There are really two books here, both of them good. The first examines the "primordial bond" between man and nature as expressed in poetry and painting, and the attempts of mythology and the ancient "speculative sciences" to explain the phenomena of the natural world. The second book is a brilliant essay on the question, What is science? as well as the clearest description currently available of the global biological and chemical cycles on which life depends, and human disruptions of those cycles. Finally, the second book discusses the relationship between science and ethics in the environmental policy issues facing us today and the necessity of choice.
The first book quotes Lewis Thomas, Wordsworth, C. P. Snow, "The Book of Common Prayer," Rene Dubos, Jacob Bronowski, Lao-tse, Thoreau, the Hindu Rig Veda, T. S. Eliot, The Golden Bouth" -- and summarizes the "pre-science" of Hesiod, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Aristotle and Thrales. The black-and-white illustrations range from the gardens o Versailles and the East Anglia Broads, to Buddhist mandalas and tarot cards, to paintings by Titian, Leger, Breughel, Monet, Rossetti and Georgia O'Keeffe. The point is the variety of techniques man has used to comprehend nature and his relationship to it.
The second book begins with a discussion of patterns affecting the four classical elements -- earth, air, fire and water. Earth itself is recycled as rivers carry debris to the ocean floor, where the sedimentary cycle may eventually carry it to the land surface again. Air, too, is cyclical, with the gases constantly mixed; "air blowing over one place on a round earth will ultimately blow over every other place." The hydrological cycle is more familiar to us. And the authors give extremely clear figures showing the endless cycling of the nutrients essential to life -- carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, the relation of these biogeo-chemical cycles to the global climate and environment -- and the impact of man's activities on these cycles, with possibly profound but unknown effects.
The theme linking the two books is man's conception of his place in nature. Do we feel an affinity with the natural world and wish to preserve it? Or do we fear it, and wish to control and change it?
Schneider, a climatologist with unusually broad interests (and the author of "The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival"), and Morton, a writer, see these conflicting values as the essence of the debate between environmentalists and developers. In many ways, it is an ancient debate; environmentalists and developers. In many ways, it is an ancient debate; the urgent new element is the ability of modern man to alter natural forces on a global, and perhaps irreversible, scale. The merit of the present book is the clarity with which the authors present the historical and ethical context of the dilemma.
They see our position on environmental policy issues as inseparable from our values: "It takes scientific information to estimate both risks and benefits, and it takes elucidation of our feelings and values to translate these estimates into acceptable action. Providing data is a specialty of scientists. Interpretation of our feelings and values is a pursuit of artists and other humanists." If the debate is to be effective, both groups -- and all of us -- must participate.
But public participation in these crucial decisions may be constrained by scientific illiteracy and the "growing disenfranchisement of nonspecialist citizens. The 'average person', unfamiliar with the language or arguments of the technological components of major public policy issues, cannot intelligently apply his own values to problems that he does not understand . . . Without a distinction of facts, speculations, and values, decision-making becomes haphazard at best, and controlled by elites or special interests at worst.
"The debate over solutions to environmental and related technological problems is, necessarily, laced with the vocabulary of scientific disciplines and punctuated with the often conflicting testimony of experts. There is a danger that in the din of scientific and special-interest debates over policy tactics, the essence of the environmental crisis will be lost: it is fundamentally an issue of feelings and values."
"The Primordial Bond" is a provocative and highly readable discussion of the limitations of both science and humanism in confronting such issues -- and it is not insignificant that one of it authors is a concerned young scientist. Advocacy groups sometimes try to manipulate science to provide "answers" to public policy questions. And strong feelings have sometimes caused advocates to make statements that have no basis in fact. Schneider and Morton suggest that the level of debate will be raised by a humanism informed by science, and a science that is both humble and humane. Thus, each of the two parts of this book gives added dimension to the other. Together, they are a compelling discussion of the issues that may well affect the health of "spaceship earth" -- and its passengers.