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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Concerns About Kerry
distributed 6/25/04 - ©2004

This week, when John Kerry came to Denver, I went downtown to hear the guy in person.

In the areas of my most passionate convictions, Kerry does present an alternative to Bush. But as much as I have disagreed with the policies of the current administration, I found that I also have some real problems with Kerry's stance and perspectives.

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Monday's topic on the campaign trail was "science." The core of Kerry's speech dealt with matters of research and technology. What he had to say, and what I see as the assumptions underlying his comments, are of great importance and concern.

His lead-in to the subject was a crowd-pleaser. He promised that his administration would pay attention to scientific evidence. Unlike the Bush administration -- he said -- his team would not revise, edit or ignore important scientific evidence that does not fit with their political agenda. I agree that it would be a wonderful thing if the highest levels of government took seriously the available research on matters such as climate change, pollution and ecology.

But from there, as he went on about the need to "believe in science", my enthusiasm dropped off quickly. The science that he was so eager to affirm looked to me like the same sort of science that has caused many of our ecological problems.

I heard about a scientific perspective that looks for ways to manipulate and control natural processes. It is more eager to find high-tech ways to fix problems than it is to prevent the problems in the first place. It is an approach that is dedicated to increasing human comfort and affluence, without grasping the inherent limits of our world.

His optimistic litany of "better living through science" sounded like a theme from the 1950s, promising that our unfailing trust in technology will lead us into an ever-better future. Human power and ingenuity are the hallmarks of hope and progress. Caution and restraint were not mentioned. He didn't have a single word to say about learning from, and living within, natural systems -- a basic element of any ecological perspective.

As the heart of his address, Kerry lauded the power of science to cure disease, especially through remarkable new technologies like stem cells and nanotechnology. He briefly noted the moral issues about using fetal tissue in stem cell lines. Beyond that, he gave no hint that there might be other ethical questions about the development and use of these complex and emerging technologies. The availability and control of these treatments were not seen as problematic. The effects and implications to come from the science were heralded as unquestionably good.

But while he spoke at great length of remarkable cures, he never spoke of the potential for research and technology to prevent disease by addressing the environmental causes of cancer, asthma and other disabling conditions. Socially, economically, and in terms of basic compassion, isn't it far better to clean the harmful, disease-causing chemicals from our environment in the first place? But that wasn't a topic that he mentioned.

He called for science to lead the US toward "energy independence" while also bemoaning the high price of gasoline. He lifted up the promise of cheap and abundant energy, but never spoke of fuel efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Apparently, he has learned well from Jimmy Carter's political mistake about energy use, and he never called on us to make any changes in our lifestyle, values or consumption. Rather, he lifted up a vague assurance that new technologies will make it all OK.

I left the rally with deep unease about the perspectives on science and technology that Senator Kerry presented. Science was the predominant theme of the day's policy address, and I didn't like the approach that he brought to that overarching topic. On both practical and ethical grounds, he clearly doesn't catch an "eco-justice" perspective.

Kerry's approach to science and technology is quite different from the approach that has been embodied in the Bush administration. But being different doesn't make it right.

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A 40-minute campaign speech does not provide a perfect setting for understanding the subtleties of a candidate's perspectives on science and technology. It can only be suggestive of basic perspectives about humanity's relationship with the natural systems of this planet. Still, what is said -- and what is not said -- does tell us about core attitudes.

The underlying perspective that I heard from Mr. Kerry celebrates humanity's technological control over nature. It did not suggest any caution or humility in the application of that human knowledge and power. It did not acknowledge, even in passing, the ways in which humanity is entwined within the complex web of life.

I was deeply surprised by that pervasive tone. Mr. Kerry's voting record is lifted up as one of the most "environmental" of all US Senators, and I was hoping to hear an environmental rallying cry. But when he spelled out his positions on science, I found it very hard to find any evidence of a deep, pervasive ecological awareness.

I grieve the political realities that drive honest ecological thought out of campaign rhetoric, and out of the policy decisions that follow the election. My visit to Kerry's campaign event reminded me, once again, that our work for change must go beyond political activism. It must take place in many different settings, and on many different levels.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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