New age of reason: Technocracies have botched the human-nature nexus. We need science with ethics today

As harrowing as the current pandemic is, humankind has to consider that more and worse of these may lie ahead. Wildlife displacement and other ecological footprints of our species are wreaking such global warming as makes plausible storylines resembling the most fanciful fiction, like long-dormant viruses that killed Neanderthals, mammoths and woolly rhinos returning to life. The global disruption caused by Covid has only served a small sample of what climate change will do to us all unless we do something to restrain it.

Perhaps nothing less than a new age of enlightenment can rise to this challenge. In its last incarnation the great thinkers of the age were deeply engaged with the scientific questions of their time – Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith etc. Gradually of course this trend gave way to disciplinary narrowness as science became more technical and specialised, and technocracies took the driving seat in many societies. But the perils of this kind of decision making are all around us today. Science needs a renewal of vows with values and a higher purpose.

Whether it is broader climate change or its immediate manifestations like the pandemic or the California wildfires or the Amphan super cyclonic storm which caused extensive damage in Bengal in May, several roots of the environmental crisis lie in a technocratic attitude towards nature, science and progress. Our humanist self needs to take back control instead. It’s a question of survival of our species. Of course it’s science which will give us the vaccine and other solutions as well. But from Nazi eugenics to unchecked emissions to China’s surveillance engine, it’s clear that without ethical guidance science can stumble badly. Today such big picture guidance needs to unite rationality with a collective humanity and even spirituality. At stake is pulling the planet back from a heated catastrophe.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.