Can Science Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century?
“There is now overwhelming scientific evidence to suggest that Mother Earth cannot cope with its uncaring, unruly brood for very much longer.” —The European, March 19-25, 1992.
ECOLOGISTS are increasingly of the opinion that the threat to the earth, far from being just a tempest in a teapot, is serious and that it warrants attention. In fact, they say that immediate action is vital if disaster is to be avoided. “We do not have generations,” said the president of the Worldwatch Institute at the end of the 1980’s. “We only have years, in which to attempt to turn things around.”
The editors of the book entitled 5000 Days to Save the Planet were more specific in 1990 when they published their book. Since that time their countdown has continued. Time left to save the planet, according to their deadline, now hovers near the 4,000-day mark. And by the time the 21st century dawns, unless something extraordinary happens in the meantime, the figure will have dwindled to some 1,500 days.
What unusual set of circumstances has given birth to this apparent crisis? What challenges are posed by the upcoming century?
No Shortage of Problems
Peace-loving people rejoice that the Cold War has ended. But the challenge of achieving and maintaining world peace is no less real. President Mitterrand of France, speaking in January 1990 about the problems of European unification, said: “We are leaving an unfair but stable world, for a world we hope will be more just, but which will certainly be more unstable.” And The European wrote: “The price of freedom [in former Soviet bloc nations] is a growing instability, which has increased the risk of nuclear war, slight though it still is.”
Actually, some of the challenges with which the world is now faced were practically unknown when the Cold War began. It is as 5000 Days to Save the Planet notes: “Barely fifty years ago the world’s environment was still largely in balance. . . . The world was a vast, beautiful and powerful place; how could we possibly damage it? Today we are told that our planet is in crisis, that we are destroying and polluting our way to a global catastrophe.”
So-called natural disasters—floods, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—occur everywhere. To what extent human tampering with the environment is responsible may be open to debate. There is evidence that the earth’s protective ozone layer has in some places become dangerously thin. Climatic changes capable of causing tragedies, some scientists now warn, could strike suddenly rather than develop gradually.
Cancer, heart disease, circulatory problems, and numerous other ailments have long challenged the skills of the medical profession. Despite years of medical progress, these sicknesses still kill. In Europe alone, an estimated 1,200,000 persons die of cancer annually, almost 65 percent more than a decade ago. Because of apprehension about a new scourge—AIDS, which has killed far fewer—this huge loss goes largely unnoticed.
Another challenge: In less than 200 years, the world’s population has grown from one billion people to some five and a half billion. Despite a recent drop in the annual growth rate, some estimate that by the year 2025, world population will probably have passed eight billion, and by 2050 it will be nearing the ten billion mark. Where will all these people live? What will they eat? A UN report released in 1991 estimated that a billion people are already living in absolute poverty, their lives “so characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human dignity.”
Paul R. Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University in the United States, notes the enormity of this problem, saying: “While overpopulation in the poor nations tends to keep them poverty-stricken, overpopulation in rich nations tends to undermine the life-support capacity of the entire planet.”
The possibility that the previously mentioned factors—or others such as drug abuse, inadequate housing, crime, and racial conflicts—might in the near future trigger a global catastrophe gives cause for real concern. The challenge is clear. How to meet it is not.
Seeking Ways to Cope
Nevertheless, in view of the seriousness of the problems, governments, with varying degrees of urgency, are seeking solutions. For example, on the environmental front, the largest ecological gathering ever held convened last June in Rio de Janeiro. The UN-sponsored Earth Summit was the second of its kind, following the one held in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden. At that time a noted German politician said: “This conference can be a turning point in the destiny of the planet.”
Obviously, the 1972 meeting fell short of expectations. Maurice F. Strong, chief organizer of both the 1972 and the 1992 conferences, admitted: “We have learned in the 20 years since Stockholm that environmental regulation, which is the only real lever that environmental agencies have, is important but not adequate. It has to be accompanied by important changes in the underlying motivations for our economic behavior.”
Will the 1992 conference, however, prove to have been any more successful in achieving these “important changes” than was the one in 1972? And if not, will our planet still be able in another 20 years, in 2012, to host a possible third Earth Summit?
Confronted With Its Greatest Challenge
People in general are becoming more and more skeptical of the ability of religion and politics to solve world problems. But if not religion, if not politics, what can meet the serious challenges of the 21st century?
A brochure published by the German Federal Ministry for Research and Technology sheds light on this question. “Handling these problems calls for political strategies which can help not only to avoid any further changes caused by man but also to prevent the negative consequences of global changes. In view of the complexity of the problems facing us, meaningful political decisions will only be possible based on solid scientific findings and reliable forecasting models. This seems to be the only way to avoid expensive or even undesirable and disastrous developments. The provision of this information poses the greatest challenge to the scientific community at the present time.”
Science has faced formidable challenges before and has coped with them, at least to a degree. Still, it is not amiss to ask whether science can meet the unique challenges posed by the incoming 21st century. Is there room for optimism?
It is with pleasure that Awake! announces a discussion of these serious matters, to be covered in a series of articles beginning in this issue. Part 1 follows.
[Pictures on page 4]
What can science do about pollution, disease, and overpopulation?
WHO photo by P. Almasy
WHO photo by P. Almasy