Andrew Bjelland and Peter Bamert: Webb Telescope’s initial images provided an all too fleeting teachable moment

(NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI) The edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, released Tuesday, July 12, 2022. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.

On July 12, NASA released initial images from the James Webb Space Telescope. These images re-presented events of 13.1 billion years ago. Many marveled in response to the splendor and dynamism of the early phases of cosmic evolution. Many celebrated the ingenuity, persistence and extraordinary efforts of the scientific and technological teams that made these images possible.

Additional spectacular images were released with little fanfare in early August and again a few weeks later. Unfortunately, the initial teachable moment of wonder and celebration was short lived.

The media informing us of the project’s ongoing success quickly brought us down to Earth. In the American West reports focused on the Colorado River, depleted by the worst drought in 1,200 years; on record low water levels within the Great Salt Lake; on increased risks of wildfires [6]; and on the likelihood of toxic chemical pollution.

On a broader scale, media reported a U.N. study indicates present efforts to combat climate change are inadequate; warned of a virtually inevitable California mega-flood; published predictions of deadly heat waves; and cited individual instances of historically high temperatures, unprecedented flash floods, widespread drought and wildfires. According to another U.N. study, the species extinction rate is now hundreds of times higher than at any other period in the past 10 million years.

Senseless slaughter in Ukraine and elsewhere continues. Warfare and climate change are triggering the greatest mass migrations of peoples since World War II. [12]

During the Cold War, nuclear conflagration was the sole major threat to the survival of our species. By 1962 Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) held America and Russia in check. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling indicates, that threat remains. Unfortunately, MAD standoffs cannot counter the hazards associated with pollution and global climate change.

For decades, knowledgeable and morally responsible scientists, educators and political leaders have warned the public of the perils confronting humanity. Such warnings have been downplayed by those who value the retention of political power and increased quarterly profits above all else. Many in leadership positions disparage expertise and do all within their power to sustain the fossil-fuel based status quo.

If we are to preserve a habitable planet and reduce the likelihood of further extinctions, we must rely upon human ingenuity and humane moral sentiments. Acknowledgement of facts, gathering of evidence, hypothesis formation, mathematical modeling, experimentation and intellectually responsible debate provide bases for hope.

However, if the scientific community is to counter current threats, it must receive broad support from the public. Such support will occur only if informed citizens are inspired by the better angels of their nature — by their abilities to reflect, embrace common ideals, sympathize, empathize, creatively imagine and act with compassion for others.

At present, rational problem solving and moral wisdom are too little evident at the state, national and international levels. Many who wield economic and political power view the general public as uneducable, but readily manipulable — and act accordingly. The consequence: an upsurge of thoughtlessness.

Thoughtlessness will be countered only if the nurturing of critical thinking skills becomes a primary educational objective. Humanistic education that fosters moral responsibility and an awareness that we are all in this together is also essential. Mutual respect, tolerance for the beliefs of others, individual accountability and communal responsibility are at present insufficiently modeled by leaders and too little promoted as central to responsible citizenship within our pluralistic and democratic republic.

The people of the United States are sovereign. America evidences the know-how and houses the resources required to lead the world in countering the many challenges of the day. If we ignore the promptings of our better angels, fail to empower ourselves, fail to become politically engaged and fail to persuade our elected representatives to meet these challenges, our epitaph will likely read:

Humans — Too Soon Dominant — Too Late Wise

Peter Bamert, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in astrophysics. He heads the risk management department of a multinational Swiss insurance group, Helvetia Versicherungen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are entirely his own, not those of Helvetia. He is a Swiss citizen and resides in Wil, Switzerland.

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University. He resides in Salt Lake City.