John P. Holdren Sustainability Lecture

I just got back from this year’s Wege lecture on sustainability that featured John P. Holdren, “Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.” He laid out the numerous initiatives being forwarded by the Obama administration, including energy policy, science and math education, technology development and funding for scientific research in all fields. I was impressed and relieved to hear about the expansion of governmental support for science and technology development in the US under the present administration, noting that, not in years have I heard a White House representative speak plainly and frankly of the need for climate research and the development of sustainable energy resources. I’ve been numbed by the 8 years we spent under the Bush admin, which touted pseudoscience, political hegemony and a general disregard and distrust  in the ability of Americans to develop competitive scientific research. While I realize that Mr. Holdren’s speech will certainly bias in favor of PR for the White House, the basic message was impressive and I realize how utterly cynical and ugly American politics have become. I also reflected on the American right’s successful poisoning of the most forward thinking and positive executive administration we’ve have in decades, a poisoning that has crept into every facet of political discourse on any side of the aisle.

It is quite easy to chide policy makers as self serving representatives of the upper class, beholden to conspiratory corporate interests. Truthfully, it is too easy. The current administration seeks to gain nothing financially from it’s support of science and technology, and stands to lose much politically, particularly in the face of the current health bill. However, sending an obviously dedicated proponent of the sciences to frankly speak of members of Congress who believe in unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and Biblical pseudo-science in front of an audience of 500 at a major university takes a certain amount of gusto. Politics is no easy business. There are trades of costs and benefits to every decision and a public which would rather hear about failures over successes. I believe that the Obama admin has a lot of hurdles to overcome, but given the make up of Obama’s handpicked advisory groups, I am proud to have voted for the man. The current admin is not perfect, but then no administration can be, given all of the things that everyone wishes it were. However, given the alternatives,, and given the wide spread insanity and corruption of the Bush Administration, I think that we can safely say that the Obama admin is a step above, and is an admin willing to listen to the ideas of the science community.

After a brief lecture outlining the efforts of the Obama administration, there were a number of questions from audience memebers. The very first question was from a likely well-meaning student, who attempted to throw a fast one at the White House by pointedly asking Mr. Holdren why the administration has chosen to support “clean coal” initiatives in its energy policy. Holdren responded by stating that there was no such thing as clean coal, but that there was such a thing as cleaner coal. Given that half of all energy in the US derives from coal sources, we have no choice but to pursue technologies which emit less pollutants and do less harm to the environment as a result of mining. The exchange was telling to me. All too often, the left operates in a black and white world or good guys and bad guys, while failing to contemplate the nuances, realities and complexities of American society. Mr. Holdren was very correct in his response to a less than eloquent pro-lifer regarding the expansion of stem cell lines that has occurred under the present admin. Nothing any administration will ever do will make every person happy, but that they do the best they can, given the circumstances. Administrations can listen, but it is patently impossible to satisfy the demands of every special interest.

I wish my son could have been present at the lecture. I think it would have been educational for him, as he is stuck, as most young people inevitably and respectably are, in a world of cops and robbers, where problems are solved by pseudo-violence and the suppression of sectors of society and the world that they dislike. He, of course, may read this and take issue, and that is fine, but in this respect I find that the youthful left is as guilty as the fundamentalist right in their inability to listen to the ideas of many persons, and to confront realities and facts which they may dislike. It was refreshing to hear Mr. Holdren, who clearly represents a particular political slant that I agree with, but who appears to take a realistic view on what may or may not be possible in the present political and economic climate.

An interesting article by Mr. Holdren:

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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