What will the times become?

John Peterson Myers, Ph.D.
Director, W. Alton Jones Foundation

Comments to the National Council of Family Foundations
Los Angeles, CA
24 February 1998

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Let’s 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?

I would suggest that something has happened within this century which–when viewed against the broad sweep of human evolution and history–transcends 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 planet’s 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?

If that impact is largely symbolic, other changes in scale are already having very practical impacts.

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 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.

So where do these leave us–scale, 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 isn’t even a good experiment, because there are no controls. There is only one planet.

It’s 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 me–I 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:

  1. how do we provide energy for development and human need without poking the climate beast
  2. how do we deploy the fruits of modern chemistry, and enjoy its many benefits, without eroding human and environmental health
  3. how do we shape the pattern of human development so that we don’t 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 climate–among all the many plausible outcomes looms one I think is especially chilling… so to speak.

With respect to chemistry,

With respect to ecosystem services and biodiversity,

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,

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 humanity’s relationship with the planet.

Provoking the debate will require

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:

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.

Thank you.

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