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Lynn White.pdf


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soft coal, but our present combustion of fossil fuels threatens to change the
chemistry of the globe's atmosphere as a whole, with consequences which
we are only beginning to guess. With the population explosion, the
carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and
garbage, surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest
in such short order.
There are many calls to action, but specific proposals, however
worthy as individual items, seem too partial, palliative, negative: ban the
bomb, tear down the billboards, give the Hindus contraceptives and tell
them to eat their sacred cows. The simplest solution to any suspect change
is, of course, to stop it, or better yet, to revert to a romanticized past: make
those ugly gasoline stations look like Anne Hathaway's cottage or (in the
Far West) like ghost-town saloons. The "wilderness area" mentality
invariably advocates deep-freezing an ecology, whether San Gimignano or
the High Sierra, as it was before the first Kleenex was dropped. But neither
atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis of our time.
What shall we do? No one yet knows. Unless we think about
fundamentals, our specific measures may produce new backlashes more
serious than those they are designed to remedy.
As a beginning we should try to clarify our thinking by looking, in
some historical depth, at the presuppositions that underlie modern
technology and science. Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative,
intellectual in intent; technology was lower-class, empirical, actionoriented. The quite sudden fusion of these two, towards the middle of the
19th century, is surely related to the slightly prior and contemporary
democratic revolutions which, by reducing social barriers, tended to assert a
functional unity of brain and hand. Our ecologic crisis is the product of an
emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a
democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we
cannot unless we rethink our axioms.

The Western Traditions of Technology and Science
One thing is so certain that it seems stupid to verbalize it: both
modern technology and modern science are distinctively Occidental. Our
technology has absorbed elements from all over the world, notably from
China; yet everywhere today, whether in Japan or in Nigeria, successful
technology is Western. Our science is the heir to all the sciences of the past,
especially perhaps to the work of the great Islamic scientists of the Middle

Ages, who so often outdid the ancient Greeks in skill and perspicacity: alRazi in medicine, for example; or ibn-a l-Haytham in optics; or Omar
Khayyam in mathematics. Indeed, not a few works of such geniuses seem to
have vanished in the original Arabic and to survive only in medieval Latin
translations that helped to lay the foundations for later Western
developments. Today, around the globe, all significant science is Western in
style and method, whatever the pigmentation or language of the scientists.
A second pair of facts is less well recognized because they result
from quite recent historical scholarship. The leadership of the West, both in
technology and in science, is far older than the so-called Scientific
Revolution of the 17th century or the so-called Industrial Revolution of the
18th century. These terms are in fact outmoded and obscure the true nature
of what they try to describe--significant stages in two long and separate
developments. By A.D. 1000 at the latest--and perhaps, feebly, as much as
200 years earlier--the West began to apply water power to industrial
processes other than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th
century by the harnessing of wind power. From simple beginnings, but with
remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded its skills in the
development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation.
Those who doubt should contemplate that most monumental achievement in
the history of automation: the weight-driven mechanical clock, which
appeared in two forms in the early 14th century. Not in craftsmanship but in
basic technological capacity, the Latin West of the later Middle Ages far
outstripped its elaborate, sophisticated, and esthetically magnificent sister
cultures, Byzantium and Islam. In 1444 a great Greek ecclesiastic,
Bessarion, who had gone to Italy, wrote a letter to a prince in Greece. He is
amazed by the superiority of Western ships, arms, textiles, glass. But above
all he is astonished by the spectacle of waterwheels sawing timbers and
pumping the bellows of blast furnaces. Clearly, he had seen nothing of the
sort in the Near East.
By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of
Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over
all the rest of the world, conquering, looting, and colonizing. The symbol of
this technological superiority is the fact that Portugal, one of the weakest
states of the Occident, was able to become, and to remain for a century,
mistress of the East Indies. And we must remember that the technology of
Vasco da Gama and Albuquerque was built by pure empiricism, drawing
remarkably little support or inspiration from science.
In the present-day vernacular understanding, modern science is
supposed to have begun in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius

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