Rising to the Challenge of Saving our Planet

by Joshua Reichert

Published on Friday, February 13, 2003 by the Seattle Times

Scientists from around the world are in Seattle for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They arrive at a time when the Earth's natural systems are struggling to withstand the onslaught of human development, much of which has occurred within the past several generations.

Consider what is taking place in our oceans. In 1960, only 5 percent of marine fisheries were classified as overfished or fished to capacity. Today, that number is estimated at 70 percent.

Twenty-five percent of the world's shallow coral reefs are gone and estimates are that over the next half a century, we may lose as much as 70 percent of what remains. Runoff pollution from our farms and cities has left large areas of the ocean devoid of life, one in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.

On land, deforestation, contamination of air and water and rapid loss of natural habitats have created a situation that imperils the survival of huge numbers of species from the smallest insects to some of the Earth's largest mammals. And global warming arguably the most dangerous problem of all threatens to upend all living systems, both marine and terrestrial.

Reversing these trends and preserving the natural world for the future may be the single greatest challenge we face today. The consequences of failure are not simply biological that there will be fewer species of life on Earth. There are enormous social and economic downsides linked to the collapse or disappearance of the many services nature provides not to mention the intangible aesthetic and spiritual ones.

Yet, we are not condemned to fail. We are capable of changing the trends, at least in some and perhaps much of the world. But to do this, a lot more people need to become involved in the struggle to save nature than are currently involved today.

More people need to view halting the destruction of the global environment as both a moral imperative and a fundamental act of national and global citizenship.

Conservation is not primarily a scientific challenge. Rather, it is a moral and a political one. This is not to say that we don't need a better understanding of the causes and consequences of many of the environmental problems we face. We certainly do. And some of it will inevitably help us to devise better solutions.

Our major problem, however, is not a lack of information. It is an unwillingness to act, to make the political decisions necessary to curtail the practices that have led us to the situation we are in today.

We know what is behind the major environmental problems facing the world. We have known about these problems for decades. Indeed, many of the disturbing trends that we have witnessed over the past 20 years were forecasted, rather accurately, in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Not only do we still have these problems, they have predictably grown worse over time. Indeed, while the natural world has been unraveling at an unprecedented rate, we have been compiling better and more accurate information regarding its demise. As a result, we have a much clearer and even more alarming portrait than we did many years ago.

Year after year the science gets better, and the situation gets worse, leading one to the inescapable conclusion that science, even more and better science, will not save us.

This is not to undermine the importance of scientists. Indeed, we need the scientific community now more than ever before. But we need them to do more than simply meet their professional obligations as scientists. We need them to become engaged citizens. We need men and women who have specialized knowledge about many of the problems we face, and who are respected because of that specialized knowledge, to speak out publicly in ways they have oftentimes been reluctant to before.

This is not a new role for scientists. Rachel Carson led the public crusade against the continued use of DDT and other toxic chemicals. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina discovered that man-made chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, were depleting the Earth's protective layer of stratospheric ozone. Herbert Needleman, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, was instrumental in calling the public's attention to the hazards of lead.

These and many other scientific heroes were initially condemned by their peers and hounded mercilessly by industry. But their willingness to speak out has made an indelible mark on the world.

To all the scientists who assemble in Seattle this weekend, we need you both as good scientists and good citizens. Being one doesn't require you to give up on or compromise the other. There is no inherent contradiction between having a point of view and doing good science, particularly when the former is based on the latter. As Henry David Thoreau once said, "It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?"

Of one thing there is little doubt. If we don't get busier to save what remains of nature, we will ultimately lose what is left.

Joshua Reichert directs the environment program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, headquartered in Philadelphia and with an office in Washington, D.C.

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