though: their workings, too, are unpredictable.
Indeterminism on this scale, radical uncertainties concerning the long-term behaviour of our planet's oceans, atmosphere and rocks, impinge upon society's workings in a myriad ways. Debates on pollution, resource depletion, population explosion, economic growth, nuclear power, even the planning of scientific research are all, in some measure, affected thereby. Consider the future of nuclear power. The complexities of this issue are endless: economic, ecological, environmental, social, political, geological problems, and many others, are involved — all embroil one, willy-nilly, in unquantifiable and at times indeterministic phenomena. The pollution problems involved in a nuclear economy alone are staggering; one must be concerned, into the decades and centuries ahead, with the diffusion of radioactive carcinogens in the atmosphere, the oceans and the solid earth itself.
By the beginning of next century, a full-blown world nuclear economy would be disposing of yearly quantities of radioactive wastes equivalent to hundreds of thousands of tons of pure radium. The practicalities of such disposal confront us directly with our inability to make long-term predictions concerning the earth's seismicity, underground water flows, ocean currents, or even the climate itself. Yet proponents of nuclear power maintain they will guarantee confinement of high-level radioactive wastes in geological formations on land or in the ocean bed for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. This is a case of scientific illiteracy: the concept of indeterminism, i t seems, has yet to percolate into industrial and technocratic circles.
Wrong turnings and technological errors
Civilization is faced today with conundrums for which technical solutions may or may not be possible, depending upon the degree of indeterminism one must concede to the phenomena. That indeterminism is present is indisputable; but when does i t significantly affect our power to act? In fairness to the technologists and technocrats whose work this is, efforts to face the problems raised by technology have not been lacking — a proliferation of risk-assessment schemes, pollution standards, industrial legislation, technology assessment committees, attest to this. Nevertheless, one suspects that awareness of indeterminism is only marginal. Expert pronouncements on a variety of matters, from stratospheric pollution to radioactive waste disposal, all too often suggest a strictly nineteenth century faith in the technological fix — i.e., adherence to the idea that, given money, time and New Ecologist No. 4 July/Aug 1978
application, definite answers to all such problems must be forthcoming. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising, in basic theory, pure science is usually well ahead of technology and engineering — particularly when the message is an unwelcome one. And the perception of indeterminism as a large-scale, macroscopic phenomenon is surely unwelcome to technologists, economists, politicians, engineers, generals, statesmen — to all of society's decision-makers.
Insofar as the final decades of the twentieth century are concerned, the message of this kind of scientific indeterminism is clear: a growing number of seemingly technical issues cannot be decided on technical merit alone. This implies, inevitably, the politicalization of technology and, to some extent, of science too. Issues which, not so long ago, would have been regarded as only technical, to be resolved exclusively by scientists or engineers, may now turn upon values, not numbers.
In recent years, technocracy has supplied a variety of proof for its inability to cope predictively with the consequences of its decisions. Leaving aside the unsuccessful gropings of economic theory, there have simply been too many technical catastrophes, too many wrong turnings — thalidomide, Soweso, DDT, industrial explosions, collapsing dams, worldwide pollution . . . the list is endless. The public, aware of vast threats lurking in the background, is worried and uncertain. Less innocent than in the past, it is no longer convinced by the stage entrances of learned men, brandishing diplomas and assuring us that all is well, because they understand the problem, even i f we do not. For every expert who tells us not to worry, you'll find one to contradict him, and the bewildered observer must ask himself how to find the truth. The sobering fact is that he won't get it from the experts — not, that is, solely from their expertise. Positions cannot be taken on purely technical grounds; logic takes us only so far: sooner or later, one must make a value judgment or an act of faith.
Indeterminism of principle, scientifically based uncertainty — this is a twentieth century insight. Appearing first on the atomic scale, in the microcosm, it has now spread to the everyday, macroscopic world of sense and engineering. Whilst science has endowed us with monstrous power, it is now, ironically, teaching us its restrictions, telling us that our abilities are circumscribed forever by uncertainties we do not control. Perhaps this will be our ultimate perception of the universe — a succession of insights each revealing the limitations of the ones that came before, a sort of philosophical Chinese box, enclosing ultimately some strange, and no doubt unexpected, pearl of wisdom.