Reasons to Worry About the Human Environment

Citation: Journal of the Cosmos Club of Washington D.C 8 (1): 12 1998 Republished in Technology in Society 21:217-231, 1999. 

Keywords: climate and biodiversity, behavioral poisons, libido, depopulation, falling work, rejection of science, twilight of the west

Areas of Research: Technology & Human Environment

This article originally appeared in COSMOS, the journal of the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. It has been republished in the journal Technology and Society 21:217-231.

Thoughts are presented on climate and biodiversity, behavioral poisons, libido, depopulation, falling work, rejection of science, and the twilight of the West.

My subject is the insecurity many now experience in the West, by which I refer especially to Europe and its offshoots in the Americas and elsewhere. Deep and valid causes exist for insecurity:

I suspect unintentionally ingested poisons have made us violent and stupid. I fear intentionally ingested medications may be deadening libido and thus the creativity and edge of our societies. I observe the incipient implosion of the populations of most of the rich countries, sure to wreck our social security and further sap our vitality. I observe the falling time, during a life, that we spend employed for pay and wonder what will compensate for the eroding centrality of the work contract. I worry that we will reject science, the source of our paradoxical freedom and the most powerful means to achieve a better standard of living. And I anticipate, like Oswald Spengler in 1918, the decline of the West, the source of modern science and still its only secure home.1

I might mention other night thoughts, of financial and monetary crisis (which the economists and bankers arrogantly believe they have extirpated) or great wars or Africa’s hunger or Earth’s collision with an asteroid, but the night is only so long, and my six fears seem quite enough. More importantly, these fears cohere, culturally and historically.

First I will dwell briefly on two fears that I believe we need not harbor but that have occupied much of my work, namely climate change and loss of biodiversity. Conveying the reasons for my sanguine outlook justifies the apparent digression.


I do not fear climate change, because the human economy is losing its taste for carbon, the main prospective cause. The continuing, steady decarbonization of the energy system means that the concentrations of carbon dioxide will not rise much above 500 ppm, about 40 percent above today’s levels.2 Today’s levels are about 30 percent higher than 100 years ago. The century’s climate change is barely distinguishable in the statistics, notwithstanding detailed analysis by legions of climatologists. More importantly, the consequent impacts on our food production and other matters of concern are of no consequence or lost in the ruckus of history. To offer a flippant but telling example, Europeans, Americans, and Japanese ski much more now than we did in 1896, though it was colder then. I do not believe that a somewhat larger warming over the next 75 years will matter significantly for our diets, health, or incomes. Most of the economy has moved indoors, and much that has not will do so. Climate simply matters less and less.3

Though I do not fear the carbon emissions, I certainly do not defend them. The whole energy system leaks and squanders. Means abound to control it more tightly and efficiently. Engineers and entrepreneurs should get on with the business of concentrating the system safely and cleanly on gas and electricity, and introducing hydrogen and less wasteful devices for generation, distribution, and final use of energy. Researchers can ease the way with ex post and ex ante explanations.

Loss of biodiversity is also, I believe, an issue more of the past than the future. Humans have slashed and burned wildly for many centuries. Happily, observation of changing patterns of land use suggests that the worst is over in many countries, and probably globally. Cities will continue to expand where population grows or rising incomes enable each resident to sprawl further, that is, enjoy increased mobility. Fortunately, the total area cities may encompass is simply not that large. In rich, fast America citizens only take about 600 to 1,000 square meters each.

Globally, the land used for crops is about ten times greater than that for cities. In the United States and many other countries, land cropped is shrinking, because higher yields mean plants need less area on which to grow. The trend will continue and spread to countries where yields have remained low. Similarly, the area of forests used for wood products will diminish, as the Green Revolution that transformed the grains penetrates the trees in conjunction with other means of achieving high–yield forestry. Paul Waggoner, Iddo Wernick, and I have calculated that in the United States over the next 75 years or so, while the population increases by about 100 million, the growing cities, contracting farms, and reduced need for acreage for wood products will release an area of land for other uses equal to 100 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, or an area equal to Bolivia or Nigeria.4

This study of land–sparing in the United States should be repeated for many, even all countries. Surely some will find a different, and saddening, bottom line. Nonetheless, globally the future of land belongs to Nature. Extinctions can become a thing of the past.

Incidentally, what works to save land and the animals feeding on it works in the water, too. Clever aquaculture can end the holocaust of the wild fishes. Aquaculture already approaches one–fifth of all ocean landings of fish and shell-fish by weight.

The regrowth of forests brings its own set of problems. Formerly, Americans regularly burned woodland to encourage palatable grasses and legumes for livestock, to ease movement and, importantly, to keep down the snakes, chiggers, and ticks. Now the ticks are back with the woods and the deer, and with them Lyme disease and meningitis. We may regain some of the fear of forests and the animals that live in them evoked darkly in the German folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, published first in 1812–1815. The Grimm Brothers inspired or at least rationalized the work of the nineteenth–century deforesters. We cleared forests and drained swamps not only for land for crops and grazing but for health, safety, and mental security.

But the bugs of the woods are not among my main worries for humanity. Rather let me now explain the dangers I posted at the outset: behavioral poisons, loss of libido, depopulation, falling work, rejection of science, and, finally, the decline of the West.


I worry that the Industrial Revolution, which has spared us from stoop labor and the hazards of the fields and brought us comfort, convenience, and mobility barely imaginable two centuries ago, has poisoned many among us. The annual worldwide production of most of the toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, and mercury, has increased by 2–3 orders of magnitude over the past 1–2 centuries.5 Notwithstanding impressive gains in containing emissions, significant amounts continue to dissipate, creating chances for unintentional ingestion.6

Hippocrates recognized acute lead toxicity in ancient Greek miners. The sweetening and preserving of sour wines with lead–containing additives began with the Romans and caused severe colic, paralysis, and death until the practice was eliminated in the eighteenth century.7 The comparably acute effects of mercury and other metals have been well–documented. But the possibility, insufficiently researched, also exists that the low–level exposures to the heavy metals released by industry and the consumption of its products over the past two centuries have had serious behavioral effects.

Lead and other metallic elements profoundly alter the nervous system, and thus intelligence, memory, visual retention, and dexterity. Having no known biological role, lead only contaminates the human body. In 1983, a year for which global estimates happen to have been compiled, about 300,000 tons of lead may have been dispersed in the atmosphere and a million tons in the soil.8 At low levels, lead has been shown to cause a variety of learning disorders. Bone lead levels in fact have been convincingly linked to delinquent behaviors.9 Human skeletal lead burdens today show a 500–fold increase over the skeletons of ancient Peruvians who did not smelt.10

Cadmium, like lead, serves no biological function and is virtually absent from humans at birth. Contemporary American cadmium bone levels are about 50 times those found in the bones of Pecos Indians of the North American Southwest circa 1400 A.D.11 Groups of violent and nonviolent incarcerated male criminals differed significantly in cadmium as well as lead levels, measured in hair.12 Similarly, high cadmium and magnesium levels characterized disruptive recruits to the US Navy.13 Manganese madness” is characterized by hallucinations, unusual behavior, emotional instability, and numerous neurological problems. Aluminum and thallium are neurotoxic to varying degrees; their symptoms include depression, difficulty in sleeping, irritability, impulsivity, and violence.

I believe we have yet to understand how the metallic traces humans bear may have affected history. Natural variation in exposure from diverse soils and other sources may explain some past and persisting cultural” differences. The problem was surely very hard in the locales of miners, potters, glaziers, and smelters.14 Coming to the present, the rises of the metallic metabolism of the economy may help explain the observed patterns of chronic violence and, who knows, maybe even wars. Certainly other causes of dimness and violence exist, but a significant, and limitable, fraction may be attributable to this and other factors in the physical environment. We should find out. We could study the behavior of gas station attendants, auto mechanics, and other vulnerable populations.15 We might learn that improvements in air quality decrease aggressive behavior. New York City and many other parts of America have experienced dramatic drops in crime in the past few years. Police have quickly seized credit. Maybe they should share it with clean air legislation and the technologies that enable compliance.

In a more general way, the chance that small leaks from our industrial system have large behavioral consequences intensifies my interest in industrial ecology.l6 Industrial ecology studies the networks of all industrial processes as they interact with each other and live off each other. Observing the totality of material relations among different industries, their products, and the environment, we find big chances for reducing wastes and drips. We will hold the grail of the materials and energy systems when no drips remain to be caught, when emissions and dissipation approach zero.


The curious converse of my worry about the rise of aggression from unintentional ingestion of metals is the decline of libido from the intentional consumption of medication. Libido refers to desire or, more formally, the emotional or psychic energy derived from primitive biological urges. Recently, alarms have drawn attention to the possible role of endocrine disrupters in reproductive failure and developmental twists in humans and other animals.17 The alleged culprits include plastic wrap and pesticides. My concern is psychiatric drugging.

The “modern” era of psychiatric drug treatment began in the 1950s with the introduction of tranquilizers to control excitement, agitation, and aggressivity, mostly in hospital settings.18 The current wisdom of the doctors suggests that 5 percent to 10 percent of populations in countries such as the United States and France suffer depression. Though the affected fraction of the population is very subjective, I accept the horribly painful and costly reality of mental illness as well as its physiological basis. Depression, for example, appears to be connected to the serotonin level in the brain, with which, incidentally, cadmium may interfere.19

Side effects of the tranquilizers and the subsequent first generation of antidepressants, the tricyclics, limited their diffusion. As for most innovations, bigger markets awaited better products. These came along in the 1980s in the form of Prozac (fluoxetine) and other drugs which selectively alter serotonin catabolism in the brain. America, always the innovator, leads in acceptance. Prescriptions for antidepressants from office–based psychiatric visits soared in the United States from about 2.5 million in 1980 to 4.7 million in 1989. 20 Increases were particularly evident for male patients, young adult patients, and patients with neurotic disorders. The overall prevalence of antidepressant use in certain communities quadrupled in a recent 10–year span.21 By May 1995, 10.5 million Americans were reportedly taking Prozac, and perhaps 15–20 million worldwide.22 Many more are taking chemically similar Zoloft and Paxil, and several new antidepressants are pending approval with the US Food and Drug Administration. In France, in 1995 about 3 percent of the population used the eight main antidepressants.23 The global market for antidepressants is expected to reach more than $6 billion by 1998, having doubled in four years.24

For younger people, access to the pharmacopoeia has also broadened. The line between children with “normal” variations of temper, lively or spontaneous children who are sensitive to stimuli, and those who have a “disorder” has shifted. In part the reason may be that with more women working outside the home, younger children are required to adhere to a more organized and less flexible social structure, in school or around the home. Seeing fewer children, parents may also more quickly think a particular child extraordinary, for better or worse. Maybe the causes include lead, cadmium, and other elemental exposures. In any case, a massive increase has occurred in the United States of diagnoses of Attention Deficit–Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The drug of choice in this case is Ritalin (methylphenidate), which often improves the focus and performance of those diagnosed with ADHD. In 1995, 2.6 million Americans were taking Ritalin, a five–fold increase from 1990. 25 The vast majority of users are boys between 5 and 12, in fact more than 10 percent of boys in this age group.

My point is not to condemn the drugs. The drugs work. They are intended to change the individual’s mood, and they do. But, social mood is also exceedingly important. As with the toxic heavy metals, I think we have yet to consider the collective effects of all these, and other fresh chemicals, that we are voluntarily ingesting. Yet, we nod knowingly about the effects of alcoholism in many societies. We readily accept that crack cocaine caused an epidemic of violence in New York and other American cities in the mid–1980s and that its retreat contributed to falling crime.

Prozac is well–known to cause sexual dysfunction, along with general calming. Who needs endocrine disrupters? Maybe the attack on depression and hyperactivity is affecting aggression, violence, crime, and many other antisocial behaviors. But creativity in all its forms—economic, scientific, artistic—also often first appears as antisocial behavior. Maybe America and other nations are prescribing themselves a gradual but gigantic and deadly loss of libido. An ironic end to the Freudian century.


Long before Prozac and Ritalin, western nations began to raise fewer children. The French, during the Revolution of 1789, were the first moderns to reduce fertility. The reason was not the death of sex. Rather the Revolutionary government abolished primogeniture, the practice of bequeathing all property to the first son. The splitting of inheritance and wealth would mean downward social mobility. The lever left to the family was to reduce offspring, and parents used it. Two hundred years later, on average, a woman in Europe or Japan now bears only about 1.4 children along her fertile span. As is well known, to preserve a population, the rate should be around 2.1. The gap means that numerous national populations, and that of Europe as a whole, are imploding. To give an example, if Japanese women sustain their present fertility (1.4 in 1995), the population of Japan will fall from 125 million today to 55 million in 2100. This apparent success for family planning worries me.

First one needs to understand the reasons for family size. The logic tends to be economic, as in the French case. The main question is, are children a burden or an asset? Both, naturally, although the burden tends to fall on the female, while the asset accrues to the family as a whole.27 Historically, even in periods of high fertility, the wealthy have had few children. In a well–off family, in most circumstances, children are not assets. Growing and educating them at the appropriate standard costs a lot. They bring no income when they are young. Aging but still wealthy parents do not need them for support; care for the old people is left to third parties financed by the income or assets of the old people. If static property such as land forms the wealth, many children would inevitably split it. These reasons explain the pre–modern family size of the rich. Nowadays wealth at large links more to financial assets than to static property. Still, child costs remain the same.

In the absence of economic incentive for families, a second basic reproductive instinct remains, that of continuity. Adults beyond reproductive age who realize that there is nothing after them rage and despair. Their genes will disappear. They have traveled their mission without delivering their message.

Assuming the basic instinct for continuity is finally stronger than bare economic considerations, then every couple longs for a child. With child mortality at around 1 percent, one child should be enough. But here another argument, or instinct, comes in. The child should be male. If we put biological mechanisms in control, this request makes sense, as otherwise the Y–gene would be lost. Perhaps the cultural practices favoring sons are an externalization of the basic instinct in folkloric disguise.

In any case, suppose couples reproduce starting with the idea of a boy. About 50 percent of them get one. The other half get a girl and a dilemma: what to do next? We may assume that the parents decide on a second try, the last, if unsuccessful. With this strategy in mind, and taking into account that about 15 percent of women never give birth for various reasons, the outcome is a fertility rate of about 1.3 per female, almost exactly the present fertility rate in European countries, including Germany, Spain, and Italy.28 If the reasoning is correct, the fertility rate is unlikely to change, because of a lack of driving forces in the short term. In fact, assuming immigration does not compensate, a population with a total fertility rate of 1.3 per female is unstable and converges to very small numbers in a few generations.

Though the implosion of our population might reopen niches for the rest of Nature, it promises severe stress for the surviving humans. Means for social security can be internal or external to the family but require children in both cases. Where means external to the family do not provide old age benefits, children are the only insurance for old age. With external mechanisms, as in the welfare state, the children in the system become a “common.” Children are economically decoupled from the family, but they are still coupled to society because, collectively, they must earn the pensions paid to old–timers. These commons can suffer a tragedy if everyone takes away and nobody restores the resource. In fact, with a plausible rate of long–run productivity growth (2 percent per year), most European countries and Japan currently do not have enough children for ensuring the pension system at levels their citizens expect. Moreover, chronic overcapacity may weaken the incentives to achieve productivity growth in these societies.

Perhaps the wreck of the pension system will set forces in action to restore higher fertility rates well ahead of the shrinking to zero of the total population. The publicity about endocrine disrupters may signal the need to try to reproduce. In fact, Sweden for a while somewhat countered the trend toward the lowering (to 1.3) of the total fertility in Europe. Swedes, after a decrease from a value of 2.5 in 1964 to 1.6 in 1978, started a rise in 1983, peaked at 2.13 in 1990 but have since again fallen below 2.00. 29 After slumping to about 1.7 in 1976, the US total fertility rate has remained about 2.1 in the 1990s. The former Soviet Union may also provide a useful case study. Fluctuations and changes in financial systems wiped out Soviet savings and pensions, putting older persons, many of whom have had only one child, at great risk. We should watch to see whether the present Russian youngsters repeat their parents’ gamble. Understanding episodes of rising fertility and pro–natalist policies matters greatly for the West, Japan, and eventually a list of other nations. The alternative, immigration, has historically proven an irritating cure for depopulation.

As with the metals and the psychiatric drugs, we must also be alert for collective, and noneconomic, effects in the society of the small family. Increasing longevity and improving prostheses for older persons can preserve numbers and vitality for a while. But the vis vitalis, life’s vital force, is not evenly distributed by age, and indeed it may not be equal among children. Frank Sulloway has argued that birth order weighs exceedingly heavy in determining creative lives.30 First children conform to authority, while younger ones are born to rebel. Charles Darwin was the fifth of six children, and the youngest son of a youngest son going back four generations, while his mother’s father was the youngest of 13 children; Benjamin Franklin was the fifteenth of 17 siblings and the youngest son of a youngest son for five generations. If we wish to keep a low birth rate, perhaps we should at least concentrate the fertility in a few families to maintain some psychological diversity.

Such concerns are probably secondary to the strife over social insurance sure to accompany depopulation. Recall that the preceding transition, from the security of the large family, helped create the space for the Communist dream and its realizations. Indeed, the German Chancellor Bismarck adopted the first social security system in the 1880s to forestall the gains of the Socialists. As late as 1940 pensions covered only about 4 million American workers. Neither employers nor the state will welcome the intensification of the debate over social responsibility soon to come.


Scarce youth might cause a tight labor market and encourage older workers to remain longer in jobs, alleviating both youth unemployment and the social security problem. On the contrary, the present era is the worst for employment since the 1930s in the industrialized nations, with the significant exception of the United States.31 Probably 20 percent of those who want jobs lack them. Even in the United States, with low reported unemployment, workers retire ever earlier, now barely above 60. The labor force participation rate for American men aged 55–64 dropped from 90 percent in 1948 to 83 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 1994.

One reason is surely cyclical. The world is at the low point in the roughly 55–year pulsations of the economy, the so–called Kondratieff waves.32 While traditional employers have shed many workers, the industries that will newly employ many more, basically connected with information handling, one might say the Internet for short, have started vigorously in only a few countries, particularly the United States. The Internet vastly reduces transaction costs, in money and time, and thus can coalesce innumerable new markets, for news about heavy metal rock and roll groups or for obscure types of scrap metal. The Web will make its Wirtschaftswunder, but not pervasively for another decade or two.

Nevertheless, the secular trend is toward less work.33 Since the mid–nineteenth century, on average people in the industrialized nations have been working significantly less while living longer. While the average career length has remained around 40 years, the total life–hours worked shrank for an average UK worker from about 125,000 hours in the 1850s to fewer than 70,000 hours in the 1980s. UK male workers dropped from 150,000 to 88,000 lifetime hours at paid work, while UK working women dropped from 63,000 to 40,000. Well–documented long–run reductions in annual per capita work time in many countries suggest the universality of the trend.34

The combination of reduced lifetime working hours and increased life expectancy has caused a huge shift in life experience. While in 1856 half of the disposable life–hours of workers were spent working, the portion has fallen to less than one–fifth today. If the trends continue, soon after the year 2000 half of the years of the average worker will occur before or after work. Even in the working half of an individual’s life, formal work will account for a decreasing fraction of time, one–third or less, and should leave more time, for leisure and other activities such as caring for a child (or two) and the home. If the long–term trends continue at their historic rates, the work week might average 27 hours by the year 2050.

The formalized work contract has historically been the central economic and social fact in industrialized countries. It has not only regulated the standard of living, but also served as the most important factor for social integration. The secular trend away from the formal work to other socially obligatory activities and to free time implies numerous social challenges. Societies must examine whether their employment, pension, education, and other policies reflect the dominance non–work and free time have obtained over work.

New organizational models of distributing employment should be possible and indeed are already evident. “Temporary” employment agencies have displaced the famous manufacturing corporations as the largest employers in the United States. Labor economist Ronald Kutscher has described the strategy of assembling a just–in–time labor force,” analogous to the parts now kept flexibly available in “just–in–time inventory.”35 The projected 27–hour average work week may match even better temporary and contingent workers. In any case, labor market policies can enhance the distribution of work through the shortening of working time, more flexible working hours, and job sharing.

The fall of work changes pensions on a scale comparable to the demographic implosion. In the 1850s, a career for a UK male averaged about 47 years. Before education became mandatory, work began young, often around 10, and healthy men 1abored until they died. Indeed, at age 10 males expected only about 48 more years of life, so many did not experience the natural end of a working career or feel the need for pension. Now US males on average seek about 10 years and females about 20 years of pension.

Superior management of the financial assets of pension systems may raise the rate of return on the funds invested, but the gain seems unlikely to overcome calculable deficits without also postponing the age of retirement and eligibility for pension. Scaling pensions to contributions and life left solves the problem, but politicians will not dare to implement it. Unfortunately, the present reality is that per capita work is disappearing, so people are retiring, and thus ceasing to contribute, ever younger.

In the age of work through which the industrialized nations appear to have passed, the corporation was the central and characteristic institution of society. The corporation in its several forms was one of the great organizational innovations of the nineteenth century, an enabling technology for the Industrial Revolution, shaping not only income and health but social status, security, architecture, and numerous other features of the human environment.36 Obviously, if work time shrinks, the times of life that are not part of the formal work contract expand. With formal work losing its traditional place, so probably does the corporation.

Dynamic technology, markets, and management compound the question of the social role of the corporation. In many sectors several generations of corporations come and go in an 80–year human lifetime or even in a 40–year work career.37 In the American model of easy corporate entry and exit, a large fraction of private sector workers are employed by corporations whose life expectancy is short, 10 years or less. Moreover, the globalization of industry appears to favor frequent relocation of sites of employment in the quest for competitive advantage. Perhaps universities and other long–lived organizations, including parts of government, can play a larger role in a world in which work offers short–lived identity and stability. The need is for institutions which impart continuity.

I have only hinted at the essential cause of falling work. At the outset of this essay I emphasized the inexorable role of technology in raising the productivity of energy and land. Technologies spare not only physical resources, they spare labor. In 1975, 12.5 hours of American labor were required to produce a metric ton of cold–rolled steel sheet; in 1995, 4.4 hours were required. In fact, I suspect the desire to work less while living longer drives the human social system. I am scared because the prospect of success may be near, that is, a prospect in which globally and on average the production of goods is largely a solved problem, but the distribution of wealth, security, and status is not.


A large population might work less and tread more lightly in our environment either by restraining its consumption or by getting much more clever at both production and consumption. I am pessimistic about the chances for managing our wants downward. Few rich choose to become poor and few rich feel rich enough, so we must revolutionize the economy. The way is to better everything we do by 2 percent per year faster than population change, to compound productivity gains broadly, year after year.

Knowledge is what now grows productivity, and science and engineering are the most powerful forms of knowledge. They demonstrate their effectiveness every moment. Wisely used, science and technology can liberate the environment, can spare the Earth.38 Carbon–free hydrogen energy, food and fiber decoupled from acreage, and closed–loop industrial ecosystems can assuage fears about changing climate, vanishing species, and poisoning metals.

The aggressive search for knowledge and its application is perhaps the most significant contribution of Western civilization. The game began centuries ago but has reached completely new levels in the past 50 years, above all in the United States. Many industries have systematized their search for better practice and have the gains to show. I have mentioned the case of steel. The hard search is costly and requires skillful organization. And, I would emphasize, courage and confidence and the tolerance that can accompany them. Science, the structured and sanctioned overthrowing of authority, is the purest form of continuous improvement.

I believe the greatest threat to future well–being is the rejection of science. Having come this far, the 5.8 billion cannot take the road back. The Islamic world held the cutting edge of science until past 1100 A.D. Then it rejected the windmill and, later and repeatedly, the printing press. Loss of economic and political leadership followed.39 The objects of science, the technology, can be taken without the values. The corsairs of the Barbary Coast which raided British vessels for 50 years or so were in fact piloted by renegade Britons and Icelanders; when the foreigners died, their knowledge of sailing was rejected and forgotten. Voltaire noted that after 60 years of Swiss watch exports, no one in the Middle East could make or repair a watch.

So cultures can and do reject science. Or be excluded from it. Women have been. Historian David Noble convincingly traces the exclusion to the clerical ascetic culture of the Latin church, which gave birth to modern science but only as a male vocation.40 The otherwise revolutionary Galileo, concentrating on his own calling and knowing the costs of raising and marrying daughters, contrived to place his two girls, aged 11 and 12, in a convent in the year 1613. Livia suffered a permanent breakdown. The second, Virginia, whom her father praised as “a woman of exquisite mind,” dreamed of fathoming the heavens. She never left the strict enclosure of San Matteo in Arcetri, which did not permit her scientific pursuits.

In 1950, in the United States, one woman and 416 men received doctoral degrees in engineering, while five women and 353 men did so in physics. Today in the United States about one in six of doctoral students in engineering are women; the ratio is one in four in physical sciences and mathematics. In most sectors, the feminization of work and power is now well underway. While women provided about 15 percent of career years in the 1850s in the United Kingdom, they currently provide well over 30 percent. Science now seems likely to suffer if women reject it or it rejects women.

We should, of course, recall that the same church culture that excluded women had adopted the idea during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Baconian natural theology, that changed the role of men (at least) from passive recipients of spiritual messages through natural phenomena to active seekers for an understanding of the divine nature as reflected in the pattern of creation. The Book of Nature joined the Book of Scripture as a way to the mind of God. This opened the door to objective examination of nature and to experimental science. Medieval historian Lynn White, Jr. conjectured that the timing of the emergence of science may have owed to the process of defending the Christian position against the heresy of the Cathars, who upheld the existence of two gods, one good and one evil.41 The creation of the evil god was the visible universe.

The point is that past changes in science have related to changes in basic religious attitudes, in aesthetic perceptions, and in social relationships, as well as to economics and politics. Along with money, science must have a positive emotional context to thrive.42 As White observed, the modern outburst of scientific activity is not necessarily permanent.


Why would science fail? Because of my final worry, the decline of the West, Europe in particular. As stated earlier, modern science is the greatest gift of Europe, rooted in particular forms of Christianity. Now I observe Europe full of self–doubt and self–hatred. Partly the mood properly reflects the lethal misadventures of this and other centuries. Still, the morbidity reaches its perigee in European as well as in American groups in the discussion of “sustainable development,” the environmental rubric for a confined future. It is hard to believe that at the start of the twentieth century Europe was spreading its messages confidently to every corner of the planet. I wonder whether the self–mortifying West (or North) will be rich or expansive enough to maintain science.

The United States and some of the other European offshoots, Canada and Australia, for example, still seem to be growing, at least demographically. The United States acquired the scientific lead from Europe in the 1930s and has carried it to new and glorious levels, especially in California, where inhibitions are famously few. Perhaps the former European colonies will maintain science for a century or two after Europe abandons it. Goa, in India, built baroque Portuguese cathedrals long after the metropole stopped. Latin America, which belatedly picked up the European form of the novel and made it flourish, magically, in the late twentieth century, might do the same for science.

Sadly, one can imagine a shrinking Europe, whose residences fill with immigrants from the Mahgreb, who spread their culture, hostile to science. The 5,624 mills listed in England in the Domesday book of 1086 exceeded the mills in the Ottoman Empire at its height.43 The Far East remains a question. A recent Nature article entitled “Can Confucius Excuse Poor Creativity?” listed factors that seriously undermine Korean creativity. 44 Then Nature queried, “And those who have returned from the creative hot–houses in the West? As soon as they return, it is said with a rueful laugh, they become Koreans again.” Spengler perceptively characterized western culture as Faustian,” symbolized by pure and limitless space, limitless striving and aspiration, its architectural symbols the soaring vaults and spires of a Gothic cathedral.45

Spengler particularly contrasted the West’s Faustian culture with what he called the Magian, whose proponents dwell in a magical world of mysterious presences. Western culture had superseded the Magian around 1000 A.D., according to Spengler. For how long?


We have causes for insecurity. We may be stupefied, subdued, aged, underemployed, and ashamed. Under these conditions we will not reproduce ourselves or our culture, and then I believe the best chance for a better human environment for everyone is lost.

Civilizations have simply melted away because of poor reproductive rates of the dominant class. We should not forget that the European supremacy started with a reproductive stir during the last part of the first millennium and continued with ups and downs until the end of the nineteenth century. The question may be whether underneath the personal decision to procreate lies a subliminal social mood influencing the process, as endorphins do. The subliminal mood of Europe and its retinue could now be for a blackout after 1,000 years on stage.

Yet, my hope is that the West is merely in the trough of a Kondratieff wave, basking in the depression. After all, science is surely early in what it can achieve. A look at progress in mapping the genome proves it. We must create the wealth and continue lifting the inhibitions to enable science to flourish. Science in turn can provide the means for a pure, rich economy. We can sell science and its products lucratively and helpfully to the rest of the world. It frees us, though often to solve problems that did not exist without science. But to overcome our morbidity and restore our belief in infinity will require more than science, perhaps a new or revived religion.


I am grateful to Arnulf Gruebler, Cesare Marchetti, Perrin Meyer, Paul Waggoner, Iddo Wernick, and Doron Weber for working with me on the problems discussed here; none of them is responsible for the views expressed.


1 – O Spengler, The Decline of the West, Oxford, New York, one volume edition, republished 1991. Spengler published the 1st volume of his Der Untergang des Abendlandes in 1918 and the 2nd in 1922.

2 – JH Ausubel, A Gruebler, and N Nakicenovic, Carbon Dioxide Emissions in a Methane Economy, Climatic Change 12(3):245–264, 1988.

3 – JH Ausubel, Does Climate Still Matter? Nature 350:649–652, 1991; JH Ausubel, The Liberation of the Environment, Daedalus 153(3):I–17, 1996.

4 – PA Waggoner, IK Wernick, JH Ausubel, Lightening the Tread of Population on the Land: American Examples, Population and Development Review 22(3):531–545, 1996.

5 – JM Pacyna, Atmospheric Trace Elements From Natural and Anthorpogenic Sources, in Toxic Metals in the Atmosphere, JO Nriagu and C Davidson, eds., Wiley, New York, 1986.

6 – RU Ayres and LW Ayres, Industrial Ecology: Towards Closing the Materials Cycle, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham UK, 1996.

7 – J Eisinger, Lead and Wine: Eberhard Gockel and the Colica Pictonum, Medical History 26:279–302, 1982. Lead was also used in women’s cosmetics (Science 265:1655, 1994).

8 – JO Nriagu and JM Pacyna, Quantitative Assessment of Worldwide Contamination of Air, Water and Soils by Trace Metals, Nature 333:134–139, 1988.

9 – HL Needleman, JA Riess, MJ Tobin, GE Biesecker, and JB Greenhouse, Bone Lead Levels and Delinquent Behavior, Journal of the American Medical Association 275:363–369, 1996.

10 – JE Ericson, H Shirahata, and CC Patterson, Skeletal Concentrations in Ancient Peruvians, New England Journal of Medicine 300(17):946–951, 1979.

11 – JE Ericson, DR Smith, and AR Flegal, Skeletal Concentrations of Lead, Cadmium, Zinc, and Silver in Ancient North American Pecos Indians,
Environmental Health Perspectives 93:217–223, 1991.

12 – L Hastings, Neurotoxicology of Cadmium, in Handbook of Neurotoxicology, LW Chang and RS Dyer, eds., Marcel Dekker, New York, 1995, pp. 171–212; RO Pihl and F Ervin, Lead and Cadmium Levels in Violent Criminals, Psychological Reports 66:839–844, 1990.

13 – RE Struempler, GE Larson, and B Rimland, Hair Mineral Analysis and Disruptive Behavior in Clinically Normal Young Men, Journal of Learning Disabilities 18(10):609–612, 1985.

14 – Recall also that early paints, glasses, and stucco were often loaded with lead.

15 – Bootleggers, for example. Moonshine whiskey was often loaded with lead (and other metals), because car radiators served as condensers.

16 – RA Frosch, Toward the End of Waste: Reflections on a New Ecology of Industry, Daedalus 125(3):199–212.

17 – T Colborn, D Dumanoski, and JP Myers, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?— A Scientific Detective Story, Dutton, New York, 1996.

18 – DH Jacobs, Psychiatric Drugging—40 Years of Pseudo–Science, Self–Interest, and Indifference to Harm, Journal of Mind and Behavior 16(4): 421–470, 1995.

19 – RB Rastogi, Z Merali, and RL Singhal, Cadmium Alters Behaviour and the Biosynthetic Capacity for Catecholamines and Serotonin in Neonatal Rat Brain, Journal of Neuro–chemistry 28:789–794, 1977.

20 – M Olfson, GL Klerman, Trends in the Prescription of Antidepressants by Office–Based Psychiatrists, American Journal of Psychiatry 150(4):571–577, 1993.

21 – A Hume et al., Is Antidepressant Use Changing? Prevalence and Clinical Correlates in Two New England Communities, Pharmacotherapy 15:78–84, 1995.

22 – D Pine, The Prozac Dilemma, Woman’s Day 58(6):70–74.

23 – F Rouillon, C Blachier, JP Dreyfus, M Bouhassira, and MP Allicar, Etude Pharmaco–Epidemiologique de la Consommation des Antidepresseurs en Population Générale, Encephale 22(l):39–48, 1996.

24 – H Critser, Oh, How Happy We Will Be, Harper’s 292(1753): 39–48, 1996.

25 – LH Diller, The Run on Ritalin: Attention Deficit Disorder and Stimulant Treatment in the 1990s, Hastings Center Report 26(2):12–18.

26 – This section draws heavily on C Marchetti, PS Meyer, and JH Ausubel, Human Population Dynamics Revisited with the Logistic Model: How Much Can Be Modeled and Predicted?, Technological Forecasting and Social Change 52:1–30, 1996.

27 – A Mother’s work consists mainly of grooming, feeding, safeguarding, and so forth; one recent study showed that the average American woman at home spends less than ten minutes a day playing with or reading to her child (S Scarr, Mother Care, Other Care, Basic Books, New York, 1984, pp. 26–27).

28 – If 15 percent of females have no children, 43 percent of females have a boy, and 42 percent have two kids, the total fertility rate is equal to 1.27.

29 – J–P Sardon, Fecundité Générale, L’Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques, Paris, 1994.

30 – F J Sulloway, Born to Rebel, Pantheon, New York, 1996.

31 – International Labor Organization (ILO), Yearbook of Labour Statistics, 55th Issue, ILO, Geneva; International Labor Organization, World Employment 1996/1997: National Policies in a Global Context, ILO, Geneva, 1996.

32 – C Marchetti, Fifty–Year Pulsation in Human Affairs: Analysis of Some Physical Indicators, Futures 17(3):376–388, 1986.

33 – This section draws on JH Ausubel and A Gruebler, Working Less and Living Longer: Long–Term Trends in Working Time and Time Budgets, Technological Forecasting and Social Change 50(3):195–213.

34 – Since the mid–1980s the decline in annual working hours for those who work full–time appears to have slowed down, even reversed in some countries (O Marchand, Une Comparaison Internationale de Temps de Travail, Futuribles 165–166(5–6):29–39, 1992). This factor may have accentuated the unemployment problems in several countries.

35 – R Kutscher, Growth of Service Employment in the United States in Technology in Services: Policies for Growth, Trade, and Employment, BR Guile and JB Quinn, eds., National Academy, Washington, DC, 1988, pp. 47–75.

36 – C Kaysen (ed.), The American Corporation Today, Oxford, New York, 1996.

37 – WL Crum, The Age Structure of the Corporate System, University of California, Berkeley, 1953.

38 – JH Ausubel, The Liberation of the Environment, Daedalus 125(3):I–17; JH Ausubel, Can Technology Spare the Earth?, American Scientist 84(2):166–178.

39 – B Lewis, The West and the Middle East, Foreign Affairs 76(l):114–130, 1997; B Lewis, Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East, 2nd edition, Open Court, Chicago & La Salle IL, 1993.

40 – DF Noble, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science, Knopf, New York, 1992.

41 – L White, Jr., Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture, MIT, Cambridge, 1968. See especially “The Context of Science,” pp. 95–106.

42 – For a congeries of present “anti–science” in the United States, see PR Gross, N Levitt, and MW Lewis, eds., The Flight from Science and Reason, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol. 775, New York, 1996. Also indicative of the present mood, writer Paul Horgan argues that researchers have reached the limits of knowledge in many disciplines in The End of Science (Addison Wesley, New York, 1996). TF Homer–Dixon even argues for the decumulation of the stock of knowledge in The Ingenuity Gap: Can Poor Countries Adapt to Resource Scarcity?, Population and Development Review 21(3): 587–612, 1995.

43 – L White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford, New York, 1966, pp. 80–89; CP Issawi, The Middle East Economy: Decline and Recovery: Selected Essays, Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ, 1995. The Nobel–prize winning physicist Abdus Salam was a member of Pakistan’s Ahmadiya community, a persecuted religious minority declared “beyond the pale of Islam” by an international panel of Muslim jurists in 1974; Ahmadis believe that the second coming of Christ happened in India nearly a century ago (see Nature 384:296, 1996).

44 – Nature 384:197, 1996

45 – Contrast Spengler’s characterization with the innumerable publications of the past decades on “limits” and “scarcity.” These are well–summarized in JE Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, Norton, New York.