In his Commentary on how to survive the recession, 'Work for the greater good' (Nature 457, 959–960; 2009), Eric Rauchway discusses the role that science and technology had in improving living conditions in the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s. As a former staff historian for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), I would like to highlight factors debated then that could still be pertinent today.
As Rauchway tells us, the innovative agricultural reform measures led by Harcourt Morgan helped to restore economic and environmental health to a segment of the country that had suffered for decades, long before the Depression. But there was controversy over the place of science and technology within the TVA's reform agenda, particularly between the other two TVA board members: David Lilienthal, a lawyer who had served on the Wisconsin public service commission, and Arthur Morgan (no relation to Harcourt), an engineer who had been president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
For Lilienthal, the TVA's mandates for flood control and resource conservation were secondary to one thing: power generation. Only a small percentage of the valley's rural population had access to electric power, and Lilienthal wanted the TVA to produce cheap and reliable electricity to put an end to poverty in the region. Arthur Morgan had even bigger plans: he wanted science to take a back seat and the TVA to be a regional planning agency, with a focus on social and economic reforms, including alternative land-use schemes to encourage the growth of small villages and ensure long-term conservation of resources.
This conflict undermined the TVA's ability to function effectively and, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt dismissed Arthur Morgan. The president's decision sealed the agency's fate as an institution primarily focused on electric-power production and distribution. Today, the agency's other responsibilities are dwarfed by the management of its US$9-billion power system.
But 2009 is not like 1929 (at least, not yet), President Barack Obama's recovery plan is not the New Deal, and no broadband valley authority is destined to do for high-speed Internet connections what the TVA did for access to electricity. However, there are parallels between the debates that surrounded the TVA and those now taking place in Washington DC. What role should the public sector have in the nation's economic-recovery efforts? Should government policies be directed towards getting the economy back on its feet, towards radically changing its direction, or both? Do solutions lie in politically free applications of science and technology? Or should a new social vision determine how — and to what extent — science and technology are applied to realize these goals?
The bankers and modellers who thought that they could vanquish history through the use of the latest financial instruments have failed us miserably. The past has returned with a vengeance. Experiences such as those of the TVA can teach us a thing or two about how to move ahead responsibly in the face of today's global financial crisis.