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GREEN PARTY/COMHAONTAS GLAS
5A Upper Fownes Street, Dublin 2. Ireland.
Phone: (01) 679-0012


The following communication was issued in response to an election query by Dublin Weekend Radio (DCU) circa June 1 1997:

"...The basic aim of the Party is to develop an approach to socio-economic life that is long-term sustainable, and this of course involves the maximum use of scientific knowledge.

Key areas of technology are energy production and agriculture. Sustainable economic life will not be feasible in the long run dependent on fossil fuel, and this most over the coming decades be phased out and replaced by renewable sources, dependent directly or indirectly on solar energy. There must be greater emphasis on conservation, and production of utility cleverly with as little energy input as possible.

This reflects itself into urban planning, where we need to develop a concept of a city as a network of people-friendly villages, within which most people live and work, in walking or cycling distance, and between which transport is easily possible on a high-frequency public transport mesh, making for an integrated urban system, with specialist services being exchanged between the constituent villages. The present commuting system is extravangant of energy and wasteful of time and resources.

In agriculture at present we are mining the soil and treating it as a dead substrate for chemical feeding of plants; the analogue is feeding a human intravenously with sugar and antibiotics. We must return to biological agriculture, and recycle biological wastes as fertiliser. This is already becoming a premium market, as people recognise that organically-grown food is better.

The basic science behind all aspects of human existence must be fostered, and the work of scientists recognised. The barriers between science and its application must be removed, and ethical applications of scientific results in benign technolgies developed.

Nuclear weapons remain a threat to the world and must be dismantled and nuclear respources placed under international control.

That is all I have time for. Between the above and the Tableau paper I hope you can find something......"

Here follows the Tableau paper:

The Green Future for Science

Paper by Roy Johnston published as a 'guest editorial' in Tableau 2 (1997, Cork RTC)

This is a personal statement, stimulated firstly by Minister Pat Rabbitte's White Paper 'Science Technology and Innovation', (STI) and secondly by the opportunity presented by Tableau to develop a Green approach to science among scientists, and at the same time to develop a concern and an understanding of science among those who aspire to increase Green influence in politics. Thus the objective of this paper is to lead to action and to the development of contacts leading to action; whence the practice below of giving contact-points rather than references.

By 'Green' I mean 'informed democratic concern for policies of ecologically benign economic development which are sustainable in the long term'. The Irish Green Party (Comhaontas Glas) is the principle vehicle in Ireland for the promotion of such policies. I understand that they welcome other parties taking them up, and are prepared to co-operate with them in proportion as they do so. The e-mail contact for the Green Party is greenpar@iol.ie.

White Paper

Firstly, let me, while welcoming the White Paper as a belated recognition of the extent that we are dependent on science and on a scientific understanding of technology, draw attention to three major flaws and omissions in its message:

1. The interface between the Cabinet and the implementation of S&T policies is to be the Office of Science and Technology (in the Dept of Enterprise and Employment) in liaison with designated Assistant-Secretary level staff in all Departments, in association with an STI Advisory Council. The latter will consist of selected members of the science community, working in marginal time. There is however no provision for active people with hands-on experience being recruited at executive level. The key decision-making process will remain within the Civil Service, involving people without scientific background.

2. There is some emphasis on increasing public awareness of the importance and significance of scientific understanding of the world. This however is conceived in terms of a 3-year PR-type campaign, of which the lasting value is questionable. The key issue, the need to embed in the training of the key decision-makers an understanding of the role of science, is missed. There is need for the understanding of the history and philosophy of science, at an appropriate philosophical level, by everyone who comes out of the Arts, Humanities and Business faculties. There is currently no academic provision for addressing this problem within the Republic. There is some such provision in Queens Belfast, and in Britain, and this is beginning to turn its attention to Ireland under the influence of the demand for material for the Irish Studies courses. This gap needs to be filled by a long-term investment, under a stable budget for 'public understanding of science', in academic support for the process within Ireland itself.

3. The understanding of the role and importance of basic curiosity-led research in the 3rd-level system is seriously underestimated. The extent of the underestimation is measured by the derisory grant of 2000 per annum payable to postgraduates registered for a PhD. These are the work-horses of the Irish science research community, which contains many world-class sientists in academic positions. The latter however are increasingly feeling obliged to advise the best of their students not to take up postgraduate work if they need to earn a living. We are encouraging the export of seed corn.

The above are some of the current political issues of science in Ireland. People wishing to take up these and related issues with the Government, in the aftermath of the White Paper, should contact the Irish Research Scientists Association (IRSA) via its Executive Secretary John Donovan, whose e-mail address is jdonovan@iol.ie. This organisation unites several hundred leading members of the Irish scientific research community, including many living abroad who would welcome a chance to come home if the opportunity arose.

Green Issues

What I have said above is not specifically Green. The objective is simply to ensure that there remains in existence a viable science community in Ireland, of which the public are aware and respect. Without this we can't even begin to talk about Green science objectives.

Let me now begin to address the Green issues. Science, ever since it was taken up in the Renaissance by the Italian city-states, and later by the English Crown in the 17th Century with the funding of the Royal Society on the model set up earlier by Sir Francis Bacon, has always been intimately associated with power and the military-industrial complex. Leonardo da Vinci sold his services to the Princes as a designer of fortifications, starting a tradition, which has dominated the leading powers to this day, in which civil and industrial developments have been by-products.

We need to change this situation, and develop what we can perhaps call a 'post-Baconian' approach, in which the objective is not a State's domination of its neighhbours but the achievement of an ecologically benign sustainable civilisation without war. Ireland's dependence on the military-industrial complex is derivative and indirect; it is not conscious State policy. Our State policies are not dominated by it. We have an opportunity to begin consciously addressing a range of 'sustainable development' problems. Let me suggest a few:

  • Organic Farming and Horticulture: the way agriculture has been allowed to develop towards use of soil as a sterile substrate carrying chemical fertiliser, with chemical control of pests, is not long-term sustainable. It is analogous to feeding a human with intraveinous drips laced with antibiotics. The alternative is to go back to traditional farming methods, rotating crops to keep down the pests, using biological control methods, recycling wastes, treating the soil as we would treat our own digestive system. This requires more knowhow, and the problem of transforming biological agricultural methods so as to be comparable in productivity per unit effort is non-trivial, but we must address it, if we are not to degrade our soil irreversibly in the next century.

  • Industrial Raw Material Recycling: the practice of producing with built-in obsolescence and dumping is not sustainable. Increasingly manufacturers in Germany and elsewhere are turning their attention at design-time to the 'total product lifetime' concept, and building in recyclability of components. Here in Ireland however we are barely aware of the problem except at the level of local authority dumping. This has socio-technical economic and fiscal dimensions. Sue Scott in the Economic and Social Research Institute (sconsc@esri.ie) has begun to address this problem in the Irish context, with her paper on Nov 11 1996 to the Earthwatch Sustainable Development Conference at Marino, Dublin, entitled 'Eco-taxes and the Polluter Pays Principle'.

    The role of the travelling community in the scrap business is underestimated; it needs to be developed and given the status it deserves. We have seen bottle-banks which collect scrap glass. There is scope for organising procedures for returning used batteries at the time of purchasing new ones, for 'trading in' consumer durables such as refrigerators, TV-sets etc in such a way as to ensure that their raw materials are constructively re-used. Such procedures could be made necessary by appropriate taxation policies.

  • Renewable Energy: the short-term profitability of dependence on fossil fuels has generated a 'fools paradise'. We are going to have to reduce our use of fossil fuels down to practically zero over the next century or so, and develop alternatives, most of which are to hand, but unable to compete with cheap opencast coal. A carbon tax would help to develop the alternatives, of which the closest to viability is wind.

    • Thanks to the vision of the Danish government in the 70s, which established a favourable economic environment for windpower development, the Danish industry is now mass-producing workhorse wind-generators for the world market, and the latter is expanding at a rapid rate, to the extent that finance-houses, pension funds etc now regard wind-farms as 'safe'. Ireland here has lagged, because of the failure to admit the need for the electricity produced to carry a strategic premium price.

      Wind however is not a complete solution; statistically it would be regarded as 'safe' to have only something like 15% of the ESB's demand supplied by wind. Other sources need to be added. As regards hydro, currently with the Shannon, Liffey, Erne and Lee, and many small local units, the resource is not far from its full capacity, though there is still some scope for expansion.

    • Wave-power is still a research area, and significant work has been done in Norway and Japan, in the latter case with some input from Queens Belfast. It can be regarded as a ship-building design problem: design for maximum roll, with dynamic positioning, extract the energy somehow, and transmit it ashore. There are many problems here in developing a reliable robust system. It should be automatic and require minimal maintenance (who wants to live on a rolling ship?) and perhaps the transmission of the energy ashore might be by compressed air (pumped sea-water would rapidly get fouled by growth).

    • Direct conversion of sunlight to electricity is also good renewable energy option, and is much in use on a small scale at the village level in some African countries, notably Kenya. In Ireland there is an experimental dairy-farm totally powered by solar energy at Fota near Cork, which has addressed many of the systems problems (cf Prof Gerry Wrixon in UCC; John Montague wrote a poem in honour of its inauguration some years ago.)

    • Most renewable systems require some kind of short-term storage. There is much 'systems engineering' work to be done here. There are alternatives to connecting variable renewable sources directly to the Grid; for example one can electrolyse water and generate hydrogen to feed into the gas grid. There is an industrial market for the associated oxygen.

    • Energy crops also exist as an option. Some attention has been paid to how to convert them, and one good option could be fast pyrolysis (this incidentally could be a local use for by-product electrolytic oxygen generated by a renewable-energy source) at high temperature, which gives a mix of gases not unlike that which occurs in the petrochemical industry. There is what looks like a viable route leading to bulk methanol which is a petrol substitute.

Global Catastrophe

I have only begun to list some of the challenges facing scientists and engineers who wish to address the problem of sustainable ecologically benign development. Before finishing I would however like to address a more global problem, touched on above: what to do with the military-industrial complex.

For a while it looked as if the space race was keeping them happy, but with the end of the Cold War this motivation has subsided. We need to re-invent the space race, and give it an acceptable goal. There are signs of such a goal emerging from basic scienific research, which has been exploring the geological and evolutionary history of the earth.

It is beginning to emerge that our destiny has been shaped by a series of impacts of substantial bodies, asteroids on near-earth orbits. Occasionally you get a really big one, and it wipes out most species on earth (the end of the dinosaurs is now definitively attributed to an impact which generated an immense crater identified on the edge of the Caribbean).

There have been two 'small' ones this century, one in Siberia in 1904, and another somewhere in the Amazon probably in the 50s. These if they had hit populated areas would have wiped out cities or provinces. Work is going on quantifying this, and establishing the distribution of size of impact in relation to time. Evidence is emerging relating impacts to the triggering of recent ice-ages. There is archaeological evidence of catastrophic alluvial deposits in the Euphrates valley which some have identified with the Noah flood folk-memory, as recorded in the Bible. Could this have been the consequence of a sea-impact? (Other candidates for the origin of the Flood folk-memory include the filling of the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, which recent archaeological evidence has suggested could have been only a few millenia ago, contemporaneous with the first Euphrates cities. There are many unanswered questions here, like for example, was the opening up of the Bosporus an impact-triggered event, so that the Ur mud-layer, as excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 20s, could be related to the Black Sea flooding?)

The personal risk of death due to asteroid impact, assessed in insurance terms, is beginning to look to be of the same order as the risk of flying, on which Governments spend a lot of money.

I attended a seminar recently in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, at which the above arguments were developed. It was given by Professor Duncan Steel, of the physics department of the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is advocating that if we are not to suffer the fate of the dinosaurs, we will need to begin systematically to map the location of all near-earth objects, calculate their orbits, and when we find one on collision course, give it a nudge. It is within the power of the available technlogy to do this, and it would constitute a valid redeployment of the military-industrial complex, in the interests of our survival as a civilisation on earth.

There is now an international body promoting this project, the Spaceguard Foundation, in Rome. There is a Spacewatch Unit in the Univerity of Arizona which is beginning to track near-earth objects. The measured frequency of impact is increasing all the time, as detection sensitivity improves. However it will take about a century before we can accurately determine the orbits of the larger ones, at the present rate. Clearly we do need a global programme to accelerate this process, and this is an important task for basic science. The alternative is to live with a non-negligible probability that we will get about 10 seconds warning of an event that will end civilisation as we knew it, and perhaps wipe out our species.

Professor Steel is contactable on dsteel@physics.adelaide.edu.au and the local source for contacting the Spacewatch network is Dr Ian Elliott astro@dunsink.dias.ie. A project like this could usefully be taken up by the quite numerous amateur astronomical community, who could, if they put their mind to it, play a part in influencing politicians, and thus put the issue on our foreign policy agenda, and indeed on our own science policy agenda.

Note on the Author

Dr Roy Johnston is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, and a Companion of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland. He graduated in TCD in 1951 and then spent nearly a decade in basic research in high-energy particle physics, after which he went on to industrial process instrumentation and control, and then in the mid-60s moved into computer applications, in techno-economic problem analysis and economic planning. He has been working as a consultant at the interface between the university-based research community and the application of the results in the generation of innovative utility since 1970. He is currently working with a software house.


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