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A Summary of the 1991 Sigma Xi Forum

Global Change and the Human Prospect: Issues in Population, Science, Technology and Equity

Responding to Global Change

WASHINGTON, DC—"We wanted to address the driving forces behind global environmental problems rather than the manifestations of them," Sigma Xi President Rita R. Colwell said in describing the Sigma Xi International Forum on Global Change and the Human Prospect: Issues in Population, Science, Technology and Equity, held here in November.

"We also wanted to take a critical look at what we as scientists and engineers should be doing about global change," Dr. Colwell continued, "rather than only directing our recommendations to governments."

According to organizers, the three-day forum, attended by more than 650 participants, was the first of its kind to address the entire spectrum of issues that will affect the quality of life on earth in the next century and beyond. In addition to setting an agenda for the scientific and engineering community, participants developed recommendations for Earth Summit, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil.

Forum co-sponsors included the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES), the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP) and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). More than 25 other scientific organizations also participated.

A Window of Opportunity
While such issues as burgeoning population growth, responsible energy and technology policy in economic development, and poverty within the global community are in urgent need of attention, prevailing opinion at the forum maintained that the outlook for the 21st century is not hopeless. Forum Chair Thomas F. Malone seemed to speak for many when he summarized his own view of the conference by saying, "I was a despairing optimist before I came to the forum, and now I am a hopeful optimist." It was generally agreed that the decade of the 1990s presents a window of opportunity for making decisions that will ensure a bright prospect for humankind.

Judging from recommendations made by the forum’s 10 breakout groups, the future of the human family will depend on a greater level of cooperation within the global community, including the forging of new partnerships between developed and developing nations; a closer relationship among science, society, and business and industry; fundamental changes in human values and aspirations; and institutional innovation. The breakout groups developed a list of 30 conclusions and 30 recommendations, presented to the entire assembly, on such key issues as food and nutrition, public health, urbanization, population growth, industrial metabolism, habitable biosphere, industry, science, education, and institutional change.

Actions recommended include:

  • Create interdisciplinary regional centers around the world to address issues of environment and development.
  • Urge scientific and technical society members to become actively involved in K-12 schools, support science education at all levels, and work to integrate global change studies into school and college curricula
  • Develop an energy policy in the U.S. that includes conservation, the efficient use of current energy resources and due concern for the development of renewable energy for sustainable growth
  • Pursue aggressively immunization for serious diseases, especially major childhood diseases.

"Elevating the status of women to a level equivalent to men, and ensuring biodiversity by halting species extinction, are essential elements of a societal response to global change," according to Forum Chair Malone.

Speakers for the plenary sessions included: John H Gibbons, director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assesssment; Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-California), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; David Munro, director of the World Conservation Strategy Project; Mayumi Moriyama, former Japanese Minister of State in Charge of Environment; and Elwood P. Blanchard, Jr., vice chairman of Du Pont.

Among other speakers were Thomas R. Odhiambo, president of the African Academy of Sciences; David Pearce of the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment; M.G.K. Menon, president of the International Council of Scientific Unions and former scientific advisor to the Prime Minister of India; Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens; Lourdes Arizpe, director of the Institute of Anthropological Research at the National University of Mexico; and Joseph Wheeler, UNCED director of Program Integration. Countries represented at the forum included China, Hungary, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, Bangladesh, Uruguay and Ghana.

Eight Key Points from the Forum
It is abundantly clear that global change involves much more than the environment. It involves the sum of human activities—social, political, economic and scientific. Through a series of plenary and breakout sessions, participants explored critical global change issues in light of three important questions: What kind of world do we have? What kind of world do we want? What must we do to get there?

Rather than focusing on the manifestations of global change, such as ozone depletion, pollution, global warming or endangered species and habitats, which have been the subject of many conferences and symposia in recent years, forum organizers sought to address the driving forces behind these and other problems, in an attempt to come to terms with their root causes.

Eight major points emerged during the forum. Outlined below, they are based entirely on information and views presented by the speakers in the plenary sessions, as well as by members of the audience and participants in the breakout sessions, and do not necessarily represent the views of Sigma Xi or of the co-sponsoring organizations.

Global Trajectory, i.e., the projected quality of human life on earth in the 21st century and beyond, is determined by the great forces of population growth, poverty, economic development and environmental stress. Many indicators suggest that the world is currently on an unsustainable path, but the prevailing view at the Sigma Xi forum was that we have the knowledge and technical ability to change our course, provided that we do not delay.

Progress has been made in some parts of the world on some global change problems. Fertility is declining, inroads have been made against many serious health problems, and environmental planning is at least gaining lip service. Science and technology offer new options for solving human problems.

Poverty is, however, stark for many—more than 1 billion people—and health problems and strains on resources are still enormous. As the growing billions in the less development countries struggle to achieve an adequate standard of living, the strains on the environment may be unbearable unless new approaches are found for developed. The issues of human development and environment are inextricably linked. Empowering people with knowledge gives them the best chance for a better life in harmony with the ecosystem.

An Equitable World. The world is not at a crisis stage, but the mere recognition of global problems is not enough. These problems are in urgent need of attention, before they progress beyond our control. However, it seems possible to shift the globe’s temporal trajectory from the unpalatable future of swamped overpopulation, stark poverty and environmental ruin, to one of an equitable society. To do so will require decades of effort by individuals and governments, but the task is possible. A fundamental, widespread change in attitudes and values is a vital part of the solution.

Partnerships are needed between industry and government, between the public and private sectors, between society and the research community, between the northern and southern hemispheres. Government programs must address social stresses, health problems stemming from poverty, poor or non-existent education and malnutrition. Growing interdependence among the nations of the world is giving added validation to the concept of a global community, diminishing the value of isolationism as a national policy.

Breaking Barriers. Barriers must be broken between regions—North and South, East and West—and between countries. Support for regional institutions would develop more national talent, rather than relying on outside experts. Outdated attitudes and perceptions must be overcome if the global community is to thrive.

Economic Development. Environmentally sound industrial growth is required for economic development, which will provide long-term solutions to many of the problems the world faces. Population stabilization will require economic development and an equal role for women in society.

Professional Tithing. People are willing to work at local levels and in professional associations. In addition to pressing for governmental actions, members of scientific and engineering societies should devote a portion of their time to working at the local level on the issues addressed at the forum. Among other valuable activities, members can improve college curricula, support introduction of forum information into local schools and initiate public discussion of these topics.

Funding for the forum was provided by the Burroughs Wellcome Company, Carolina Power & Light, the Compton Foundation, Duke Power Company, the Electric Power Research Institute, Ford Motor Company, General Electric Company, Glaxo, Inc., the Johnson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Phillips Petroleum Company, the Texaco Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Xerox Corporation.

 

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