valued, then again, treatment or not switching were the best options, given the short-term and long-term costs associated with untreated water.
If science was valued, then that value did not extend beyond mere academic interest, and into any kind of informed action. In that case, I think that were Snyder to claim to value life, fiscal responsibility, or science, he would be demonstrating only that he does not value truth.
In the absence of any honest statement of the values that went into creating this human rights disaster, we are left wondering what was really at work. Whether it was the manifestation of a belief that government is inherently evil (surely a self-fulfilling prophecy from someone with power over government policy), or a desire to transfer wealth (financial or otherwise) from the hands of poor, black folks to the hands of rich, white folks, or any of the other motives suggested, this does not seem like an isolated incident.
The poisoning of Flint, MI parallels many, many other cases of environmental contamination, including the destabilization of Earth’s climate through fossil fuel use. It seems that the values that have lead to decades of obfuscation and inaction surrounding climate science, are the same as the values behind disasters in Flint, the Gulf of Mexico, Los Angeles, Bhopal, and countless other places around the world.
I don’t have a solution, but I think it’s important to state as clearly and as often as possible that the ideological movements behind all these crimes against humanity and against life on this planet are tied together. Without identifying and solving that problem – as well as our own participation and contribution to that ideology – it seems unlikely that we will be able to fix the crises before us, or prevent the new ones that loom on the horizon.