A Change of Mindset is Needed in Our Management of the Earth
Human society needs a change of collective mind-set in relation to the Earth, because it is on an unsustainable path in a world of limited resources. I am sure you are all familiar in broad outline with where we are and how we got there. The discovery of fossil fuels gave us (briefly in geological time) vastly increased energy supplies and wealth, and this has led to both a rapid growth in the human population and in the human consumption of natural resources. The industrial world quickly developed a very human-centered mind-set based on economic and consumer growth; while medical and scientific advances and fossil-fuel based agriculture led to rapid population growth. We quickly lost our social appreciation for the Earth’s ecosystem of which we are a dependent part. We now face accelerating climate change, driven by the waste streams of our industrial society. We must deepen our collective understanding of the Earth’s water and carbon cycles that are intimately connected to life. Humanity has a collective responsibility for the future of the Earth, but since much of the natural Earth system is beyond our control, all we can really do is efficiently manage our use of resources and waste streams.
The public scientist, climate change and a holistic world view
I have worked as a researcher in weather and climate for forty years. There is a long tradition that science will lose its integrity, if scientists stray into the domain of public policy. This doctrine is comfortable for scientists, because it limits their sense of personal responsibility to their technical field of expertise. It can be comfortable for those in the policy arena, because science often presents an uncomfortable reality to entrenched ideologies. Now global climate change, which directly involves the interaction of human population, industrial production and economic policy with the Earth system, presents a direct challenge to this paradigm. Our human civilization is dependent on ecosystem services, and these are dependent in turn on the climate. The circle became closed once greenhouse gases from global industrial society began to shift the global climate to a new warmer state with greater extremes, with a dramatic long-term impact on the Earth’s ecosystem. A new holistic vision is needed which draws on expertise across all societies, if we are to move towards true global sustainability.
Responsibility of scientists to the Earth and to the public
When I was elected (2005-2007) as President of the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering, I walked the line between science and policy, trying to help Vermont understand the scientific picture of global climate change and its impacts on this small northern state. This is a matter of scientific ethics: to present the uncomfortable reality of a complex earth system, whose stability is now threatened by human industrial society. Scientists have a responsibility to communicate clearly to the public, not just to their colleagues.
Without a much deeper understanding of climate change and the Earth system, citizens cannot see the need for change, so they cannot support governments when they have to make difficult decisions to move away from ‘business as usual’. It is also true that science and society are interwoven. Money for scientific research comes from society, and with it comes an obligation to share what we learn with society. But scientists have the responsibility to both humanity and the Earth to look deeper than society’s agendas, and tell the truth as far as we know it, in all its richness and complexity.
A new value system
Humanity needs to recover a value system for balancing human interests with the needs of non-human life and the stability of the Earth system. Science and technology has given us enormous power, but this must be used wisely.
Because humanity is an integral part of the Earth system, we do not have the freedom to do what we wish, whatever our political, economic or theological doctrine. We have to learn to work with the Earth, rather than be guided only by our human-centered arrogance. Given the large Earth system lags, it would be wise if we learn sooner rather than later.