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Environment Magazine September/October 2008



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Editorial - Celebrating 50 Years

Five decades ago, Environment was born out of the need for scientists and citizens to exchange information necessary for human health and well-being—and possibly even survival. From 28 May to 7 October 1957, the U.S. Department of Defense detonated 24 atmospheric nuclear weapons, the largest blasting with the devastating power of 74 kilotons of TNT, five times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was still six years in the future, and the United States and Soviet Union were busily competing in aboveground nuclear tests.

That same year, American chemist and pacifist Linus Pauling wrote a petition to the United Nations, signed by 11,021 scientists, urging that “an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs be made now.” Also in 1957, the report “The Integrity of Science,” was published in American Scientist by the Committee on Science in the Promotion of Human Welfare of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among other things, the report called for the scientific community to better communicate its knowledge to the public to enable more informed decisionmaking. The committee was first chaired by biologist and activist Barry Commoner and then by the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead.

These events prompted the formation in 1958 of the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, a coalition of local scientists and political activists, including Commoner (then at Washington University).  They began publishing a mimeographed sheet, Nuclear Information, which eventually evolved into Environment. The St. Louis Committee and its publication were perhaps best known for the Baby Tooth Survey, one of the first efforts to communicate socially relevant scientific information to the general public.

The survey was based on the premise that the amount of Strontium 90—a major component of radioactive fallout that replaces calcium as teeth form—would accurately indicate human exposure to such fallout. The committee ultimately collected more than 70,000 teeth, each labeled with detailed demographic information about the donor. A smaller sample revealed a dramatic increase in the exposure of children to Strontium 90.

The results of the survey were published in a series of articles in Nuclear Information, ending in 1963. That year, after heated negotiations and much controversy (such as why the treaty had to be “limited”), the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the United States and Soviet Union was signed, forbidding aboveground tests, but allowing underground ones. When the treaty passed the U.S. Senate on 24 September 1963, by a vote of 80 to 19, one senator was heard to remark, “My constituents who wrote in knew how to spell Strontium 90.”

The following year, Nuclear Information became Science and Citizen, recognizing the vital need for scientists and citizens to share information. One of the hallmarks of the magazine was the translation of the opaque language of science into terms the layperson could understand. Virginia Brodine, the magazine’s editor, constantly voiced frustration over the inability of scientists to communicate their findings clearly to the public.

In 1968, Science and Citizen became Environment, more accurately reflecting the magazine’s expanding reach. Nuclear fallout was a subset of a larger problem of environmental degradation; human activities were having an impact on environmental qualities that in turn seriously affected human health. Assisted by a significant grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the magazine quickly became known as a vital source of important, timely, and cutting-edge environmental information.

Environment was the first to publish the now-famous I=PAT equation, which describes the multiplying environmental impact (I) of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T) (“The Causes of Pollution,” April 1971), and pioneered coverage of widespread mercury and cadmium pollution (special issues in May and September 1971); lead contamination of evaporated milk, widely used in baby formula (“Canned Milk,” March 1973); the effects of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer (“Earth’s Endangered Ozone Layer,” April 1978); and hazards, risks, and their management (“Our Hazardous Environment,” September 1978 and “Rating the Risks,” April 1979). In the 1990s, the magazine began to focus on more interconnected and global problems like climate change, food security, biodiversity, and energy. With the turn of the millennium, it began publishing articles at the forefront of sustainability science, perhaps best articulated in “What Is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice” (April 2005).

Although Environment has shifted focus, design, and ownership over the years, it has remained committed to the goal expressed 51 years ago by Commoner and his colleagues in American Scientist: to provide socially relevant—and readable—scientific information so the public can make informed decisions at the voting booth, in the workplace, and at home.

Tracking Environment’s Contributions

Within the pages of Environment’s half century of existence, we can identify five major periods. These periods reflect the changing nature of environmental science; its increasing policy significance; advances in measuring, predicting, and evaluating environmental systems; and the growing recognition that caring for the planet has to involve caring for humanity.

The five periods are:
The emergence of the mainstream environmental movement across the globe in the 1960s, emphasizing conservation, pollution, and toxicity control. This first wave was met with a mixed reception among the poor nations, where the dominant concerns were about development, the spread of opportunity, and investment in resource extraction.

The sequence of United Nations conferences in Stockholm (1972), Rio de Janeiro (1992), and Johannesburg (2002) that set the sustainability agenda and international environmental agreements. These agreements paved the way for considering environmental quality as a human right and redressing of social injustices borne from resource use and exploitation.

In the 1980s, the growing recognition that maintaining environmental quality and ecosystem services is vital to human survival. This period also brought a growing emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to measurement and valuation and a mix of responses, partly economic and partly ethical and moral.

In the 1990s, the emergence of blue-ribbon science commissions and global networks of scientists. This development, exemplified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, was assisted immeasurably by the Internet and also supported by national and international science committees and national governments.

In the 2000s, the rise of “sustainability” to the top levels of international politics. The recent emergence of economic recession in the developed nations, with inflation knocking on the door of the emerging economies, plus “peaks” of oil and other natural resources, have now also made sustainability central to security (including terrorism and forced economic migration).

Over these five decades, Environment has led and promoted scientific analysis and opinion in the cause of a better world. In the early days, it rightly concentrated on issues of peace and health, as these are vital for the betterment of all peoples. It then championed the integration of science and modeling in the cause of better decisionmaking and more rounded assessment of future outcomes. The work of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis on acid rain modeling in Europe, highlighted in a 1987 Environment series, is an outstanding example. Today, integrated assessments are turning into comprehensive sustainability assessments, and becoming rooted in dialogue with critical interested parties. The challenge is to find appropriate measures of trends and outcomes, to recognize the role of social justice, and to creatively interpret the implications of the uncertain future before us.

Environment is now focused on the world of sustainability science. This emerging form of science as both dialogue and guidance in the transition to sustainability has been recognized in a special section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of United States of America and in new centers of excellence in sustainability science in the United States, Europe, and the developing world.

What’s Next?

The world is possibly facing a series of abrupt changes in its capacity to maintain life-support systems for many of its human and nonhuman inhabitants. Earth systems science is beginning to portray a series of outcomes that could prove extremely dangerous to current and future citizens of our planet. At the same time, we are confronted with critical human challenges, such as how to govern for a sustainable world, ground development in human rights and justice, share the gifts of nature across all peoples, and create new patterns of democracy, forming a more creative and virtuous partnership between citizens and their governments. Meeting these challenges will require a shift in our core values and beliefs about what it means to be successful, happy human beings. In the immediate term, attention must go to the dilemmas over food security, energy availability, sustaining natural resources and biodiversity, and coping with migration and insecurity the world over—noting, as an article on biofuels in our November 2007 issue did, how such problems often intersect. Environment will continue its tradition of melding disciplines to be at the forefront of defining these challenges of the day.

While maintaining its excellent tradition of publishing leading scientific and policy analyses, Environment will also increasingly focus on the moral and ethical dimensions of sustainability and a deeper sense of spiritual connectedness to the only planet we inhabit. Indeed, making the Earth habitable for all of its peoples and species, already born and yet to be born, is the ultimate test of our humanity. There will be critical assessments of governance, political institutions, social justice, markets and business, education and citizenship, culture and values, demography and migration, and the need to enhance human and planetary health. The task is to combine art with science, storytelling with credible scenarios, institutions that think and feel, and forms of governing that enable us to come to terms with our bounded planetary home, while supporting the incredible human capacity to understand, care, and act for the common good.

—Susan L. Cutter, Ruth S. DeFries, Anthony A. Leiserowitz,  Alan H. McGowan, and Timothy O’Riordan

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