As humankind seeks to extend its spatiotemporal reach both on and beyond its planet, it is constantly being forced by a recalcitrant nature to renegotiate the terms of its covenant with her. In some cases, the bargaining gets tough and nature takes offence, gradually revealing her anger with the terms that humanity seeks to impose on her through rising temperatures and melting icecaps (Stern 2007). In other cases, where humanity shows some degree of respect for nature’s laws—as they apply to inanimate things, living creatures, and, indeed, humanity itself—she can be cajoled into concessions of benefit to the species such as longer lifespans, healthier and more enjoyable lives, and greater security. Yet nature is coy about revealing her laws. Knowledge of these has to be painstakingly teased out of her, systematically in the case of science, less so in the case of other social and institutional practices.
Our constant need to undertake informed negotiations with nature in order to survive and prosper means that we have always lived in a knowledge society. If we have only just become aware of it, perhaps this is because it has only been in the past fifty years that mankind’s collective claims on nature have begun to exceed what nature is currently prepared to deliver. Unfortunately, it now appears that we lack many of the skills needed to negotiate with nature and hence to move forward without offending her. The need for valid knowledge, then, has never been greater. Valid knowledge is the key to the generation and, through its transformation into capital, the exploitation of wealth. But valid for whom? In the Middle Ages, for example, the Church was the wealthiest single institution in Christendom (Baschet 2006) and the Church, through its control of education, largely determined what passed off as valid knowledge and what went against its teachings. The early Church had its doctors some 1,500 hundred years before the universities had their doctors in physics and chemistry. What passed off as valid knowledge for Saint Jerome or Saint Augustine would be unrecognizable as such to a modern scientist.