Hit & Run

John Holdren to be Obama's Science Advisor

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Eli Kintisch is reporting at the ScienceInsider blog that John Holdren, who is a Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of Program in Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Havard's John F. Kennedy School of Government will be tapped as science advisor by President-elect Barack Obama.

In his salad days, Holdren was a paid-up member of The Limits to Growth club. For example, in his 1971 Sierra Club book, Energy: A Crisis in Power, Holdren declared that "it is fair to conclude that under almost any assumptions, the supplies of crude petroleum and natural gas are severely limited. The bulk of energy likely to flow from these sources may have been tapped within the lifetime of many of the present population." More recently, Holdren has declared that the world is not running out energy and that even "peak oil" is debatable. 

Near the beginning of his career, Holdren introduced with his colleague, perennial population alarmist Paul Ehriich, the concept of the I=PAT equation. Human Impact on the environment is equal to Population x Affluence/consumption x Technology. All of which are supposed to intensify and worsen humanity's impact on the natural world. In the past Holdren has adhered to the common ecologist's disdain for insights from economics in helping solve environmental problems. See for example this excerpt from a co-authored 1995 essay on "The Meaning of Sustainability": 

The greatest disparities in interpretation of the relationships between the human enterprise and Earth's life support systems seem, in fact, to be those between ecologists and economists. Members of both groups tend to be highly self-selected and to differ in fundamental worldviews. Most ecologists have a passion for the natural world, where the existence of limits to growth and the consequences of exceeding those limits are apparent. Ecologists recognize that a unique combination of highly developed manual dexterity, language, and intelligence has allowed humanity to increase vastly the capacity of the planet to support Homo sapiens (Diamond 1991); nonetheless, they perceive humans as being ultimately subject to the same sorts of biophysical constraints that apply to other organisms.

Economists, in contrast, tend to receive little or no training in the physical and natural sciences (Colander and Klamer 1987). Few explore the natural world on their own, and few appreciate the extreme sensitivity of organisms -- including those upon which humanity depends for food, materials, pharmaceuticals, and free ecosystem services -- to seemingly small changes in environmental conditions. Most treat economic systems as though they were completely disconnected from the planet's basic life support systems. The narrow education and inclinations of economists in these respects are thus a major source of disagreements about sustainability.

Holdren and his co-authors later acknowledge ecological ignorance about the principles of economics, but don't express any urgency in learning about them

However, at least with regard to technology, Holdren now apparently sees technology as a solution to environmental problems and human poverty.Holdren in his 2006 inaugural lecture as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted:

Advances in technology help meet basic human needs and drive economic growth through increased productivity, reduced costs, reduced resource use and environmental impact, and new or improved products and services…

The considerable progress that has been made in some important respects (such as in life expectancy, which has been improving virtually everywhere other than sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union) has been the result of a combination of economic and social factors, but improvements in technology appear to have been the most important. Among other advances, widespread gains in the productivity of agriculture, which played a crucial role in improving nutrition and health in the developing world, were driven above all by investments in agricultural S&T that yielded, in strictly economic terms, enormous rates of return; and export-led economic growth, providing the means with which the public and private sectors in many developing countries have contributed to lifting portions of their populations out of poverty, has likewise been driven strongly by technology.

While Holdren makes rhetorical gestures toward the private sector, he still seems to think that new technologies arise full-blown from government agencies and university laboratories.

In any case, Obama is clearly signaling with the appointment of a Green Team, including Holdren as science advisor, Carol Browner as "energy/climate czar," Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, and Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator, that he means to make a big federal push on alternative fuels and carbon rationing.