Friday, June 11, 2010

Scout out a safer future

We Americans pride ourselves on our can-do approach to life. We are rooted in the idea that options are limitless and that if we can think it, we can make it happen.

We are a country of doers, and we work hard. According to surveys of the time spent at work by citizens of various countries, Americans may be the hardest working people on the planet.

We revere engineering. Without the marvels of engineering, humans would still be living in caves and operating by firelight. The Intermountain West, as just one example, would be virtually uninhabitable without dams and the irrigated fields they provide.

We pride ourselves on speed and efficiency as measured by distances traveled and worker productivity rates.

In more than 200 years as a nation, the time Americans have devoted to engineering has grossly exceeded the time spent thinking about its risks relative to rewards. Bravely or foolishly, we have forged ahead seemingly undeterred and unmolested by the question, "What is the worst that could happen?" We naively trust that if a risky project is located in some faraway region, it can't threaten us. And, if great rewards beckon, we easily dismiss the Cassandras among us.

The oil surging daily from British Petroleum's exploded deep-water well in the Gulf of Mexico should inspire us to do something more than devise a technological fix for the disaster that will foul our nest for generations. It should inspire some national soul-searching.

Or we should look at the news that invasive weeds have developed resistance to Roundup, the No. 1 pesticide that's been used by the barrel on important crops genetically engineered to be immune to its killing effects.

If these are not enough to inspire, we should look at the shrunken value of our homes, investments and businesses and the sea of red ink that's engulfed the nation's budget and realize that something in our national psyche needs to change.

The U.S. has commissions on everything from art to the Arctic. Why not a Commission on the Future?

Its first mission would be to do some soul-searching about what kind of planet and what kind of country we want to hand off to future generations.

Its second mission would be to watchdog finance, science and engineering to try to give warning of unforeseen consequences that could turn catastrophic.

The commission should include fine scientists along with ethicists, philosophers, social scientists and historians. With a little luck, it could help us scout out safer paths and avoid errors that could put an end to life on planet Earth.

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