World-Renowned Scientists Reflect on their Lives and the Future of Life on Earth
Heather Newbold (Editor)
Paperback, 246 pages
Nearly every day, the media recount stories about the degradation of the Earth's environment; these stories are met with alarm by some and with skepticism by others. Life Stories presents testimony from some of the world's top environmental scientists who have seen firsthand the sobering effects of rapid global change: the extinction of species, worldwide damage to ecosystems, and the increasing alienation of human life from the natural world. A moving celebration of nature, and a tribute to the role of science in preserving our endangered future, this exceptional collection presents the personal and professional reflections of sixteen eminent scientists. Their views on the meaning and relevance of their work are interwoven with inspiring autobiographical accounts of how formative life experiences led to their research, conclusions, and activities.
These narratives, based on personal interviews, are by such world-renowned figures as James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis; Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and founder of Zero Population Growth; Max Nicholson, a founder of the World Wildlife Fund; and Sherwood Rowland, who discovered the chemistry of atmospheric ozone depletion.
These essays read like an intimate conversation with the world's top scientists. This collection also provides a view of the international development of ecology as a scientific enterprise. Life Stories demonstrates the important role of the scientific community in fostering worldwide awareness of the dangers facing the Earth today, and in seeking solutions for tomorrow. Young readers will find this book inspiring for the life stories it tells. Readers of all ages will find here a profound, urgent, and compelling message about the future of life on Earth.
1. Gaia, Our Living Earth, James Lovelock
2. Life-Support Systems, Paul Ehrlich
3. Primary Producers, Peter Raven
4. Biological Diversity, Thomas Lovejoy
5. The Nature of Things, David Suzuki
6. Toxic Food Web, George M. Woodwell
7. Water Pollution, Ruth Patrick
8. Marine Biodiversity, Elliott Norse
9. Nature Conservancy, Max Nicholson
10. World Conservation Union, Martn Holdgate
11. Ozone Hole, Sherwood Rowland
12. Cliamte Change, John Firor
13. Worldwatch, Lester Brown
14. Global Security, MormanMeyers
15. The End, John Rotblat
16. Union of Concerned Scientists' Warnings, Henry Kendall
George M. Woodwell
Heather Newbold is an independent scholar and writer.
Read the Mini-Biographies of the Scientists:
These brief descriptions necessarily omit many of these scientists' important achievements, awards, publications, and administrative contributions. Note, too, that the Nobel Prize is not awarded in the life sciences.
Lester Brown was an international agricultural analyst with the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service, adviser to secretary of agriculture Orville Freeman on foreign agricultural policy, and administrator of the department's International Agricultural Development Service. He helped establish the Overseas Development Council, of which he became a senior fellow. In 1974 he founded the Worldwatch Institute to analyze global environmental issues. He continues to run the institute and oversee its research. In addition to books, a magazine, and periodic reports, it publishes the widely read State of the World reports.
Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, has researched ecology, entomology, evolutionary biology, and behavior, doing fieldwork all over the world. With Peter Raven, he developed the concept of coevolution. Of his thirty books, the best known is The Population Bomb, which led him to found the organization Zero Population Growth. He is internationally known for presciently warning of the dangers of overconsumption and overpopulation for the carrying capacity of the planet.
John Firor researched cosmic particle physics at the University of Chicago and then studied radioastronomy at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. His study of solar radio waves led him to the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, which later became the base of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). After being associate director in charge of solar research, Firor became director of NCAR and remained in management for over thirty years. His research contributions include solar-terrestrial relations, the physics of Earth's atmosphere, the impact of climate change, and policy use of scientific information.
Martin Holdgate was chief biologist of the British Antarctic Survey, deputy director (for research) of the British Nature Conservancy, and first director of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. In Britain, he was the first director of the Central Unit on Environmental Pollution and then chief scientist of the Departments of Environment and Transportation. He was president of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program and director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature/World Conservation Union. He is president of the Zoological Society of London.
Henry Kendall won the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of quarks. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he researched meson and neutrino physics, nucleon structure, and high-energy electron scattering. He warned of safety hazards in the nuclear power industry, the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the impracticality of space-based weapons. He led the scientific community in assessing and developing means to control the adverse effects of advanced technologies. Until his untimely death, he was chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which he cofounded to conduct technical studies and provide public education to advance responsible public policies on issues in which science and technology play a critical role. He initiated the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" to bring public attention to the threats of global environmental degradation to Earth's life-support systems.
Thomas Lovejoy directed the science program of the World Wildlife Fund-United States and undertook a giant experiment in Brazil's rain forest, the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems Project, which became the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project. Later he originated innovative debt-for-nature swaps for international conservation. He also started the popular public television series Nature. He is head of Biodiversity and Environmental Affairs for the Smithsonian Institution, science adviser to the U.S. secretary of the interior, and chief biodiversity adviser at the World Bank.
James Lovelock, who has a Ph.D. in medicine and a D.Sc. in biophysics, worked at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Later he collaborated on lunar and planetary research with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His interdisciplinary research covers such broad fields as medicine, biology, geophysiology, and instrument science. He has filed over fifty patents for his inventions, and one, the electron-capture detector, first revealed the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues, PCBs, nitrous oxide, and the CFCs responsible for atmospheric ozone depletion. He is best known for originating the Gaia hypothesis.
Norman Myers initially documented the destruction of the world's rain forests and then identified and originated the strategy of conserving biodiversity "hot spots." As a conservation biologist and ecologist and international consultant on sustainable development, he has worked in over eighty countries on issues as varied as mass extinction of species, tropical forests, savannahs, and grasslands, global warming, population growth in developing countries, resource waste in developed countries, environmental economics, and the environmental dimensions of national and international security.
Max Nicholson, renowned conservationist, helped establish the Edward Gray Institute and the British Trust for Ornithology. He drafted "A National Plan for Britain," the basis of a socioeconomic group PEP (Political and Economic Planning). After World War II he was head of the office of the deputy prime minister. When the government created the British Nature Conservancy, he became its director general. Later he was a founder of the World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature. He also started and was chair of Earthwatch Europe and was head of the world conservation section of the International Biological Programme.
Elliott Norse was a marine biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency before becoming staff ecologist for the President's Council on Environmental Quality. Later he became public policy director of the Ecological Society of America and opened its Washington, D.C., office. He then compiled two books on American forests for the Wilderness Society. After being chief scientist at the Center for Marine Conservation, he founded the Marine Conservation Biology Institute to advance interdisciplinary research and collaboration in the emerging field of marine conservation biology. For further information, contact the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, 15806 NE 47th Court, Redmond, WA 98052.
Ruth Patrick's extensive research on diatoms led her to expand her study of their taxonomy, physiology, and ecology to an analysis of the aquatic environments that they inhabit. She invented the diatometer to detect pollution in freshwater conditions. Her field research focused on the biodiversity of rivers and how these ecosystems function under natural and polluted conditions. She founded the Limnology Department (now the Environmental Research Division) at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and later became chair of its board of trustees.
Peter Raven is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he has developed botanical field research programs undertaken around the world, as well as the Center for Plant Conservation, a national consortium to preserve endangered species. In addition to heading a variety of international projects and committees, he is home secretary for the National Academy of Sciences and has convened studies for the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council on systematic and evolutionary biology and ecology, biodiversity, and other related interdisciplinary research.
Joseph Rotblat, a nuclear physicist, was the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on principle. Ever since resigning, he has campaigned for nuclear disarmament and organized scientists for arms control. He chaired the press conference for the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was cofounder of the Atomic Scientists Association, organized and still heads the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, cofounded the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and was president of the International Science Forum, in addition to heading organizations in the field of nuclear medicine. In 1995 Joseph Rotblat and Pugwash were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Sherwood Rowland created and was the first chair of the chemistry department of the University of California's Irvine campus. Previously he researched radioactive atoms and developed the subfield of tritium "hot-atom" chemistry. When his interest in chemical kinetics and photochemistry led him to determine the atmospheric fate of chlorofluorocarbons, he discovered that they were destroying stratospheric ozone. Realizing the environmental consequences of ozone depletion, he testified in legislative hearings to regulate CFC production. In 1995 Rowland and his colleague Mario Molina won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
David Suzuki was a professor at the University of British Columbia, doing genetics research, before he began his syndicated newspaper column, the radio program Quirks and Quarks, the television series Suzuki on Science, and the ongoing TV series The Nature of Things. In addition to producing over one hundred major research papers and textbooks, he has written twenty-five popular books. In 1989 his five-part Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio series about the global environment, It's a Matter of Survival, brought such an impassioned public response that he started the David Suzuki Foundation to find solutions and create sustainable communities. For more information, contact the David T. Suzuki Foundation, 2211 West Fourth Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6K 4S2.
George M. Woodwell studies the structure and function of natural communities and their role as segments of the biosphere. He also investigates biotic impoverishment, especially the circulation and effects of persistent toxins, the ecological effects of ionizing radiation, and biotic interactions related to global warming. He was the founder and director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and also of the Woods Hole Research Center for global environmental research and policy. He was a founder of the Environmental Defense Fund and a founding trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. He has headed many groups and was chair of the World Wildlife Fund and president of the Ecological Society of America. He also headed the Nuclear Winter Symposium, the conference on the long-term biological consequences of nuclear war. An expert on the basic metabolism of ecosystems and the global carbon cycle, he contributed substantially to the "Framework on Climate Change" adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and he established a World Commission on Forests to protect all of Earth's forests.
"This unusual collection of conversations with leading environmental thinkers breaks down the conventional separation between thinking and living. The presentations of ecological ideas are not only superior but often eloquent and powerful, and incorporate the latest information available. Since many of the chapters give quite full accounts of the interviewees' careers, the book will also provide inspiration to young readers." —Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecology: A Pocket Guide
"The recurring theme of environmental emergency comes through loud and clear in all of the interviews, but this book also shows that it is people who make things happen, not the great gray 'they' or 'we.' We learn exactly who it was that discovered the hole in the ozone layer and who invented the ideas of Gaia and the Population Bomb. . . . If I had my way I would make this book required reading for students across all disciplines, because its message is profound, urgent, compelling, and relevant to everyone."—Anthony J. F. Griffiths, University of British Columbia, Winner of the Genetics Society of Canada Award of Excellence
"Life Stories should be required reading. The reverence for life expressed by these heroes is deeply moving. Their fierce determination ought to inspire all of us as we confront the environmental challenges of the new millennium." —Denis Hayes, International Chair, Earth Day 2000
"We start the twenty-first century with a heightened awareness that our planet is under stress. Life Stories illustrates that the human spirit has the capacity to set forces in motion that will save our habitat. Heather Newbold introduces us to scientists who have probed the mysteries of our natural systems and taken action so our Earth can heal itself. As we meet them, our own hope for the future is inspired."—Peter A. A. Berle, host of The Environment Show on Public Radio
"These mini-autobiographies are captivating, challenging, and worrisome. We can successfully meet the challenge, but will we? This is attention-grabbing stuff. Once you start reading this book it will capture and hold you to the last page."—Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day
CONTRIBUTORS These brief descriptions necessarily omit many of these scientists' important achievements, awards, publications, and administrative contributions. Note, too, that the Nobel Prize is not awarded in the life sciences.
LESTER BROWN was an international agricultural analyst with the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service, adviser to secretary of agriculture Orville Freeman on foreign agricultural policy, and administrator of the department's International Agricultural Development Service. He helped establish the Overseas Development Council, of which he became a senior fellow. In 1974 he founded the Worldwatch Institute to analyze global environmental issues. He continues to run the institute and oversee its research. In addition to books, a magazine, and periodic reports, it publishes the widely read State of the World reports.
PAUL EHRLICH, professor of population studies and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, has researched ecology, entomology, evolutionary biology, and behavior, doing fieldwork all over the world. With Peter Raven, he developed the concept of coevolution. Of his thirty books, the best known is The Population Bomb, which led him to found the organization Zero Population Growth. He is internationally known for presciently warning of the dangers of overconsum ption and overpopulation for the carrying capacity of the planet.
JOHN FIROR researched cosmic particle physics at the University of Chicago and then studied radioastronomy at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. His study of solar radio waves led him to the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, which later became the base of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). After being associate director in charge of solar research, Firor became director of NCAR and remained in management for over thirty years. His research contributions include solar-terrestrial relations, the physics of Earth's atmosphere, the impact of climate change, and policy use of scientific information.
MARTIN HOLDGATE was chief biologist of the British Antarctic Survey, deputy director (for research) of the British Nature Conservancy, and first director of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. In Britain, he was the first director of the Central Unit on Environmental Pollution and then chief scientist of the Departments of Environment and Transportation. He was president of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program and director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature/World Conservation Union. He is president of the Zoological Society of London.
HENRY KENDALL won the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of quarks. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he researched meson and neutrino physics, nucleon structure, and high-energy electron scattering. He warned of safety hazards in the nuclear power industry, the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the impracticality of space-based weapons. He led the scientific community in assessing and developing means to control the adverse effects of advanced technologies. Until his untimely death, he was chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which he cofounded to conduct technical studies and provide public education to advance responsible public policies on issues in which science and technology play a critical role. He initiated the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" to bring public attention to the threats of global environmental degradation to Earth's life-support systems.
THOMAS LOVEJOY directed the science program of the World Wildlife Fund-United States and undertook a giant experiment in Brazil's rain forest, the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems Project, which became the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project. Later he originated innovative debt-for-nature swaps for international conservation. He also started the popular public television series Nature. He is head of Biodiversity and Environmental Affairs for the Smithsonian Institution, science adviser to the U.S. secretary of the interior, and chief biodiversity adviser at the World Bank.
JAMES LOVELOCK, who has a Ph.D. in medicine and a D.Sc. in biophysics, worked at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Later he collaborated on lunar and planetary research with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His interdisciplinary research covers such broad fields as medicine, biology, geophysiology, and instrument science. He has filed over fifty patents for his inventions, and one, the electron-capture detector, first revealed the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues, PCBs, nitrous oxide, and the CFCs responsible for atmospheric ozone depletion. He is best known for originating the Gaia hypothesis.
NORMAN MYERS initially documented the destruction of the world's rain forests and then identified and originated the strategy of conserving biodiversity "hot spots." As a conservation biologist and ecologist and international consultant on sustainable development, he has worked in over eighty countries on issues as varied as mass extinction of species, tropical forests, savannahs, and grasslands, global warming, population growth in developing countries, resource waste in developed countries, environmental economics, and the environmental dimensions of national and international security.
MAX NICHOLSON, renowned conservationist, helped establish the Edward Gray Institute and the British Trust for Ornithology. He drafted "A National Plan for Britain," the basis of a socioeconomic group PEP (Political and Economic Planning). After World War II he was head of the office of the deputy prime minister. When the government created the British Nature Conservancy, he became its director general. Later he was a founder of the World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature. He also started and was chair of Earthwatch Europe and was head of the world conservation section of the International Biological Programme.
ELLIOTT NORSE was a marine biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency before becoming staff ecologist for the President's Council on Environmental Quality. Later he became public policy director of the Ecological Society of America and opened its Washington, D.C., office. He then compiled two books on American forests for the Wilderness Society. After being chief scientist at the Center for Marine Conservation, he founded the Marine Conservation Biology Institute to advance interdisciplinary research and collaboration in the emerging field of marine conservation biology. For further information, contact the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, 15806 NE 47th Court, Redmond, WA 98052.
RUTH PATRICK's extensive research on diatoms led her to expand her study of their taxonomy, physiology, and ecology to an analysis of the aquatic environments that they inhabit. She invented the diatometer to detect pollution in freshwater conditions. Her field research focused on the biodiversity of rivers and how these ecosystems function under natural and polluted conditions. She founded the Limnology Department (now the Environmental Research Division) at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and later became chair of its board of trustees.
PETER RAVEN is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he has developed botanical field research programs undertaken around the world, as well as the Center for Plant Conservation, a national consortium to preserve endangered species. In addition to heading a variety of international projects and committees, he is home secretary for the National Academy of Sciences and has convened studies for the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council on systematic and evolutionary biology and ecology, biodiversity, and other related interdisciplinary research.
JOSEPH ROTBLAT, a nuclear physicist, was the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on principle. Ever since resigning, he has campaigned for nuclear disarmament and organized scientists for arms control. He chaired the press conference for the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was cofounder of the Atomic Scientists Association, organized and still heads the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, cofounded the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and was president of the International Science Forum, in addition to heading organizations in the field of nuclear medicine. In 1995 Joseph Rotblat and Pugwash were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
SHERWOOD ROWLAND created and was the first chair of the chemistry department of the University of California's Irvine campus. Previously he researched radioactive atoms and developed the subfield of tritium "hot-atom" chemistry. When his interest in chemical kinetics and photochemistry led him to determine the atmospheric fate of chlorofluorocarbons, he discovered that they were destroying stratospheric ozone. Realizing the environmental consequences of ozone depletion, he testified in legislative hearings to regulate CFC production. In 1995 Rowland and his colleague Mario Molina won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
DAVID SUZUKI was a professor at the University of British Columbia, doing genetics research, before he began his syndicated newspaper column, the radio program Quirks and Quarks, the television series Suzuki on Science, and the ongoing TV series The Nature of Things. In addition to producing over one hundred major research papers and textbooks, he has written twenty-five popular books. In 1989 his five-part Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio series about the global environment, It's a Matter of Survival, brought such an impassioned public response that he started the David Suzuki Foundation to find solutions and create sustainable communities. For more information, contact the David T. Suzuki Foundation, 2211 West Fourth Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6K 4S2.
GEORGE M. WOODWELL studies the structure and function of natural communities and their role as segments of the biosphere. He also investigates biotic impoverishment, especially the circulation and effects of persistent toxins, the ecological effects of ionizing radiation, and biotic interactions related to global warming. He was the founder and director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and also of the Woods Hole Research Center for global environmental research and policy. He was a founder of the Environmental Defense Fund and a founding trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. He has headed many groups and was chair of the World Wildlife Fund and president of the Ecological Society of America. He also headed the Nuclear Winter Symposium, the conference on the long-term biological consequences of nuclear war. An expert on the basic metabolism of ecosystems and the global carbon cycle, he contributed substantially to the "Framework on Climate Change" adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and he established a World Commission on Forests to protect all of Earth's forests.
The Nature of Things
MY GRANDPARENTS IMMIGRATED TO CANADA at the turn of the century. They left their homeland reluctantly to come to a foreign place with an alien culture and an unknown language. As immigrants, they expected their children to be successful. Success, of course, was defined by making a lot of money. Being the eldest of six sons, my father was expected to be the first son to succeed. Yet, unlike his parents, he was born here, and his real love was for the land. He worked hard, but he loved gardening, fishing, and camping, which were absolutely alien to his parents. He was always a bitter disappointment to them because he wasted his time on such worthless activities instead of making money.
Most of my early memories are of camping and fishing with my dad. We bought our first tent when I was four, a little pup tent that I loved. Vancouver was surrounded with nature, so on weekends we would drive to a favorite place. Dad would put his pack on his back and me on his shoulders, and off we would go to camp in the woods. Sometimes we went to a river where dad borrowed a friend's horse, which we rode along the bank upstream. Then we let the horse go home, pitched our tent, and spent the weekend fishing our way back downstream.
We also went fishing during the week after work. One night when we were hiking around Loon Lake in the dark, we spotted large eyes staring at us, silently sizing us up. Fortunately, Dad had taught me to love and respect nature rather than to fear it, so encountering a bear was exciting rather than frightening. Those early experiences camping and fishing influenced the rest of my life. They were such an important part of my childhood that I began camping with my own children right after they were born.
We lived in Vancouver until I was six. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the American and Canadian governments decided that people of Japanese descent were enemy aliens and constituted a danger. So they confiscated our property and moved us from the West Coast inland to a ghost town left from the gold rush. Unlike our American counterparts, we were not fenced in by barbed wire or armed guards; we were totally free. People cannot believe it when I tell them I was unaware of how bad the situation was. For me it was paradise because we lived in a cabin in the midst of nature. It was like living in a giant park; in fact, Valhalla now is a provincial park. It was an amazing setting in the Slocan Valley between the spectacular mountains of the Selkirk Range. The mountains were home to countless animals, including deer, coyotes, and bears, while the lakes and rivers overflowed with fish.
I did not have to go to school for a while because of a lack of teachers, so I was free to spend my time exploring the wonders around me, and I learned far more than I ever could have in school. My sisters and I wandered the hillsides gathering flowers and unusual rocks and discovering all kinds of fascinating creatures. For me the war years were a wonderful time of enjoying wildlife and wilderness.
As the war was coming to an end, the provincial government could not solve its "yellow peril" problem, so it offered us two choices. We could go to Japan, which for us meant going to a foreign country; or, if we remained in Canada, we had to go east of the Rockies. Exiled from our beloved British Columbia, we sought refuge in southern Ontario.
My dad and mom found work as laborers on a farm, and I worked along with them in the summers. My father made less than $1,000 a year (of course, inflation has increased values since then). Although we were very poor, we did not feel poor because we always had enough to live on and plenty to eat. Children today would regard the way we lived as primitive; for us it was an invigorating lifestyle that filled more than our stomachs.
My mother bottled fruits and vegetables in the summer for us to live on in the winter. We foraged for food everywhere, finding mushrooms in the orchards, nutritious roots underground, and edible weeds growing along the railway tracks. After work Dad and I went out on our bikes to catch fish. With a little net he made for me, we dipped in the ditches, creeks, and ponds, catching dinner and fascinating creatures to keep. Scrounged glass jars were filled with sunfish, catfish, and turtles, then carefully carried home to be my magical aquariums.
My parents also made me a butterfly net. Dad bent wire into a hoop that he attached to a wooden handle; then Mom sewed mosquito netting around it. Immediately I started insect collecting, which soon became an avid passion. I wanted my children to share my enjoyment of insects, but they do not want to kill them. My daughters have a different kind of sensitivity toward the environment.
We lived for four years in Canada's southernmost town, where Heinz ketchup is made. Leamington was a great place for me because it was a fifteen-minute bike ride from Lake Erie, which was full of fish. Fish was our major food, so I went down there all the time and brought home strings of fish such as perch and catfish for dinner. Now the fish are poisonous because so many pollutants have been dumped into the Great Lakes. Back then Lake Erie was so prolific that when mayflies hatched out of the water, their tiny three-centimeter bodies piled up four feet high on the beach. It was one of the most amazing biological phenomena I have ever seen. Within a decade that entire hatch was gone because pesticides and washing detergents sterilized the lake, which was declared "dead."
Later we lived in another Ontario town named London. I biked to my grandparents' farm and often stopped in a swamp to find frogs, reptiles, skunks, and foxes. At my grandparents' place, there were a creek and woods nearby, where I played for hours. I also spent a lot of time on the Thames River, the major waterway running through town. I knew every pool and where to catch different fish throughout the year, such as silver bass and pike coming in the spring to spawn. Other animals fished with me; I remember seeing a raccoon pull out a crayfish and then wash it before eating.
Today, if I said, "Let's go down to the Thames River and catch a fish," a parent would recoil in horror at the thought of their child wading in that river, because now it is a toxic sewer. There are hardly any fish left, and even if you caught one you could not eat it. The creek that I dipped in to get freshwater clams and fish now runs through culverts underground. The farm where my grandparents lived is a huge high-rise complex. The swamp where I spent so much of my time playing is paved over and is now an enormous shopping mall.
When I compare my childhood to that of children in that modern city today, I am shocked by the difference. They do not have the woods, river, and swamp to play in, so they hang out in what is there-shopping malls and electronic game galleries. They grow up in a biological desert, a concrete maze of roads, buildings, machines, humans, and the few plants and animals that are allowed to survive. Anything we do not want in our artificial environment, we destroy. Insects, for instance, are invaders to be killed. We teach children in cities that nature is the enemy; it is dirty, disgusting, and dangerous. So, rather than being curious and fascinated, children often recoil in fear when they see a wild animal. Urban inhabitants become so distanced from nature that they forget they are still biological creatures.
A striking example of this is some friends who came from Japan to visit us. They told us that they love cities, and when we took them to our cottage on the island we realized they were comfortable only in artificial surroundings. Not only the children but the adults too were afraid to go outside, so they wanted to stay inside the whole time. The children were even afraid of the dog. When we did go outside, they felt so uncomfortable that they did not know what to do.
They were not used to seeing anything alive and were repulsed by such simple things as rolling over a rock and seeing crabs, finding a clam, or catching a fish. Of course, all the food they buy in Japan is packaged, without any traces of blood, fur, feathers, or scales. Later I met a teacher in Tokyo who told me that children in her class assume that everything brought home from the supermarket spends its entire existence in plastic wrap and Styrofoam.
I did not believe how common this notion was until I did a television series for children called The Nature Connection. One of the shows was about a farm, so I took two ten-year-old children from Toronto. We were there two days and had a wonderful time: we collected eggs from the chickens, milked cows, rode horses, and played with the animals. On the third day, I took them to a slaughterhouse. The boy burst into tears because it had never occurred to him that hot dogs and hamburgers are made from animals.
Such ignorance is not limited to children. A friend, a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, took a woman out into the country and stopped at a pick-your-own vegetable farm. She had never been on a farm and was disturbed that the vegetables were growing in the dirt. She was a university graduate but did not know that vegetables grow in the ground. Like her, many people do not realize food is biological, because it seems so synthetic. Commercial food is processed to the point where ithas no life in it. We destroy all the vitality and eat what is left.
The teacher in Tokyo does something interesting with her class. She asks them to write down all the things you need for your nutrition that were not once living. The kids mention all kinds of things such as miso soup, but it turns out that everything you eat has been alive. So they understand that the food you eat was a living plant or animal that gave its life for you and now makes up your body. That is a very profound lesson.
We are nourished by nature, but we are so disconnected from life that most adults do not even realize that. Living in artificial, manmade environments makes us forget our biological nature. We think our greatest achievement is independence from nature, but we are still as dependent on air, water, and soil as any other living organism. It is not technology that cleanses the air for us or manages the water cycle or gives us our food. It is the biodiversity of nature. We live in a finite world where matter is endlessly recycled through biological action. The variety of living things on this planet is what keeps it livable.
The more urban our environment, the more ignorant we are of how our world actually works. In Toronto, if you ask someone, "Where does your food grow?" or "Where does your water come from?" or "Where does your toilet water go?" they do not know. If you tell them that their toilet flushes into Lake Ontario, half a kilometer from the intake pipe for their drinking water, they are absolutely shocked.
We are under the illusion that technology controls the world around us and that therefore we are in control of the world. The farther we remove ourselves from nature, the more dependent we become on technology, and the more vulnerable we are to its failure. We can become victimized by the technological monster we depend on, just as we are already run by the speeded-up demands of our high-tech treadmill.
Trying to escape reality, we live in an increasingly illusory world. We are losing the ability to sense the real world. Being unaware of our biological nature leads to being out of touch with our own bodies, as well as those of others. We reject our animality, even though being with animals makes us more human. As the prevalence of pets attests, we have a natural bond with animals. Children are fascinated by animals from birth. The programs on my television series, The Nature of Things, that generate the greatest response from viewers are reports on natural history, particularly shows on animals.
When my family lived in Ontario, Dad borrowed a car so we could go to the Detroit Zoo, which was regarded as one of the great zoos. That was an amazing experience for me; I was overwhelmed by the sense of variety and abundance of living things. Actually seeing creatures such as a rhinoceros and a duck-billed platypus was unbelievable. Desiring to see the animals living freely in their natural habitat, I dreamed all my life of going to the Serengeti plain, Australia, and the Amazon. Essentially the Detroit Zoo aroused those dreams and stimulated my interest in studying zoology.
After I became an adult, I did travel to all those places. It is truly sad what has happened to them in my lifetime. When I was a child, the Amazon was an isolated place where outsiders had seldom gone. By the time I got there in 1988, there was no place foreigners had not invaded. The tribes had experienced extermination at the rate of about one a year since 1900. When I visited the Serengeti in 1985, there were more black rhinos in the Cincinnati Zoo than on the entire Serengeti plain. When I made it to Australia, there were still some duck-billed platypuses, but the remaining animals there were under siege.
We may not care about the deaths of millions of our fellow creatures, but they affect us anyway. These creatures not only share our home with us, they are our relatives. Ninety-nine percent of our genetic information is identical with that of our closest relatives, the great apes. Geneticists are realizing that all life forms evolved from the same original cell-which means that all living creatures are descended from the same parent cell, and we are all related.
In my lifetime the planet has changed from being incredibly abundant to being barely able to sustain life in many places. A few years ago, when my daughter was nine, I took her to the Toronto Zoo, thinking she would have the same response that I had as a child. When we got there, the first thing she asked was, "Daddy, are there many of these left?" At every exhibit she was worried that the animals were rare or endangered. For her, "extinction" is a constant word. It is tragic that whereas in my childhood the zoo was a chance to see what potential lies in nature, for children today, zoos are a reminder of the fact that creatures are disappearing and perhaps the animals in the zoo are the only ones left.
My father told me that when he was young, there was only forest where my house is now. Fishing right here, he caught sea-run cutthroats and sturgeon, things we would not imagine swimming around Vancouver today. My daughter and I used to go fishing out here and caught little flounders, which we ate. A few years ago we caught one that had lumps on its fins. I thought it was a parasite, so I cut it open, expecting to see a worm, but it was cancer. So we stopped fishing here.
In a world of such rapid change, we have marginalized the very people who could provide us with the perspective to counter the whole thrust of this change: women, children, elders, and indigenous people. One of the first things I learned from the aboriginal peoples I have met around the world was to take your elders very seriously, respect them, and listen to what they have to say.
As I crossed Canada from one end to the other countless times, I talked to our elders. I asked fishermen in the Maritimes, "What was the fishing like when you were a kid?" I asked loggers in British Columbia, "What were the forests like years ago?" I asked farmers in the prairies, "What were the crops like then?" I asked them, "What were your neighborhoods and communities like then; how did you care for each other?"
Our elders tell us that all across Canada, the country has changed beyond description. In the span of a single human lifetime, we have radically altered our country. In North America, we have always said, "There's plenty more where that came from." But there is not plenty more anymore, and there will never be any more if we continue in the same way.
We are using up what rightly belongs to all generations. We have received this abundance from the past, and we have a sacred obligation to keep it intact for future generations. Just look at the change that has happened in the lifetime of our elders and project that rate of change into the future. What are we leaving for our children? Parents have always tried to ensure the security of their offspring, but the future fills us with fear for them. One of the reasons I do what I do is so I can look my children directly in the eye and say to them, "I'm doing the best I can." If we all do our best, we might be able to reassure them with more confidence that "everything is going to be all right."
The most frightening phrase I hear today is, "There used to be." I hear younger and younger people saying, "There used to be a creek here . . . there used to be woods over there . . . there used to be birds and animals around." We act as if all this is just lost somehow, and it is no big deal. We are passively observing this in our lifetime as though we could wipe these things out without any consequences. I do not think you can go on saying about the planet, "There used to be . . . ," or we are going to end up with, "There used to be people."
We have a seasonal ritual that our family celebrates. Every summer we go to the Okanagan Valley to pick ripe, luscious fruit off the trees. Visiting it annually, we have seen astounding changes over the years. A development binge has resulted in such rapid construction that the water supply is insufficient for the houses. Orchards have been buried under strip malls, destroying Canada's most fertile fruit-producing area. One of the country's loveliest and most productive places is now a concrete wasteland, just like everywhere else.
It does not matter where you go-it is the same boring uniformity all over the world. I travel a lot for my television programs, and when I get off an airplane in Nairobi, or Beijing, or Tokyo, it all looks the same. You might as well stay home. As we monoculture the planet into a global marketplace dominated by international economics, we diminish a tremendous amount of human and biological diversity.
We increasingly revel in what human beings do: our computers, our buildings, our transport. In our worship of human beings and achievements we have lost our inspiration from the natural world. The real inspiration, the wonders, the diversity, the life, are in nature. Without those, we will attempt to make the planet over and thereby lose it.
If you go to a place where we have done that, such as New York, and see how people exist, you notice that they not only breathe polluted smog; they also live under a cloud of fear. They cannot escape it even inside their apartments: they have multiple locks on the door, plus all kinds of alarms and security devices, in addition to the guards downstairs. People exist in a state of war with their surroundings. That is no way to live.
Can't we create communities where you know the people in your local area because you live, work, and play there? Places where, if you are in a jam, you can just call your neighbor up and say, "Can you help me out?" It is clear that we have lost a sense of community, place, and belonging. We need to re-create those kinds of communal values.
Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. Everything that governments and corporations are doing now, for example free trade-NAFTA and GATT-is hell-bent on globalizing the marketplace, which is ultimately destructive of local communities. If citizens here will not give up their societal benefits and sacrifice medical care, pensions, and social security to cut costs, then companies will go to Mexico or some other "undeveloped" country where they do not have to pay such expenses. You see it happening all across Canada and the United States: local communities are being trashed by the multinational corporations.
Communities can be the counterforce to corporatization. In order to withstand corporate forces, they need to become independent and self-reliant. To avoid exploitation by the global economy for short-term profit, they must care for their own human and natural resources for the long term. Being locally based, they are the social sector that can best adapt to and protect the immediate environment.
Communities could be the survival unit of the future. This challenge has led me to establish a private foundation to create sustainable communities based on the grassroots support of ordinary people. We are trying to empower people by giving them a vision of a way of living that is sustainable. A sustainable society lives within the planet's productive capacity and protects the fundamental sources of life: air, water, soil, and biological diversity. We believe that when people understand that we are threatened with global environmental collapse, they will transform society from the bottom up. (Obviously it will never happen from the top down.) Our foundation is committed to that process of transformation.
Bioregions are fundamental to creating sustainable communities, so we have an expert bioregionalist, Doug Aberly, in our group. If you look at maps of counties and countries, you see that they are drawn in straight lines, ignoring topographic features. Bioregional areas follow natural boundaries along the tops of mountains and valley bottoms. British Columbia has about twenty bioregions, which follow major watersheds. The bioregions correspond almost exactly to the lands of the original native tribes throughout North America. Indigenous people lived bioregionally all over the world.
In contrast, our ecological "footprint" extends far beyond our local boundaries. In our crazy economy, rather than get food from farms a few miles away, we buy stuff that has crossed continents and oceans. We are using nonrenewable resources like oil to ship food over long distances. Wendell Berry told me that in North America food travels an average of about two thousand miles from where it is grown to where it is eaten. Food flows in from all over the world throughout the year, as though the planet were just one endless market. We have lost our sense of nature's rhythms and act as though the seasons no longer affect us. Our foundation encourages buying local, seasonal food because food that comes from where we live is the best for us. We should be aware of the rhythms of nature; we are of the earth and intimately connected to it through the food we consume.
I wrote a book called Wisdom of the Elders about native perspectives. When I did a book tour, I ended up at the Six Nations reserve in Ontario. The elders welcomed me into their longhouse, where they said, "Today's a holiday; we're celebrating the first day of the sap which is starting to run through the trees, and we are putting taps in for maple sugar. We take around thirty days a year as holidays to celebrate events: the first snowfall, the last day of ice, the first buds, the coming of the winds." Throughout the year, aboriginal people are celebrating the things that keep them alive and honoring their sense of connectedness to life. We do not do that. Like our ancestors, we need to create festivals to celebrate our relationship to nature and begin healing our souls.
Aboriginal people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Every rock, tree, river, and mountain is sacred in their culture because it is part of them; it is their identity. When natives struggle to preserve their land, they are protecting what it means to them. We just say, "Here's a million bucks; give us your land." We have overemphasized the material, economic things. We need to recognize that there are fundamental spiritual values that are important for us.
When I say this, people look at me as though I am weird: "What are you talking about? Are you a religious nut?" Yet when I tell them the story about my home, they can relate to what I mean. I bought our house when my wife was in graduate school. She was away when I found it, so I just went ahead and bought it, even though I was scared because we could not afford it.
We have had it now for more than twenty years, and during that time we have made it over. The garden was created by her father, who lives upstairs. The place has such a prime location, right on the water, that we get letters from real estate agents saying, "It's a hot market for foreign speculators, so sell your property!" Finally I got so mad that I assessed the personal value of my house. First, every aspect of this house has my wife in it. When she was away in graduate school, and when she taught at Harvard for five years, I could be anywhere in the house and feel that she was here. No one can see that, but I know it.
My dad is a cabinetmaker, and he made the kitchen cabinet for our apartment when we first got married. When I bought this house, I ripped out the existing cabinet and put dad's here. It looks odd because it does not fit, but every time I open the cabinet door, I think of my father. My best friend came from Toronto and helped me build the fence; then he carved a handle for the gate. Every time I open the gate, he is here too.
I like asparagus and raspberries, so my father-in-law planted them beside his beloved flower garden. When I eat them, I picture him in the garden he tends with such care. In the dogwood is a tree house I built and then enjoyed watching the children play in as they grew up. Underneath it, our dog is buried in his favorite digging hole, with the other family pets that followed. Along the back fence climbs a clematis where I scattered my mother's ashes when she died. After my sister's daughter died, we put some of Janice's ashesthere too. When the beautiful purple flowers of the clematis bloom, the pain of their loss is lightened because I feel that they are still here.
Family and friends are a palpable presence, intermingled with the experiences and memories of a lifetime. That is what I put on my list, and when I finished it, I realized that those are the things that make this place far more than a piece of property-that make it my home. To me they are priceless, but on the market they are totally worthless.
We all have memories and experiences that matter to us. We have sentimental things that we keep: a letter from a parent who is dead, or from a past love. When my children were born we made an album for each one and filled it with things like the little ID bracelet from the hospital, the baby shower gifts, and, as they got older, their first attempts at art and other such mementos. We have a record of our children's lives. I have often thought that if there were ever a fire in our house, the only thing I would rush to save would be those albums. Yet economically they have no value. There are many things that are beyond price, but they are so devalued by the economic system that we do not even recognize them. We need to rediscover them.
Since 1970, per capita consumption in the United States has increased by nearly 50 percent. During that time, the United Nations indicators of quality of life in the United States have dropped by over 50 percent. Americans have bought the idea that having things makes them happy, but look at the indicators. We are less and less happy, yet we are still in this frenzy of buying because we believe it makes us happy. Our addiction to consumption is like a drug, a need that we have to satisfy. We always need another fix because nothing fulfills us. We have this vacuum, this empty hole inside us, and we think stuffing things into it will fill it up, but it does not. We just go on and on trying to fill what is fundamentally a spiritual need.
Economists think they are going to manage the planet by assigning an economic value to everything. A Chicago economist who won the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (the so-called Nobel Prize) claims that he can evaluate everything in the world. If you are married, that has an economic value. If you are divorced, there are economic consequences. (In their divorce settlement, an economist's wife demanded half the Nobel Prize money if her husband ever won it. He did, and she got it.) He has a factor for everything. There is no spiritual connection between you and another person, or between you and a place, only what can be factored in economically. I think that as long as we act on that basis, we will ensure the death of the planet.
The fundamental unreality of economics was clear to me from my initial exposure. When I was an undergraduate student at Amherst, I went to my first class in economics and left almost immediately. The professor began by stating: "Caring, sharing, and cooperating are emotional, irrational acts. Only acting in self-interest is rational. That is the basis on which modern economics is constructed." Personally, I cannot accept any system that is based on the assumption that selfishness is the way the world works and therefore is how we must construct our society. If that were true, none of us would exist, and neither would anything else.
I was ready to leave the class at that point, but then the professor started drawing graphs mapping it all out. I asked him, "Where in that diagram are air, water, soil, and the other living things that keep our planet livable?" He replied, "Those are externalities; they are not part of equations in economics." That is when I walked out; there was absolutely nothing to learn. You can make the diagram anything you want, because it is not grounded in the real world. Economists have "externalized" the very things that make the planet habitable and keep everything alive.
Economists give no value at all to natural capital. A tree left standing in a rich vibrant forest provides all kinds of natural services, including exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, holding vast amounts of water and releasing it slowly by transpiration, maintaining soils to prevent erosion, and providing living space for countless organisms. All those services are performed by a living tree in the forest. Nevertheless, foresters claim that the tree has no value until you cut it down. That is the economic mentality at work; natural capital is totally devalued.
In British Columbia we have some of the richest forests on the planet. Investors say they add fiber, which means they grow, at the rate of about 2 or 3 percent a year. If you cut down fewer than 2 percent of your trees, you could have forests forever. The problem is that it does not make economic sense to do that. If you clearcut the forest and put the profits in something else, you can make even more money. When the forests are gone, you invest in fish. When the fish are gone, you put your money in whatever is left.
It makes no difference how necessary anything is for life or how much you destroy, because all that matters is money. Economics ensures that we trash the planet because currency is not based on anything real. The economy fundamentally disconnects us from the things that sustain us and give us our quality of life. The belief that progress is to be measured in how much money we make, and how fast our economy grows, is the root of the problem. We showed that self-destructive cycle in our television program A Planet for the Taking.
There is nothing rational about economics; it is not science. The market has never been rational, and it is becoming increasingly irrational. There was a time when currency represented something tangible, things that were taken out of the earth. Money represented a real transaction. Now that money represents only itself, we can print as much as we want without it having any relationship to anything else.
We have reached the state of absurdity when you can buy and sell money and make money doing that. Every day over $1 trillion is exchanged in currency speculation around the world. The spiral is out of control, and nothing can stop it, because it is more powerful than governments. When the French franc dropped, the French government bought back billions of francs, but the franc kept falling, because speculators are stronger than governments. We saw the same happen recently with the Mexican peso and the American dollar, and then in the Asian financial markets. It is frightening.
We distort this unreal construct even further by creating measures of so-called economic health, economic indicators such as gross national product (GNP). Governments will turn somersaults to try and keep GNP going up. GNP only adds; it never subtracts. If you pollute the water, then, when people downstream drink it and get sick, GNP increases because they need hospitals, doctors, and lawyers. In 1992, America's GNP rose by $2 billion because it cost that much to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. By the criterion of increasing GNP we should pollute everything and all get sick. What kind of an indicator is that? GNP is rising, but the quality of life is falling.
One of the really destructive aspects of our economic structure is its demand for steady growth. Growth is an absolute necessity. If you come to a plateau in business, you are finished. Economic growth in our society is equated with progress, and nobody wants to stop progress. So if growth is progress, we can never admit that we have enough. We always need to have more. The destructive impulse of the economy is immense, and its appetite is insatiable. This monster is intent on consuming the world. As Paul Ehrlich points out, there are only two systems on the planet that aspire to endless growth: cancer cells and economists. In both cases, the inevitable result of unstoppable growth is the same-death.
Our denial is so total that we completely ignore all warnings about our situation. The Union of Concerned Scientists, including over one thousand scientific experts around the world, signed and released a document after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 giving an urgent warning to humanity. It stated that we are on a destructive path that has to be changed immediately, or within ten years we will no longer be able to make the necessary changes. It was a very stark warning from the world's leading scientists.
The major newspapers and television stations did not even bother to cover it. The New York Times and Washington Post rejected it because it was not "newsworthy." Two years later, in 1994, the collective academies of sciences in the world, representing the leading scientists in every country, released simultaneously a document in nearly sixty countries, timed for the United Nations meeting on population. Essentially that document reiterated the concerns of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and again it was ignored.
Scientists, the experts who have the highest credibility in our society, claim that we have a crisis of monumental proportions and a very limited window of opportunity in which to act on it. Although we are dependent on the products created by science and technology, we are not willing to take seriously the warnings of scientists themselves.
There is an unwillingness to face up to the magnitude of the problem. In part this denial is understandable: nobody likes bad news. If there is a way of not having to confront it, we would all like to avoid it. So we blame the messengers and discount the credibility of people-scientists and environmentalists-who are facing our problems. I know this from personal experience because strangers grab me and say, "Who the hell are you? What do you want?" They are full of fear because they do not know what lies ahead, and they do not want to know.
My greatest difficulty has been in trying to convince people that there is a real crisis affecting all of us. The longer we ignore it, the worse it will get, and the more difficult it will be to change and survive. Humans have never had to face the collapse of the whole system that keeps us all alive. The planet is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, with precious little time left.
It is hard to gain perspective on this brief moment in human existence. As a scientist, I feel that scientific activity is exacerbating the difficulty of realizing what is going on. Foremost are the problems of lack of accountability for the consequences of science, interlinked with its financial relationship to private industry, its dependence on military support, and its control by political powers.
But there are also problems intrinsic to scientific methodology. Scientists aspire to look at nature "objectively" in an attempt to erase any kind of emotional attachment, because it can influence the way they look at things and interpret their results. But when you objectify and distance yourself from things, you eliminate emotional value and no longer care. And you lose any sense of why this really matters.
Furthermore, scientists operate on the assumption that if you concentrate on a minuscule part, eventually you will understand the whole. In my area of genetics, that is certainly the assumption. Geneticists manipulate a single gene without having any idea what it will do to the entire organism and its environment. Presumptuously, they think that if they can know the three million letters in the genetic blueprint, they will understand everything there is to know about what it means to be human. But the rest of us are not convinced that we are just genes.
The scientific method fragments nature. Scientists take an object out of its natural environment, isolate it in a laboratory, and control the conditions around it in order to make observations that are not connected in time or space to anything else. The purpose of science is to discover universal principles that apply anywhere, anytime, and are therefore predictable. But in disconnecting a fragment from nature, we lose its historical and ecological context.
Outside the artificial conditions of the laboratory, everything interacts synergistically. Natural interactions among complex systems produce new phenomena tha t cannot be predicted from the existing properties of the parts. It was certainly unpredictable that we would evolve from a tiny tree shrew. Emergent properties evolve from synergy within the whole. This evolutionary process has created the amazing variety of life on Earth.
Rather than study interconnected systems, science has fragmented the whole into unrelated, disconnected pieces. Science's focus on the part and lack of perspective on the whole system is the reason why neither scientists nor the public recognize science's ultimate discovery-that everything is interconnected.
Our interconnection really hit home as I watched the reports come into the television newsroom after the nuclear reaction in Chernobyl. It was Swedish scientists who announced that something had happened in Russia. Within minutes after Chernobyl, radiation started falling over Sweden. Within hours, Canadian scientists detected radiation over the Arctic. Within days, the world was blanketed with radiation. It was a striking demonstration of the fact that air does not remain within national boundaries. There is no Russian air, Swedish air, or North American air. Air is a single system that goes around quickly. The notion that we can spew stuff into the air and the wind will blow it away, so that we do not have to worry about it, is nonsense.
Recently, when we were filming in Banff, I picked up the newspaper and saw the headline, "Fishermen in Jasper warned not to eat fish." Fish in the Rockies had been contaminated by pesticides that had blown over from Russia. When we look at smog in Los Angeles and say, "I'm glad I don't live in L.A.," we forget that L.A.'s air goes everywhere, including into our lungs.
Everything is a part of the same whole system. The cycle of life was taught to me by aboriginal people. I keep trying to remind everyone that the most fundamental things connecting us to all other living beings are air, water, and soil.
Air is not empty space. It is a substance that comes out of my nose and goes into yours. What I have contributed to that air goes into your lungs, and some of those atoms become part of you. People are astonished to realize that we are linked by this common body of air. You and I have absorbed atoms that were breathed by dinosaurs one hundred million years ago, along with all the plants and trees, creatures and people that have existed throughout history.
Like air, water is a matrix that connects us together through time and space. Water, which makes up over 70 percent of our bodies, evaporates off the oceans and transpires off the forests. Similarly, the food we consume depends on the circulation of air and water, is grounded in the soil, and needs the assistance of living creatures to grow. Air, water, soil, and life are not separate; they are all part of the same system.
We are part of them, just as they are part of us. We do not end at the edges of our bodies; we are intermixed with everything else. When you realize that you are part of this living skin of life, it is very comforting, because it means you have this kinship with all other living things. When Lovelock came up with "Gaia," we knew it was right. It makes sense that there is something bigger than us and that we are part of it. Our spirituality comes from the realization that there are things beyond our comprehension greater than us. Our lives unfold in life's endless process of creation.
David Suzuki. Earth Time. Stoddart, 1998.
---. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Prometheus Bound, 1997.
---. Time to Change. Stoddart, 1993.
David Suzuki and Joseph Levine. The Secret of Life: Redesigning the Living World. WGBH, 1993.
David Suzuki and Anita Gordon. It's a Matter of Survival. Harvard University Press, 1992.
David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. Wisdom of the Elders. Stoddart, 1992.
David Suzuki. Inventing the Future: Reflections on Science, Technology, and Nature. Stoddart, 1989.
David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. Genetics: The Clash Between the New Genetics and Human Values. Harvard University Press, 1989.
David Suzuki. Metamorphosis: Stages in a Life. Stoddart, 1987.
David Suzuki and A. J. F. Griffiths. An Introduction to Genetic Analysis. 2d ed. W. H. Freeman & Co., 1981.
Gaia, Our Living Earth
I SUPPOSE THE BEGINNING IS RELEVANT because I am quite old. When I was a small child, the world was an incredibly different place from what it is now. It was far less mechanized. The cities were much smaller and more densely packed together. There were no cars, so people could not go out and commute from suburbs; they could only travel by train. Even if you lived in a large city, as I did in London, it was possible to get out into untouched, heavenly countryside. I do not think that experience is as readily available anywhere now; it is something we have really lost. No longer can you hear the dawn chorus of birds. Even in the suburbs, it is nothing like it used to be; there were so many birds then that it was quite deafening.
It saddens me that few people ever see the stars at night. Although parts of London were so dimmed by the street lights that I could not see the sky, when I did see the stars, I was awed. The occasional meteorite was tremendously exciting. I could not help wondering what it was like out there and what was to be found in outer space. Of course, as a child, I never dreamed that in the future I would actually be involved in that kind of enterprise.
Things like that made life very different back in those days. There was far less in the way of material things, but much more of a feeling for nature and the w orld. You felt you were part of it. That more than made up for all the fancy things we now consider essential. Consequently, I do not worry about the loss of them should civilization collapse, as we would go back to a simpler and more natural lifestyle-assuming life endured.
Nature was a source of unending fascination and delight for me. I shared my father's instinctive kinship with all living things and enjoyed our relationship with the natural world during our walks through the countryside. I felt so strongly about being outdoors that I did not just dislike going to school-I loathed it. On a lovely day in the summer, being trapped indoors felt like being imprisoned. I was free to explore the countryside only in my imagination.
I lived in Brixton, a very rough part of London, equivalent then to Harlem in New York. Yet it had a wonderful public library where I learned most of my science. As a child, I would go there and get textbooks as well as fiction. Wade's Organic Chemistry was an early one that filled me with delight, and Dean's Astronomy and Cosmography was another. Of course, being so young, I did not understand half of it. But when you are inquisitive, any information soaks in like a sponge because the mind loves to be stimulated. Stuff went into readily accessible places to be retrieved later on in life.
Nobody was instructing me, so I roamed across the sciences. I was interested in them all and did not perceive them as being separate. I was fascinated by biology because I liked to go out and watch the small organisms: newts, frogs, snakes, insects, and birds. I wanted to know about them, so I read about biology as well as chemistry, physics, astronomy, and so on. There were no barriers; it was just one amazing universe.
It was so different from school, where the teaching of science is unbearably dull. Had I not stuffed my mind with it beforehand, I would never have taken any interest in it at all.
For children, there is no separation between knowledge and experience. Separation is something artificial that adults use to segregate subjects; it is like intellectual apartheid. When you are a child, all knowledge is interesting.
Outside, when I saw strange new things in nature, it was incredible. I remember seeing a pair of snakes, adders doing their dance. I did not know whether it was two males in a standoff or mates in a courtship ritual. They did circular dances on the ground and then suddenly came together, standing on their tails, looping around each other. It was just like the medical sign of the caduceus with intertwined snakes-the most wonderful sight. When I saw something amazing like that, I wanted to know more about it, so I went to the library to find out.
I also loved making things, even as a little boy. We used to travel by train in those days, and I was interested in how fast the train was going, so I made an airspeed indicator I could hold out the window to measure the speed of the train. I calibrated it using the second hand of my grandfather's watch to measure how long it took to go between mileposts along the track. If there was something to figure out, I would invent an instrument to do it, rather than ask someone. It always seemed like a great challenge. We had very little money, so I simply used whatever I could find and discovered I could make things out of just about anything. I used to ponder about being marooned on a desert island and making a radio with nothing but the vegetation and rocks. My father was like that; he was very inventive and could fix almost anything.
When I grew up to be an adult working in famous scientific institutions, if there was a question requiring an answer, there frequently was not the equipment available to ascertain the answer. Either we could not afford to buy it, or, as was more often the case, the equipment simply did not exist. There was nothing to do but invent it. Somebody once told me that inventions are exceedingly easy if you have a need; it is finding the need that is problematic. If you are a scientist, you always need to know something or other. It feeds back, because once you invent an instrument to make the measurement that leads to a new discovery, soon you will need a new instrument for that purpose and have to invent it.
I have more than fifty patents on my inventions, and I have been surprised by the scientific discoveries they have enabled. For example, one I invented in 1957, the electron-capture detector, is still among the most sensitive of chemical analytic methods in existence. It revealed for the first time the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment. This information enabled Rachel Carson to write her book Silent Spring, which initiated widespread awareness of disturbance in the environment and subsequently led to the formation of the environmental movement.
Later the same device enabled the discovery of PCBs in the environment. In 1971 I used it to determine the global distribution of chlorofluorocarbons, which are critical components in stratospheric ozone depletion. This evidence led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone. Most recently, the detector has made possible a system of atmospheric and oceanic tracer technology, enabling meteorologists to follow the movement of air masses. It is now being applied to ocean research.
My family was not prosperous, so there was no prospect of my being able to go to university. I knew I had to have a degree as a sort of union ticket to get into a laboratory and do science. Consequently, I went to work as a laboratory technician. That way I was able to work during the day and go to university in the evening. It was not discouraging, as only 1 percent of the population in Britain then was able to attend university anyway.
The firm I worked for was made up of true professionals. They would tackle almost any scientific problem within their area of specialization and anything to do with it. Chromatography covered a very wide range. The important lesson I learned from them was the necessity of doing science properly, never fudging or cheating in the least, even on little things.
I remember the boss telling me I was doing a difficult analysis, and if I got it wrong, to tell him, so we could do it together until I got it right. Getting it right was important because people's lives could depend on it. If we gave a wrong analysis, it could endanger people and ruin the firm. It impressed on me that science is a serious business, and I must get it right. In the year and a half I was with them, I too learned how to be a real professional.
When the opportunity of completing my degree became available, I went to the University of Manchester. Although it was a first-class science department, I was taught that it does not matter whether you comprehend the method or get results, as long as you understand what it is all about. That is the academic way. It dawned on me that students were being produced who were entirely unprofessional. They treated science almost as a business of passing examinations; it did not matter what you really did about it, whether it was right or not. In contrast, my work with the laboratory was a singularly formative time of having to do it right.
I left the firm because World War II broke out. In London the war was an incredible experience-bombs and rockets were exploding around us like fireworks! Yet I think people who stayed in London found it an inspiring experience. It was frightening, but it was not so damaging that it destroyed us all. It made you stop worrying about whether you could pay the rent next week, because you did not know whether you would be here. I can understand why people continue to live on the edge of volcanoes-it adds something to life.
During the war I worked at the National Institute for Medical Research. There were all sorts of problems, some of them related to the war: for instance, protecting troops against flash and flame. We devised quite a number of effective methods for that. There were also fearsome things such as working on the production of a vaccine to protect against a lethal virus expected to be encountered in Southeast Asia. It has a high mortality in people who are not used to it, so if you worked with it in the laboratory and caught it, you would die. It was extraordinary that in an institute in London, people were actually having to experiment with so deadly a virus. We had to help them devise methods to prevent the organism spreading and killing everyone. There was plenty of excitement.
As a youth my curiosity ranged over everything, including medicine and physiology, but there was no possibility of my family being able to afford my education for a medical degree, because it was too long and costly. So I was happy to get a job at the National Institute for Medical Research. While I was there doing work on cross-infection in hospitals, I obtained a Ph.D. in medicine. The doc-torate is for research, not medical practice. I worked in all sorts of divisions of the institute: virology, physiology, biochemistry, experimental biology, and many more. In the twenty years I was there, I covered most fields of medicine.
It was one of the best laboratories in the world. On the floor where I worked, my lab was shamed by being the only one not to win the Nobel Prize. That shows the scientific caliber of my colleagues along the corridor. In addition to the wonderful people, the working conditions were desirable. The chain of command was a bit like the Quaker church: all members were equal and responsible only to the director, who was a marvelous man. There were no set hours, and we were able to work on whatever we chose. I could not have had a better place to work.
Yet, strangely, I found tenure stifling. The thought of life going down a railway track, straight to the grave, horrified me. I could not stand that, and I knew I would have to leave, but there were two problems. First of all, it was too good to leave. Besides that, the people were so extraordinarily nice that I did not want to cause offense by leaving.
Having read science fiction all my life, I used to say that science is the business of reducing science fiction to practice. Quite out of the blue came a letter from the director of Space Operations at NASA, asking if I would join the Surveyor mission as an experimenter. I was invited because some of my inventions were just what they needed to analyze the lunar surface prior to the astronauts' landing. I was thus honorably able to leave the National Institute of Medical Research to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
As I was curious about the experiments to detect life on other planets, it was not long before I moved from the Moon Project to Life Detection on Mars. I was astonished at the low level of scientific activity going on in the biological side of the Mars Project. Eminent biologists who ought to have been taking part in the experiment were not interested. They were so obsessed with molecular biology and genetic evolution that they did not want to know about life. The discovery of DNA's double helix occurred at the Fitzer Institute when I was working there in Cambridge, so it was all part of our scene at the Institute for Medical Research.
It was such a stunning discovery that it shifted scientific focus from the big picture to the small. Scientists became intensely reductionist; they wanted to go down to the molecules and atoms to study life. It is an ultramicroscopic view. It assumes the whole is never more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, by taking things to pieces, we can figure out how they work. There is no looking outward toward life as a larger thing, a worldwide phenomenon. You need the physiological top-down approach as well as the microscopic bottom-up approach.
Science lacks wholeness of vision, so it is divided into separate expertises. The life sciences by their very nature necessitate synthesis, yet science is subdividing so rapidly that it is almost terrifying. At my last count, there were well over thirty different kinds of biologists, and they are all almost proud that they know nothing about the other branches of biology. Everyone is an expert in some specialized minutiae, so none of them talk to each other. With every year that goes by, new branches develop. Like those bifurcation diagrams in chaos theory, it is just going on into a complete miasma. This fragmentation is happening at a time when the need for synthesis is crucial.
As a result, the study of life itself is almost nonexistent. In order to study life, first you need to ask, "What is life?" Life is not even listed in the Dictionary of Biology; it is not defined. Once you know what you are looking for, then you have to ask, "How do you recognize it?" Unfortunately, we did not know the answer to that before we looked for it elsewhere.
There was a senior person at the Jet Propulsion Labs who was a nice but authoritarian man, whom people were a bit frightened of. One day, he called me into his office and asked, "What do you think of these life detection experiments?" I said I did not think much of them. Even if there were life on Mars, I thought there was a poor chance of finding it with the kind of equipment they were proposing to send. For the most part, scientists were just automating their own labs and sending them to Mars. That is not a good way of finding life somewhere else. I said so, and then he asked me what I would do. I replied that I would look for an entropy reduction on the whole planet. He laughed, saying that was a cop-out, because if the discovery of entropy reduction would indicate the presence of life, he needed to know how to do it. So I said, "Give me three days, and I will come back with an experiment for discovering entropy reduction."
I returned with the idea of analyzing the chemical composition of Mars's atmosphere. It was based on the premise that if there was life on Mars, it would be obliged to use the atmosphere as a source of raw materials and as a depository for wastes, thereby altering its atmosphere and disturbing its chemical equilibrium. In 1965 I had a little paper in Nature called "The Physical Basis of Life Detection" that proposed physical tests for the presence of planetary life. One was a top-down view of the whole planet, instead of a local search at the site of landing. Using it, an observer on a spacecraft beyond our solar system could recognize that Earth is the only planet in our system that has life.
My idea, when applied to what was known about Mars from infrared astronomy, suggested Mars was lifeless. Therefore it was not a popular experiment among scientists looking for life on Mars. NASA liked my approach, but the biologists did not. In the end, my experiment was never flown. The team thought they could get enough compositional analysis of Mars's atmosphere from a mass spectrometer attached to the Viking spacecraft. In fact, the instrument was too dedicated to analyzing the soil to look for life-characteristic substances.
NASA was tolerant even though I raised a lot of flak by saying that what they were doing was pointless. They easily could have fired me, but they did not. They kept me employed, mainly as an inventor. I continued working in Britain, traveling back and forth as a consultant. I still have two pieces of hardware sitting on Mars now, devices that enabled the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer experiment to work. I have three plaques from NASA in recognition of this, so apparently I was of some use to them, apart from ideas that were not exactly politically or financially advantageous for NASA.
The idea of "Gaia" was born in my mind in 1965 while I was at NASA in the Jet Propulsion Labs. It was a personal revelation, an idea that suddenly appeared like a flash of enlightenment. I was talking to Dian Hitchcock, an author-consultant there at the time, about the extreme difference between the atmospheres of Earth and Mars. As I was observing that Earth has such a reactive, unstable atmosphere, it suddenly dawned on me that an extremely unstable atmosphere could not stay constant unless something was regulating it. Somehow life keeps our atmosphere constant and favorable for organisms. Life on Earth not only created our atmosphere; it also regulates it.
The next morning, I discussed my idea with the man who shared my office, Carl Sagan. He did not think much of my idea but said there was one thing in favor of it: did I know the sun had warmed up by something like 25 percent since life had begun on Earth? Then I realized climate regulation might have occurred as well as regulation of biospheric chemistry. Although the sun's energy has increased 30 percent during the three and a half billion years life has existed on this planet, Earth's surface temperature has remained constant. According to standard physics, the planet's surface should have boiled in the rising heat, rather than cooling as it has.
Similarly, the chemical composition and concentration of gases in the atmosphere have remained stable. For example, the balance between oxygen and ammonia continues within the narrow range in which life can exist. Disastrous consequences would occur with minor shifts: an increase in oxygen of only 4 percent could ignite the entire atmosphere.
Life can exist only under limited circumstances, which have been actively maintained by necessity. Living organisms must regulate the atmosphere in order to survive. Examining our overall atmospheric stability, I realized it is created by the planet itself. The reason biospheric conditions on Earth are optimal for life is that they are an extension of the living systems on the planet.
When I first saw Gaia in my mind, I felt what an astronaut in space must have experienced seeing our home, Earth. I perceived Gaia as a single living entity consisting of Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and land. Its entirety constitutes a feedback system that creates optimal physical conditions for life on this planet. It is a totality endowed with qualities far beyond those of its constituent parts. It differs from other living organisms in the way we differ from the population of living cells in our bodies. Gaia is the largest of living systems-it is our superorganism.
In my estimation the greatest benefit from space research is not what we have learned about space; it is what we have learned about our own planet. For the first time in human history we have had a chance to look at Earth from space. That distant perspective revealed the planet as a whole, enabling us to see it as a single entity in which air, water, land, and life forms all combine as one. The photograph of Earth from space has become an icon.
In addition to the image of Earth itself, photographs of other planets give us a new perspective on Earth. Mars appears to be a dead and barren place. It is so obviously lifeless, it looks like a slightly worked-over lunar surface. I used to argue quite a lot with my friend Carl Sagan, who would say, "How do you know there isn't life hanging on in an oasis somewhere?"
I asserted, but never convinced him, that a planet could not have only sparse life. Life cannot exist in isolation. The planetary life system either takes charge of its chemistry and physics, whereby life flourishes, or the system degenerates into a state like that of Mars and Venus, and life is totally wiped out. Mars and Venus are permanently dead; they lack organic molecules and can never bear life.
When it was first formulated, Gaia was just a hypothesis: "Let us suppose." It got better when I joined with the eminent biologist Lynn Margulis and we worked together on it. But when we tried to have our papers published, scientific journals refused to publish them. Scientists regarded our hypothesis as "dangerous," so we encountered strong resistance to our ideas. It is scientific heresy to propose anything that could be interpreted as teleological, that might imply the possibility of foresight, planning, and purpose in nature. As a result, it remained a hypothesis until about 1980.
>From then on, it has become a theory, much more solid and sound, with quite a lot of supporting evidence for it. For example, if it were not for algae living in the ocean, there probably would be no clouds in the atmosphere, and our planet would be an enormously hotter place. The contribution of algal biochemistry to cloud formation is one of the geophysiological mechanisms involved in responsive climate regulation.
One discovery is based on a model I created in 1981 called Daisy World, which put Gaia on the theoretical map. The planet's climatic consistency is comparable to our body temperature remaining constant whether we are in a hot or cold environment. The temperature regulation of the planet operates similarly to our own. Physiologists have grown interested, and, to their great surprise, they have found that many of the physiological systems in our bodies that have puzzled them completely, such as the regulation of sugar in the blood by insulin, operate by a mathematical system very similar to my theoretical Daisy World.
The physiological system that regulates our own bodies is comparable to the one I postulated as regulating the whole planet. When the famous physiologist Walter Cannon came across the same thing in the human body, he named it homeostasis, the ability to regulate. He called it "the wisdom of the body." You might just as well say Gaia is "the wisdom of Earth."
It is perfectly natural that we should be similar to the planet on which we evolved. From the combined evolution of rocks, ocean, air, and organisms emerged the entity that is Gaia. Eventually we evolved within that entity. Organisms and their environment are so tightly coupled that they constitute a single system. This evolutionary system is an emergent domain of which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is emergent because the entire system working together has properties beyond a mere collection of its component parts.
The way I explain Gaia theory now is as an offshoot of Darwin's great vision. There is nothing in Gaia theory that is contrary to Darwin; it just extends Darwin's idea of the evolution of organisms to include the parallel evolution of the environment. The Darwinian view was that life adapts to the environment it finds. The Gaian perspective is that not only does life adapt to its environment, but it also adapts the environment to itself, creating a home conducive to life.
The planetary perspective that Gaia provides stresses the crucial relationship of the planet's condition to our own. If life contributes to creating the conditions for its survival, then enhancing living organisms improves our shared environment. Naturally, when an organism's functions are beneficial to the environment, it flourishes as its environment thrives. Conversely, destroying organisms diminishes the conditions enabling our survival too. Inevitably, any species adversely affecting its environment is doomed. When damage to the biosphere is global, then our collective organism, Gaia, is at risk.
Unfortunately, my hypothesis is deliberately distorted by those destroying life to exonerate their behavior. They use it to claim that their destructive actions do not matter because "Gaia will fix it." But life cannot repair itself when it is dead!
The irresponsibility of those who misuse science to misinform the public is a serious problem for society. Scientists are revolted by the misrepresentation of my theory by those with malign intent. But they also have difficulties with its more benign usage. For over a decade, I have been urged to have nothing to do with the philosophical implications of my theory.
In the introduction to The Ages of Gaia, I give an account of a meeting we held in Oxford. I gave a talk about the planetary self-regulation going on at the moment. Toward the end of the talk, I simply said, "So, you see, it looks as if Gaia likes it cold." It was just a convenient way of saying the system operates better when it is at a low temperature. Afterward, a friend warned me, "You should never say things like that. It really upset the scientists around me, who said, 'Oh, he's gone back to all that mystical stuff.' "
I have been under enormous pressure from scientists to be "scientifically correct" (which is just like being "politically correct"). Sci-entists are intolerant of my mentioning anything nonscientific regarding Gaia. It has prevented me from expressing anything philosophical, as I did in my first book. I am not changing what I said in that book; I stick with it. So I say the first book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, is for the general public. And the second book, The Ages of Gaia, has been completely expurgated to take all such references out of it, for scientists who will not accept them. It is a di-lemma. I have not departed from the general views expressed in my first book; but, speaking as a "scientist," I have had to turn aside from those views, or scientists will not listen to me.
I am an ordinary, old-fashioned, straight, hard scientist accused of being a mystic. When I was a student, I was asked if I had ever had a spiritual experience. I replied that living itself is a spiritual experience. A natural philosopher can be deeply spiritual; knowing the natural world intimately leads to a profound, loving relationship with it. People ask me about the philosophical implications of my theory, but I do not know. I think we live in a self-organizing universe. The formation of life was inevitable; it was not a chance accident. Gaia is a manifestation of life.
Which brings us to the question of whether life will continue to exist on this planet. If that is questionable, we have to ask, "What shall we do now?" I have pondered this an awful lot. I am not sure it is in our nature to do much. Most people just project this century into the next and get the same story as in the last: it might go on as it is, getting more polluted and more uncomfortable, but still livable.
On the other hand, I can think of lots of disasters that would change it totally. Natural disasters that did not matter as much one hundred years ago can now be devastating. To give a simple example, there is a volcano in Iceland that erupts every two hundred years, on average. When it erupted in 1783, it caused two years without any harvest in the Northern Hemisphere. In those days, there was only a fraction of the population there is now, some of whom could be fed on stored food. If the volcano erupted now, its effects would be devastating.
People do not want to think about that. They know the greenhouse effect is heating up the planet and terrible things are going to happen as a consequence, but they do not want to give up driving cars, because driving is convenient. Yet the ultimate effect of spewing noxious gases into the atmosphere is like sitting in a closed garage with the car engine running, asphyxiating from toxic air. We are polluting and poisoning the planet as well as ourselves.
People do not even do the simple things, like not eating fast-food burgers, which are made from beef raised on clearcut forest land. Rain forests are named so because forests are responsible for rain. Trees evapotranspire enormous volumes of water through their leaves, creating vapor clouds that condense moisture in the forest. Along with providing life-giving water, the cloud cover reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere, thereby cooling the climate. Without trees there is no rain. Without rain, the soil dies from erosion, and nothing grows.
Where humid tropical forests are being destroyed, soon there will be vast, arid deserts with mean temperatures of 120ˆ F. This desertified land will encircle the globe, severely altering the climate for billions of people starving in the tropics. It will also damage the climate of the entire planet by destroying its natural cooling and air-conditioning system, causing drought, flooding, and famine around the world. This scenario is inevitable if we continue cutting trees and suffocating ourselves with greenhouse gases.
There is a pervasive feeling of an ominous calm like that preceding a coming war or a tropical hurricane. We know what to expect from a hurricane, but we have no idea what is coming now. There will be surprising events that cannot be predicted. In addition to the gradual changes becoming apparent, a stressed system undergoes a sequence of abrupt events increasing in critical magnitude. We will rapidly approach the critical level of degradation of all Earth's natural ecosystems-when the whole system starts to collapse.
It appears from our present behavior that we will not do anything about our problems until something awful happens. It has often been said that the only thing that could pull people together is a threat from outside. If we were to react to our internally generated threat (the consequences of what we are doing, instead of aliens coming in and attacking us), maybe we could save ourselves. Unfortunately, we would rather blame and fight the other guy, so I think it is going to take some dreadful catastrophes before people cooperate.
We need a connection with something larger than ourselves. We have a collective identity, but it is not comprehensive enough. Most people are tribal: they identify with their own culture, religion, nation, or whatever. They do not care about their nation as long as they are all right. But when they perceive that it is under threat, it is amazing how unselfish they become. In wartime, they even give up their lives. It is remarkable.
How do we draw on that strength to make it global? There is no use in talking about the human race or the United Nations, because, although such a union is a good idea, it does not move people the way their tribe does. Even environmental problems are blamed on other nations and used to score points in national politics. Such tribal conflicts are as dangerous and self-defeating as scientific and religious fundamentalism. The global environment encompasses us all, regardless of ethnicity, race, or nationality.
Now, at the close of the twentieth century, there is little time left to remedy real problems affecting Earth. Confronted with global catastrophe, we can only hope there will be some new response in the human species. Environmental ignorance could be replaced with ecological awareness. We could shift our focus from short-term gain to long-term consequences. Instead of trying to manage the planet, we could manage ourselves.
Our thinking could change from being human-centered to planet-centered. We could learn to live with Earth as part of it, by humbly receiving and giving the gifts that sustain all of us who live on this planet. Gaia could be a way to view Earth, ourselves, and our relationship with living things. To me Earth is alive, and I am part of it. People could think of Earth in that sense-we all belong to Gaia.
James Lovelock. The Ages of Gaia. Norton, 1994.
---.Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, 1987.
Although this story is in the third person, Sherwood Rowland wrote it himself. He used the third person because he prefers not to express himself in the first person in print. This is not as unusual as it seems: in professional publications, scientists avoid the first person and subjective observations.
"The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world."
Sherry Rowland said these words wearily to his wife after a long day researching the effects of chlorofluorocarbons at the University California, Irvine. Just a few years before, as chair, he had created the university's new chemistry department, and the challenge had gone well. But Rowland was also a research scientist. While his spelty was radiochemistry, he felt it was important to move on to nething new every few years. So he resigned the chair, returned to position as chemistry professor, and eventually began studying orofluorocarbons. In 1974, Rowland sounded the alarm that these called harmless chemicals were eating a huge hole in the ozone shield high in Earth's atmosphere.
Chlorofluorocarbons (compounds containing the three elements chlorine, fluorine, and carbon) had been developed in 1930 as a recement for sulfur dioxide and ammonia, refrigerants known to corrosive and toxic. They also smelled. In the old days, sulfur dioxide and ammonia were okay if they stayed in a refrigerator loop, but when that leaked they had an odor you didn't want in your kitchen.
In comparison, the CFCs, trademarked as Freons by the DuPont company, were considered safe, inert, and odorless. To prove their harmlessness, Thomas Midgley, the research engineer who developed CFCs, inhaled a lungful of CFC-12 and blew out a candle during a press conference.
In the beginning, CFC-II and CFC-12 went into refrigerators and air-conditioners. Later on, these chemicals were used in aerosol propellants and plastic foams and as solvents in the semiconductor industry. A huge amount, nearly a megaton a year, was being produced by 1973. Most of these CFCs were escaping into the air via aerosol sprays or leaking out from refrigerators and air-conditioners. But at the time no one was tracking their effects in the atmosphere.
In 1972, Rowland attended a meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the invitation of William Marlowe, an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) executive he had met on a trip to a scientific meeting in Austria in 1970. The AEC, seeking to stimulate more interaction between chemists and meteorologists, had started a series of joint workshops.
At the Fort Lauderdale meeting, Rowland heard a presentation that intrigued him. A colleague talked about the observations of James Lovelock, a British scientist who invented the electron-capture gas chromatograph. The instrument detected small amounts of trace gases in the atmosphere. Wherever Lovelock set up his chromatograph, CFC-II was present.
"We knew that the chlorofluorocarbons are simple molecules designed to be very nonreactive chemically. But even inert molecules can react under some conditions. My thought was, 'Let's see what we can find,' " explained Rowland of his initial decision to investigate chlorofluorocarbons. "Do we know enough about their chemical behavior to predict their fate in the atmosphere?"
The question was basically one of curiosity about how the world works. In retrospect, the main advance was to get out of the lab and into the real world by following a molecule from its release into the atmosphere to its eventual destruction many years later. No one had ever done that before with CFCs.
In 1973, Rowland approached the Atomic Energy Commission, which had funded his research since 1956, for additional support to study chlorofluorocarbons. At the same time, Mario Molina, a Mexcan chemist who had been educated in Europe and Mexico and had just completed his Ph.D. at Berkeley, arrived at Irvine to join the Rowland research group. Given a choice of research projects, Molina chose to look for the eventual fate of the CFCs.
Initially, there were no complicated experiments. Rowland and Molina pulled together information from other research. "In principle it was all there, but scattered all over—information about chemical behavior, industrial usage of CFCs, plus the chemistry and meteorology of the stratosphere," Rowland said of their findings. We used known information in the lab." But the questions they asked were key. How long did the CFC molecule last in the sphere? And what did it do there?
They found that the CFC molecule did not break up in a few days or even weeks; it lasted several decades or more, long enough to drift into the stratosphere, eight to thirty miles above Earth's surface. Some CFCs, they estimated, could last 150 years. On rising to the middle of the stratosphere, CFCs encounter ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This ultraviolet radiation can be absorbed by stratospheric ozone, and one of it penetrates to altitudes below fifteen miles. However, at altides of eighteen to twenty miles, the CFC molecules are split by the traviolet radiation, releasing chlorine atoms.
Rowland and Molina's next quest was to see what happened to the CFC fragments released by the ultraviolet radiation. Ozone formation and its destruction were naturally occurring processes that had always been balanced. Now, with CFC molecules breaking down and releasing chlorine atoms, a major source of chlorine had gathered in the upper atmosphere, throwing off that balance. Ozone was removed faster than by natural processes alone, and less remained. The one layer was thinning.
What troubled the researchers was that one chlorine atom destroyed one ozone molecule a minute, without itself being destroyed. What's more, the chlorine atom remained in the stratosphere for a year. Only when the chlorine diffused into the lower atmosphere did the cycle stop. Imagine the destruction with almost a megaton of chlorofluorocarbons being produced annually.
That's when Rowland made the comment to his wife, Joan. Without that protective ozone shield, life as we know it would change drastically. Radiation from the sun would increase, not only causing skin cancer and cataracts in humans but affecting animals as well, and precipitating changes in the human immune system that could make us sick.
In January 1974, Rowland and Molina sent a paper to the journal Nature
, which did not appear until June because of personnel problems at the journal. Not until September, when the American Chemical Society had its semiannual meeting and held a press conference, did the press pick up on their discovery. Rowland and Molina predicted an eventual depletion of the ozone layer of 7 to 13 percent.
By that time, working with NASA support, Ralph Cicerone and Richard Stolarski, who had earlier worked out the stratospheric chlorine reaction, now confirmed that a chlorine chain reaction from the CFCs was occurring in the atmosphere.
It is tough to blow the whistle on a $2-billion-a-year industry, even when you are a well-respected chemist. Rowland and Molina's discoveries were based on research and chemical calculations that they felt without question to be correct. The National Academy of Sciences formed a five-member panel, which included Rowland, to decide whether the ozone problem was serious enough for a full-scale investigation.
But DuPont was a formidable company to be up against, and they were not going to give up their profitable product without a fight. They began mobilizing. One DuPont executive who visited Rowland told him he seemed to be an "environmental do-gooder."
"We said two important things about the CFCs," recalled Rowland of his research. "One, CFCs would last for a very long time, long enough to reach the stratosphere; and two, once there they would fall apart. But would they all really last for decades in the lower atmosphere? We wanted to test how rapidly they accumulated. You have to have measurements around the world, and we started doing that in 1977."
Rowland used a stainless-steel, two-liter canister with a valve through which all the air could be removed in the laboratory. Then he took the canister to a remote location, filled it with air, and headed back to the lab to measure the amounts of CFCs. "We needed a wide variety of latitudes and remote locations. At that time, we were not really funded to do this. So the collections were tacked onto other trips." If Rowland needed samples from Alaska, he arranged a stopover there on a scientific trip scheduled to Oregon. Or he flew to the West Indies on the way to a conference in Florida. That gave us enough of a geographical spread," he remembers of taking the samples. Fifteen years later, when Rowland's research was expanded, four thousand samples were taken in a two-month period from aircraft.
The next few years were a roller coaster of acceptance, legislation enforcing a ban, then skepticism, political indifference, and no regulation. In 1975 a government committee wrote a strong report suporting the prediction of a 7 percent ozone depletion. In 1976 there was thought to be a flaw in Rowland and Molina's theory—a frustrating, worrisome time. (Their original predictions held up.) In 1978 CFCs were banned in aerosol spray cans in the United States and three other countries, but their use was not banned at all in air-conditioners and refrigerators.
When the Rowlands' son was badly hurt in an auto accident in San Diego that same year, they moved there. Rowland worked as a hospital orderly to be near his son until he was well enough to come home. Except for the five months spent there, he persisted with the CFC issue.
What kind of childhood did Rowland have that lay the groundwork for this resolve? He grew up in Delaware, Ohio. His father was a math professor, and his mother had been a Latin teacher until her arriage. He started school at five, then skipped fourth grade, so that most students in his class were two and a half years older than he was. [When that happens, he remembers, "you live by yourself in some respects." His father gave him math problems often and Rowland found that numerical math came easily to him.
He grew up during World War II and liked to build model warships. He and other teenagers played a popular war game with their models, one that emphasized strategies. "The game was written about in Life
magazine," he recalled. At fifteen, as a senior, he got permission to use the high school gym for a naval war battle with other students. It was a small town and a different time. That was also around the time Rowland experienced his growth spurt and became very athletic. He loved sports, and eventually he played semiprofessional base-ball, managed a team, and played basketball in college.
Apparently his early fascination with solving problems helped him with his research. In 1985 the seriousness of his findings on CFCs was supported yet again when the British Antarctic Survey published a report showing a 40 percent depletion of stratospheric ozone over Antarctica. Three expeditions were funded by the United States to Antarctica so that detailed measurements could be taken on the ground and from aircraft. In 1988 NASA reported not only that the Antarctic ozone loss was caused by chlorofluorocarbons but also that ozone loss could be seen at all latitudes, including over the United States.
The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, a United Nations agreement designed to reduce CFC consumption by 50 percent by 1999, was signed by twenty-four nations in 1987. DuPont announced it would phase out the production of CFCs the following year.
With all the ups and downs, Rowland remained calm and persistent, even when President Reagan's first Environmental Protection Agency chief referred to Rowland's work as a scare tactic. The one time he got angry was when a well-known news show asked him to talk about CFCs right after DuPont announced it would stop CFC manufacture. Rowland agreed to do the show. The news show producers then contacted DuPont and asked if a company representative would appear with Rowland. DuPont would only appear, said a company spokesperson, without Rowland. Rowland was bounced.
In 1995, Rowland and Molina were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery that chlorofluorocarbon gases were depleting the ozone layer in the stratosphere. Rowland was typically low-key about the honor. (Rumor has it that the morning the Swedish committee called when tell him he was a Nobel Prize winner, he did get excited.)
In spite of all the scientific facts, satellite photos, and the affirmation on of the Nobel Prize, disbelief still exists that ozone depletion is caused by CFCs and that it is a serious problem. "Many people just believe what they want to believe. Nevertheless, anyone can now follow on the Internet the startling loss of ozone that occurs over Antarctica every September. It hasn't stopped," he says simply. And Rowland, still at work, hasn't stopped his research.