Two decades ago, this foundation set out on a new course. After much reflection and study, our Board of Trustees chose to focus our philanthropic support on what emerged as an extraordinary challenge for the remaining years of the 20th century, protecting the global environment.
Two threats loomed largest as this commitment was made. One derived from the Cold War and the immense nuclear arsenals that the primary powers had accumulated since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945. The other grew out of the inexorable growth of human impact on the biota and ecosystems whose health, ultimately, underpins people’s very existence.
Recall the time.
A generation of Americans who had rushed through air raid drills in the ’50s, fought in and over Vietnam in the ’60s, and surmounted energy crises in the ’70s was ascendant in national affairs. The Soviet Union remained a potent global force. Thousands of their missiles targeted us. Thousands of ours targeted them. The explosive power, a hair-trigger away from use, was unimaginably potent.
In 1979, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, portending a reinvigoration of the Cold War. The SALT II Treaty, which was to put limits on the buildup of U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces, became an early casualty. Instead of arms control, a new nuclear arms race took off. By the early 1980s, the two superpowers had more than 20,000 long-range nuclear weapons targeted at each other on high alert status. The growing nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers could have destroyed human civilization several times over, and arguably could have caused a nuclear winter that would have ended life on Earth.
The dangers at the beginning of the program’s inception were not limited to the superpower standoff. In 1979 a mysterious flash brightened an area of the Indian Ocean off South Africa. Though never publicly confirmed, there is reason to suspect that this flash was from a nuclear weapon tested secretly by Israel and South Africa. South Africa by the late 1980s would clandestinely build more than six nuclear weapons. Iraq, too, was surreptitiously seeking the bomb. Israel’s attack on the Osiraq reactor in 1981 only slowed the Iraqi effort and highlighted the dilemmas of nonproliferation. Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s were building the infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons. Taiwan in the mid-1980s had a secret program to acquire plutonium for nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear-weapon capability was already known, and Pakistan in the 1980s was racing to acquire the bomb.
The decade of the 1970s was marked by dramatic steps toward environmental protection within the United States. The environmental movement, stimulated by the writings of Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich in the ’60s, by oil spills along the California coast, by river flames in Cleveland, by the ecological death of Lake Erie and the smog blanketing U.S. cities, burst forth as a mass social movement. In 1970, the world’s first Earth Day spurred political momentum that led to passage of a core set of statutes, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act and the Toxics Substances Control Act.
Unfortunately, by 1980 a decade of advances in environmental protection within the United States began to provoke political backlash. In 1981 this trend turned malevolent with Reagan cabinet appointees James Watt and Anne Gorsuch, who ultimately were discredited by their own hostility toward science-based environmental protection. Moreover, science seemed to be revealing threats and harm more rapidly than the pace at which solutions could possibly be implemented. Hints of dramatic losses in tropical rainforest were starting to percolate into the media. Biologists began writing about the looming extinction crisis. The chemical process of ozone depletion was debated, but the ozone hole had not yet been discovered. Love Canal’s poisoning provoked public passion, and raised questions about where else, in whom else’s backyard. A few scientists were exploring the potential for human-caused climate change.
Now twenty years later, much has happened in the intervening years. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed, but its weapons did not go away and the control over fissile materials, if anything, grew much weaker. Huge opportunities to reduce the likelihood of nuclear catastrophe were missed because of the dynamics of nationalism, both in the United States and in Russia. Most recently, India and Pakistan removed any doubts about their nuclear capabilities. Science has now confirmed the threat of climate disruption and ozone depletion. It has revealed new environmental risks for children caused by contamination. It has reinforced biologists’ predictions that, absent dramatic action, human activity will destroy vast portions of biological diversity in the 21st century. Ecosystems’ ability to support life, including human, has been and will be undermined.
Advances in science now allow us to understand that human activity has attained a new relationship with Earth. We are no longer bit players on the margins of the ecological stage. Our actions, and inactions, have global consequences. We affect not merely one small village or valley or watershed at a time, but instead engage in activities that can all too rapidly reach global proportions. We engage everyone—all humans, indeed all lifeforms on Earth— simultaneously in unintended, planetwide experiments whose results will not be known until it is too late to call them off.
Against this backdrop of public events, the Board of Trustees developed, implemented and pursued programs designed to foster public understanding of why these issues are paramount, how they may be solved, and how to implement their solutions. The ensuing twenty years have brought major successes as well as disappointments. The greatest advances have been in understanding the magnitude of the threats posed to human society and the ecosystems necessary to sustain it. These threats are real and enduring. As important, many of the successes are fragile, indeed vulnerable to reversals. The ozone hole has been abated by conscious (and controversial-at-the-time) changes in human behavior, but continued action is needed. The great victory of freedom was won in the Cold War, but the inattention and relaxation that followed have ushered in new, unexpected dangers. The role of fossil fuel consumption in global warming has been proven, but the average fuel efficiency of American vehicles has fallen.
The mosaic of fragile successes—some narrow, some broader in scope—demonstrates two truths. Concerted action, applied with resolve and continuity, can achieve progress even against great challenges. Second, even the greatest of victories require sustained attention. The foundation is proud of its dedication and constancy in supporting organizations that have contributed to major successes in improving global sustainability and security over the past twenty years. It is honored to continue its pursuit of these enduring and vital objectives in the hope that with time and great effort what now seems fragile will gain permanence.