Volume 23, Number 3 July 1994
The Green Fuse: An Ecological Odyssey
Physics, physicists are taught to believe, is superb training for many fields of endeavor. Among those who have demonstrated this truth in recent years, John Harte stands near the summit. Trained as a high energy theorist, he has become an ecologist of the highest order.
Almost a quarter century ago Harte and another physicist, Rob Socolow (now a Princeton professor and world leader in energy research), published Patient Earth (Holt Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1971), wherein they illustrated the disastrous impact of human technology on several sensitive ecosystems.
Harte's approach is eclectic and always elegant. He emphasizes common sense and careful matching of technique to problems. In 1985 he published Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving (William Kaufman, Los Altos), a collection of worked ecological examples showing how to apply common sense and simple science to the natural world. Spherical Cow shows us that we have enough data in our heads to estimate the number of cobblers in the US, then moves to the rabbit populations in New Mexico on the basis of rabbit road kill observations, and far more. Choose your techniques carefully, Harte enjoins us; make your models no more complex than the question at hand demands. Nor simpler!
Spherical Cow is pure science. Green Fuse brings in the human dimension. Ecology becomes personal. Harte's use of "fuse" is intentionally ambiguous, referring both to the time bomb we have ignited by overpowering nature, and simultaneously to the linkages of the chain of life. The structure is a series of vignettes based on extensive travels and research. A nitrogen balance study of Southwest Alaska creeks and lakes segues into an explanation of the origin of Arctic haze, how radiocarbon dating shows the carbon is recent, and how haze may be affecting Arctic ice. A few chapters later a detective story of acidification in small lakes in the Colorado Rockies leads to the understanding of salamander population decline. The culprit is an acid pulse driven by an early spring runoff.
Harte shows us the elegant predictive power of simple models in scientific investigations, and why generalization can be risky. The action shifts to Tibet. The primary goal is to measure rain acidity in one of the most remote land locations in the world, but Harte finds time to explore humans and nature, the destructiveness of Chinese communism, and the down-side of synergy. Global warming is a recurring integrative theme, Harte's synecdoche for the panoply of humanity's ecological destruction.
In The Green Fuse John Harte demonstrates that he can not only do ecology, but communicate it too. Always precise, Harte has a sense of language and a taste for specificity that makes his examples come alive. Many of the examples bring in Berkeley graduate students, often appearing in the role of detectives to tease out nature's secrets. Knowing John Harte's personal preference for scientific objectivity, I wondered whether he would go beyond his sense of wonderment to describe his motivations and values. To my delight, he does: "Like many scientists, I feel awkward talking about myths and values because they cannot be analyzed with the tools in our kit bag. Nevertheless the often heard statement that science is value-free is arrant nonsense.
" Harte builds his ethos on the Golden Rule, raised to a higher level in the Kantian sense of the categorical imperative: "Adapt a rule governing how you deal with others as you would have them adopt a rule for dealing with you." To Harte the Golden Rule is broad indeed. It "encompasses people all over the planet, including those that may never see or know us." In his view, "others" includes "future generations that may be affected by our actions." But what have future generations done for us? Harte answers compellingly: "They can give us a reason for treating our ecological home respectfully, so that our lives as well as theirs will be enriched." They can give us "a vision that will plague our remaining days if we act so as to fulfill that vision by continuing to degrade our planet."
The "ecological odyssey" concludes, as it begins, with lines from Dylan Thomas:
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees Is my destroyer."
Though his examples are often discouraging, showing as they do massive adverse global effects of human activities, Harteremains optimistic. We still have time to change our ways--if onlywe have the will. If John Harte's eloquence and good science won't bring us to our senses, it's hard to see what will!
Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance
The cold-war superpower competition led to the development and deployment of advanced military technologies. A widely accepted wisdom has been that much of this arms race was driven by technological imperatives. Now that the superpower arms race has collapsed, it is appropriate to review this wisdom: Do technological imperatives really exist, and are they irresistable? We would like to know whether technological pressures might continue to generate arms races, and how we might control such pressures. Donald MacKenzie's Inventing Accuracy analyzes one technological imperative that may, or may not, have led to improving guidance systems for ballistic missiles, hence improving their accuracy.
MacKenzie poses the question in terms of "technological determinism" and "natural trajectories of technological change." Most of his text is devoted to reviewing the history of missile guidance, to see whether there was such determinism and trajectory in the evolution of missile accuracy. He describes several alternative technical approaches to improving missile accuracy, such as radio control, inertial guidance, and stellar guidance, and hediscusses which alternative was chosen and for what reasons. Clearly the accuracy of both ICBMs and SLBMs displays continuous improvements from 1945 on, with important contributions by miniaturization of electronic systems through transistors, integrated circuits, and microchips. But he goes far beyond reporting this progression intechnological capabilities. The strength of his book lies in the many interviews of participants in the development of missile guidance. These interviews allow him to examine the motivations of the technologists working on missile accuracy, such as Charles Stark Draper of MIT, and of the policy makers who decided which technologies to deploy.
The analysis of missile accuracy reveals deviations from technological determinism and natural trajectories; improvements in the accuracy of deployed missiles were not inevitable. It is true that once the U.S. Air Force accepted ICBMs as one of its responsibilities, it was very interested in improving accuracy for tactical or counterforce missions. And so, each generation of ICBMs had seemingly inevitable improvements in accuracy as supplied by Draper's Instrumentation Laboratory at MIT--in fact, the super-accurate guidance system for the MX ICBM existed even before the missile was ever chosen for development. However, the U.S. Navy saw its SLBMs as countervalue weapons, and actively opposed improved CEPs. None-the-less, SLBMs also increased in guidance capability: as their range was increased, new and more accurate guidance systems had to be built just to keep the targeting accuracy constant.
MacKenzie argues that missile guidance technology showed no natural trajectory. Indeed, there was competition between radio, inertial, stellar, and GPS guidance. There was competition between alternative approaches to building gyroscopes: suspension by liquid floatation, self-activated gas bearing, externally pressurized bearings, or electrostatics. Accelerometers could be restrained pendulums, pendulous integrating pendulums, or pulsed integrating pendulums. These technological arguments were often settled more by the force of personalities such as Draper than by technological competitions. Since the accuracy of ballistic missiles could have come through a variety of technological developments, it does indeed seem wrong to speak here of a natural trajectory of technological development.
MacKenzie agrees that the mature technology of inertial guidance shows "the continuous, predictable, apparently inexorable technological change that has so impressed those who have examined the growth of missile accuracy." But he argues that it should be seen "as an institutionalized pattern of predominantly incremental technological change involving, centrally, a self-fulfilling prophecy." He cites the history of ICBMs and SLBMs in detail to make the point that in the development of inertial guidance "changing people's perceptions and gathering resources.was at least as important.as writing equations and drawing blue prints." He argues that institutional controls on technological progressions should be seen as more than "artificial barriers to the natural course of technological change."
MacKenzie's arguments persuade that there has been no technological determinism or natural technological trajectory in the development of missile accuracy. But I believe his history is none-the-less consistent with the concept of technological imperatives. The fact, that improvements in missile accuracy could be achieved through several alternative technologies, does not contradict the argument that the great opportunity to improve missile accuracy (by whichever alternative method) exerted tremendous pressure to develop and deploy that improved accuracy. The fact that this pressure could be resisted in theory, and partially in fact by the U.S. Navy, means there is no determinism, there is no inevitability. But the more"sweet and beautiful" the technology, the harder it is to resist. This is demonstrated by the improvements in accuracy forced on the U.S. Navy for its SLBMs as these increased in range.
I accept that "missile accuracy is [not] a natural and inevitable consequence of technical change." Institutions can resist technological imperatives. But the more "sweet and beautiful" the technology is (as was the case for missile accuracy in the eyes of Draper), the harder it is to resist developing and adopting it. It is true that technologies such as missile accuracy "can be uninvented" in the sense of not deploying them. But this disinvention of a technology is easiest when an even sweeter technology takes its place, e.g., when the terminal guidanceof a warhead reduces the need for inertial guidance. Arms control, or technological restraint, must be an active barrier to those technologies that may not be completely inevitable, but which form a technological imperative.