Saturday, September 09, 2006

On Population and Quality of Life

Personally I am far less interested in guessing how thickly mankind can be amassed on this planet and still survive than I am in the optimum quality of existence for those who do.

--Paul B. Sears, The Steady State: Physical Law and Moral Choice, 1959, The Key Reporter 24(2):2-3; reprinted pp 395-401 in The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man, 1969; Shepard and McKinley, eds.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Physical Law and Moral Choice

Ecology is a science, but it is not value-neutral as most sciences aspire to be. It has a message. After decades of ecological practice in his career, and 20 years after he first articulated it, Sears in his later years still concerned himself with the conclusions to which his science and his view of history and philosophy brought him:

“The applications of science must be guided, managed, controlled, according to the ethical and aesthetic principles and in the light of our most profound understanding. … Modern society seems incalculably rich in means, impoverished in ends. The dazzling success of science in placing facilities at our disposal has left us all, including the scientist, a bit confused… Yet it is clear enough that the fundamental problems of mankind are no longer technological, if they ever were, but rather cultural. … People shape their values in accordance with their notions of the kind of a universe they believe themselves to be living in. The basic function of science is to illuminate our understanding of that universe—what it may contribute to human ease and convenience is strictly secondary.”
from Physical Law and Moral Choice in the Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter, January 1959; as quoted in MANAS Reprint, Vol XII, No. 13; April 1, 1959.

"People shape their values in accordance with their notions of the kind of a universe they believe themselves to be living in." In the final decades of his life, it seems Sears concentrated more and more on the cultural and social implications of his lifelong observations.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sears on Science

"Science has the power to illuminate, but not to solve, the deeper problems of mankind. For always after knowledge come choice and action, both of them intensely personal and individual. …

Indeed, the faith which reposes in the human mind for the power of science to work miracles is at once touching and dangerous. It is a curious destiny to befall that branch of knowledge which has done most to free mankind from its cruder superstitions."

--Deserts on the March, 1935

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Sears Legacy: Paul Shepard

Last fall, as I was getting interested in Paul Sears' career, I discovered that Paul Shepard had been one of his students. Correspondence with Shepard's widow, Florence Shepard, sheds a little insight into Paul Sears' later years, and Florence has kindly allowed me to post her recollection:

"We visited Sears, while he was still alive and living in Taos, New Mexico. He was in his 90s at that time, but very mentally alert and involved in continued research as well as active in local ecological affairs. Sears was always so happy to see Paul [Shepard] and they immediately engaged in conversation that continued throughout our visit. Sears was also very interested in other students. One spring (I believe it was 1986), students from the first Yale Conservation Program met in Taos for a reunion with Sears. Paul Shepard was one of about 30 students in that program. …At that reunion, Sears was still mobile (later he was in a wheel chair) and very active. He took the group on a field trip to explain some of the ecology of the area!!

He never stopped teaching and loved to work with graduate students. He was also a talented musician and played the violin for the group."

On the Shepard website, Florence adds that "the names of his admirers... are often more familiar than his." As with those of Paul Sears, perhaps Shepard's ideas have become part of the foundation of our understanding to such an extent that we forget where we first heard them. Or perhaps it is through those inspired by them that we can best get to know these great thinkers and their contributions.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Who Are These Americans?

Published in 1939, when Sears was 47, Who Are These Americans? was Sears' sixth book and probably the third that was known to the general public. His astute grasp of what was ahead shows near the end of the book:

"The burden upon science will become not less but greater. Scientists will be pressed to develop new tricks, new gadgets, new short cuts to make today easier, regardless of tomorrow. That is how, so far, we have been using science. It has been like drinking liquor to make today pleasant without regard to the headache which comes in the morning. The pressure to use science in this way will have to be resisted by us all, for the future is everybody’s business."

Sears, who died in 1990 at the age of 98, lived to see many of his insights realized. Reportedly sharp mentally as well as physically active in his later years, he certainly must have followed events of the 1970s and 80s with great interest!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Quotable Sears

Quote collections abound online, but so far, in my searches, they all share the same tidbit of Sears. I don't even know yet which of his books this is from, but it seems an inadequate recollection of this prolific writer:

How far must suffering and misery go before we see that even in the day of vast cities and powerful machines, the good earth is our mother and that if we destroy her, we destroy ourselves?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Deserts on the March

Sears' most popular book was Deserts on the March, very timely in these days of global warming and renewed assault on the natural environment. Here's a review that appeared in the New Yorker magazine on April 4, 1936. It has no byline, but was probably written by Clifton Fadiman.

Deserts on the March, by Paul B Sears.

A timely and monitory little book on the conservation of our natural resources. The work of a scientist who is also a philosopher of history and a writer of considerable talent, it deserves to be widely read.

And it was, in fact, widely read and often reprinted. First published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1935, reprinted in 1937, 1940, revised in 1947 and again in 1959, reprinted (at least) in 1964, 1966, 1967, and 1980, Deserts on the March was last published, to the best of my knowledge, by Island Press in 1988.

This is, in short, not a book that failed to find its audience. More than 70 years after its first appearance but less than 20 years from its most recent publication, neither the book nor its author are much remembered or cited. Here's how Sears saw it in the new closing chapter he wrote for the 1947 revision:

“I have said that the moral problem of conservation is far more serious than the technical. I am using the word moral in its broad and ancient sense, as including anything that involves human choice. There are signs of increasing will toward protection of our natural resources.”

Friday, April 28, 2006

Sears on Red-winged Blackbirds

This morning, I'd just like to share a great Sears quote I posted on my nature blog some time ago, demonstrating his ability to observe and record the elements of nature, especially when they are in contact with human culture.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Who is Paul Sears?

An important ecologist whose career spanned more than 50 formative years in the history of American environmental politics, Sears is a man whose legacy and influence most people, even activists, seem to have forgotten.

But don't take my word for it. Here's what Linda Joyce Forrestal, life editor for THE WORLD AND I, said in 1988:

Sears is one of America's most respected and honored ecologists. He has devoted his long career to furthering our understanding of the delicately balanced ecosystem upon which our very survival depends. Over the years, his ability to clearly articulate complex environmental problems has aided immeasurably in promoting a better world and awakening colleagues and fellow citizens to critical environmental problems, past and present.

Why is he forgotten? That is one of the questions this blog will explore.