What will the times become?
John Peterson Myers, Ph.D.
Director, W. Alton Jones Foundation
Comments to the National Council of Family Foundations
Send us your comments!
Los Angeles, CA
24 February 1998
Lets start the day with a pop quiz.
Many amazing things have happened in the 20th Century. So close to these events in time, it is hard for us to judge which of them will be seen to be the most important in the eyes of future historians.
What do you think?
- Will it be the taming of the atom?
- The elimination of smallpox?
- The emergence of America as a world power?
- The rise and fall of communism?
- The tabloidization of White House reporting?
- The development of the internet as the fastest and most efficient disperser of salacious jokes known to David Letterman and humankind?
- The first tentative human steps into space?
- The two world wars and the many regional conflicts that somehow seem to pop up one after another no matter how civilized the world seems to become?
I would suggest that something has happened within this century whichwhen viewed against the broad sweep of human evolution and historytranscends each of these events.
That event comes from the combined forces of human population growth, technological development and economic activity. Together, these forces have transformed us from being bit players in the processes that control the planets ecological systems to being right on center stage.
Human activities now have planetary impacts. And until we factor that reality into our decision making, into the rules by which we shape commerce and govern human affairs, we risk a future none of us want. Not for ourselves. Not for our children. Not for the fish in the sea nor the birds in the air.
Transformed from side shows to center stage. What does that mean?
- Let me give you an example. How many of you saw Tara Lipinsky win her gold medal for figure skating at the Olympics?
- It turns out that we have been figure-skating on a grand scale with the planet, in the following sense.
- In search of energy and reliable supplies of fresh water, we have constructed many dams around the world, but they are not evenly distributed.
- More on average more have been put in higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere than anywhere else. The net result is a small but significant shift in the distribution of watertoward the pole and closer to the center of the earths rotation.
- And because of this shift, the earth now rotates slightly faster than it did. Just like Tara Lipinsky as she pulls her arms in and does her spin.
- Now this particular transformation is largely symbolic. You and I will never notice it. But the change, while tiny, is measurable: in fact computer programs for geostationary satellites now take it and an associated tiny new wobble into account.
- But think of its symbolism in history: The Copernican Revolution profoundly altered the relationship of humankind with the stars, because we learned how to calculate planetary motions.
- This change in scale takes us to the next level: We no longer merely calculate planetary motions, we change them.
If that impact is largely symbolic, other changes in scale are already having very practical impacts.
- We are now players in setting the atmospheric concentration of several gases. As a result, we are altering the climate.
- There is no longer any significant scientific debate about thiseven the head of British Petroleum and the Mobile ads placed in the New York Times acknowledge human impacts on the climate.
- The questions that remain are about pace and magnitude and especially about the economic costs and benefits that will accrue if we implement steps to avoid excessive climate disruption.
- I say excessive because some change is now virtually unavoidable.
- And I say benefits as well as costs because the most sophisticated modeling effort undertaken to understand how climate mitigation will affect the US economy indicates there will be a net benefit, not a net cost, despite what a small but well-funded coalition of fossil-fuel shills would have us believe. The net benefits result from the enhanced economic and energy efficiency that will be encouraged by climate protection policies.
- Another example of this change in scale, of this shift to center stage: human production of fertilizer and of nitrogen-based pollutants have more than doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen circulating in the planets ecosystems.
- More than doubled the global natural system.
- This is changing soil chemistry for hundreds of miles downwind from emission sites, with perverse and pervasive impacts on the life it encounters.
- Tree growth is stunted. Crop productivity reduced.
- Coastal estuaries, upon which we depend for many resources from the sea, coastal estuaries polluted in ways that make them far less hospitable to the fish and shellfish upon which our commercial fisheries depend.
- This new influx of fixed nitrogen is contributing to a 7000 sq mile dead zone now occurring annually at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico.
- And it appears it is also one of the factors favoring outbreaks of the toxic marine microorganism, Pfeisteria, which kills fish and produces a potent human neurotoxin carried through the air to people earning a living from the bays and rivers of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
What does this change in scale mean?
Throughout human evolution we have always had a refuge from our mistakes. Early on, if we depleted the game in one valley we moved to the next. As we polluted one river course, there was always another
and if the pollution wiped out one clan or one township, well in the grand scheme of things, there were always other people somewhere else. No pollutants affected everyone.
These global issues change that irrevocably and fundamentally.
Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and I wrote a book two years ago, a book called Our Stolen Future. At its core were concerns about scale and global impact.
- There is no next valley, waiting to be filled. There is no watershed completely lacking of pollutants. None.
- The changes we impose on biogeochemical cycles affect all of us, every one.
- The pollutants we release into the atmosphere and water travel far beyond our borders, indeed some of them travel globally.
- As a result, no human baby has been born for several decades without experiencing measurable contamination in the womb, with some known and unknown consequences, depending upon type, magnitude and timing.
- As a result, all of us in this room bear measurable amounts of several hundred synthetic chemicals that were not part of human body chemistry just 3 generations ago.
- For me, the most poignant part of the book was a true story we reported about the children of two First Nations in Canada, one living along the St. Lawrence Seaway, the other living in the high arctic.
- Medical researchers were concerned about the impact on kids health of the fact they were eating fish coming from contaminated water, the St. Lawrence.
- They studied their immune systems and found the kids were less resistant to disease.
- As good scientists they realized that to reach any strong conclusions they needed a control group, so they could compare the immune systems of these kids with kids whose diets were not contaminated.
- Living in Canada of course they looked north, to as far from the sources of contamination as they could go. This took them to an arctic village of Inuit.
- They did the comparisons, and found exactly what they hadnt expected. The diet of these children was even more contaminated because the toxins were being carried by atmospheric currents and concentrated in the food chain.
- And the kids immune systems were in even worse condition.
There are two additional complications I would bring to your attention that interact with the issue of scale and pervasiveness. These two complications are ignorance and time-lags. Viewed together they reveal we are engaged in a grand uncontrolled experiment.
- As to ignorance, we appreciate only dimly the complex dynamics of global ecosystems and the inner workings of our body chemistry, even after the remarkable advances in science that have taken place during this century.
- And as to time-lags, years may intervene before we discover the full consequences of our activities or the impact of contamination.
- Because we are ignorant, we dont know what questions to ask.
- By the time we start asking them, the experiment is in full global swing.
- And by the time that the science is firm enough to convince the most adamant of skeptics, the impacts have become global and difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
- Think of the chlorofluorocarbonsinvented in 1929, widely and quickly deployed. Not until the 70s did we begin to suspect something nefarious and not until the late 80s did the science become firm enough to lead to strong policy action.
- Were in the midst of one of those time lags right now with respect to the things Theo works on. Only next month scientists will publish a paper showing that a compound invented in 1909 and quickly moved into global commerce, bakelite, interferes with the female hormone, estrogen.
- Bakelite is closely related chemically to another compound, bisphenol-A, which also interferes with hormones but because of time lags and our ignorance is being recommended, as we meet, by the World Health Organization to coat kids teeth to prevent cavities.
- No one knows for certain that bisphenol-A has deleterious health impacts because of this use. But there are plenty of lab data from animal studies suggesting it may. And no one knows for certain that it doesnt. So because of the way we make decisions of this sort today, the World Health Organization is conducting a global experiment in the mouths of our children.
- Slow science is only one factor contributing to time lags here. There are often long physical delays in the chain of events linking environmental release, cause and effect.
- It took a long time for the inexorable movement of CFCs upward into the atmosphere to accumulate sufficiently to create an ozone hole
- or for the climate system to overcome its inertia and react to human additions to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
- Contamination in the womb may not show its impacts until the fetus is born and grows to adulthood.
- And in each of these cases, adding to intrinsic limits to the pace of science and the delays between cause and effect, powerful vested interests spend millions to defend their products and activities. They claim, long after prudence would dictate, that the science is too uncertain to risk the economic harm of protective measures. The burden is placed upon us, those concerned about public health and the environment, to prove certainty of harm.
So where do these leave usscale, ignorance and time lags. They leave in the midst of many simultaneous experiments being played out at global scale, some with ecosystems and biodiversity, some with the inner workings of our bodies. It isnt even a good experiment, because there are no controls. There is only one planet.
Its the sort of experiment that would be rejected by any medical ethics board in the world. Medical experiments begin with the premise of prior informed consent.
I ask you: Who asked us?
Let me suggest to you that we are funders in the right place at the right time. Not because you are here listening to meI am grateful for this opportunity. But because you are thinking about issues that will shape the nature of human life over the next century, and most likely far beyond.
There are many ways to cut in to this, but I would suggest you think about three defining issues:
- how do we provide energy for development and human need without poking the climate beast
- how do we deploy the fruits of modern chemistry, and enjoy its many benefits, without eroding human and environmental health
- how do we shape the pattern of human development so that we dont loose those elements of nature that make life possible, what scientists call ecosystem services and biodiversity.
For each of these there are large unknowns. Large uncertainties. Our current way of doing business is to let progress push forward on each front until something bites us. As I have argued, however, the potential scale of the bite is now too large to take that risk with abandon.
With respect to climateamong all the many plausible outcomes looms one I think is especially chilling
so to speak.
- Scientists at Columbia University argue that too much climate warming may cause devastating cooling in Europe because it would stop the Atlantic Gulf Stream.
- Without the Gulf Stream, England and Northern Europe would be plunged into something comparable to a new Ice Age. This would be more than inconvenient to modern civilization.
- Do we know this to be a scientific fact? No, but it is enough of a credible threat, based on good science, to view it as a real risk, and the nature of the science is such that unless we push the climate system far enough to actually make it happen, we will never know for certain.
With respect to chemistry,
- Studies of wildlife and lab animals, combined with emerging and widespread signs in people of immune system impairment, behavioral abnormalities and reproductive problems, suggest we are letting some chemicals into the environment, and into our wombs, that threaten our ability to function as individuals and in society.
- Do we know this to be a scientific fact? Not with certainty, but with enough plausibility and specific cases to conclude that the risks are real and large
that our current approaches do not protect us from large and deleterious effects
- And that by the time we establish certainty to the satisfaction of allmost especially the vested intereststhe experiment will be global and irreversible.
With respect to ecosystem services and biodiversity,
- we know there are elements of life that make human life possible.
- We know we derive immense and essential benefits from the earths ecological systemsbenefits like clean air, clean water, natural pest control, natural flood control.
- We know too that these services, if you ask what would it take to use technology to replace them, we know these services are worth trillions of dollars to the human economy,
if they could be replaced at all.
- And we know that we are gradually eating away with them because of the pattern and pace of human development.
- What we dont know is what fraction of biodiversity and ecosystem services can be lost without permanently impoverishing our future.
- Each of these cases has become germane because of the current scale of human activity.
- Each of them includes large unknowns because of human ignorance and the difficulty of the science.
- Each involves time lags that by definition mean the only absolutely certain way to remove the uncertainty is to let the experiment unfold at a global scale.
- And each involves risks of sufficient scale that positive results would prove devastating, not just for one valley or the next, but for the world as we know it.
So what to do? What do we do as funders? There are many ways to cut into these issues.
Let me suggest one central goal.
We need to provoke, stoke and win a debate that begins with this new view of our relationship to the planet,
- one that advances a precautionary approach to how we now manage the Earth and the pathway of human economic development.
What do I mean? A group of scientists, legal scholars, medical experts and philosophers gathered at the famous Frank Lloyd Wright conference center, Wingspread, last month, and developed a manifesto on the precautionary principle. They observed:
We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment, is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.
While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.
Therefore it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public bears the burden of proof.
This is the core of a new and vitally important way to approach humanitys relationship with the planet.
Provoking the debate will require
- a thoughtful development of the arguments,
- careful assessment of the opportunities to make the debate salient to people and to politicians,
- and a careful, ongoing effort to enlist new voices and new constituencies into the fray.
- I believe one of the greatest opportunities, certainly one of the realest and most salient to all publics, not just the environmental whackos, are the many environmental threats to childrens health.
- Win on precautionary approaches here, and it will ripple through the rest of our issues.
Stoking the debate will mean seizing every opportunity to infuse our work with precautionary considerations
health, climate, ecosystem services. We must learn, use and teach the language and the concepts.
Winning the debate and implementing precautionary approaches will require fundamental change. We need to shift the burden of proof: in the face of plausible and significant but uncertain harm, it is the responsibility of those who want to do something to prove the risks are warranted. And we need to provide credible, feasible alternative visions of the pathway development can and should take.
In conclusion, let me paraphrase Dickens:
- In the world in which we live today, it is the best of times, for some.
- The times are getting better, for many.
- But more people are living in wretched poverty than at any previous time in human history.
- Economists tell us that the engines of economic growth and development world-wide will multiply the current economy many-fold, and that as this happens, a rising tide of prosperity will spread globally. Just in the last 7 years, global output of goods and services grew by $5 trillion, which matches the growth from the beginning of civilization to 1990.
- That might bode well for the future, but we must bear in mind that as the economy grows, pressures on the Earths natural systems and resources intensify and its ability to absorb our wastes diminishes.
- The unfortunate reality is that as the economy continues to expand, the ecosystem on which all life on earth depends does not, creating an increasingly stressed relationship
To return to Dickens, the question is: What will the times become? What will it be like to live in Los Angeles in 2050? To live in Los Altos or Boston or Tajikistan half-way through the next century? To fish in the sea? To walk in the world and breath the air? To raise children?
If we can implement precautionary approaches to our management of the Earth and the human economy, the answer to What will the times become is far more likely to be positive.
Send us your comments using the form below:
Return to Earth & W. Alton Jones Foundation