Catching Our Balance

pink flower petals

"Bleeding Heart" was created by Gerald Lang and Jennifer Tucker, in the Penn State Digital Photography Studio, which is supported by Apple Computer, Calumet Photographic, Eastman Kodak, Megavision, M&T Bank, Joe and Sue Paterno, Photographic Supply, and Rockwell Foundation.

Boil the last two decades of "very intense" research in Earth science into two key insights, said Robert Corell, and you come up with these. First, everything fits together. That is, our home planet, in all its yet-unplumbed complexity, is a single, interactive, interconnected system, with no extra parts. Second, we humans are an integral component of that system.

"We have had a way of talking about the Earth as everything else plus us," said Corell, a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and the first speaker in this year's Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science. "The early research programs were built that way. But the fact is we're in the system, the same way that trees and plant life in the ocean are in the system."

There's a corollary. Our presence, after long millennia in which we signified no more than an army of gnats camped on an elephant, is now affecting the system in important ways.

Corell showed a transparency displaying a global record of carbon dioxide concentration and temperature over the last thousand years. The picture was familiar. Two lines running roughly level across the bottom of the page until about 1750, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, then spiking dramatically to the top: carbon dioxide first, with temperature in hot pursuit.

Then a second image, less familiar: the same two variables over 400,000 years. The Ice Ages here looked like teeth on a saw. Evenly spaced, roughly identical, until at the far end, winding up at the present, was a very narrow tooth indeed. "You can see that a lot is happening at our end," Corell said. "In this roughly two hundred years, from 1800 to 2000, we have done what it takes planet Earth 150,000 years to do without us. We're talking about major change."

And not just in Earth's climate. A third transparency listed a variety of current "global threats," Corell said, "things that are likely to change the way the planet functions. These are all things you've read in the newspaper. Everything from climate to ozone to how we use our land to biodiversity to human health."

In all these areas, human activities—and compellingly, human needs—are starting to bump up against planetary limits. And the pressure is only increasing. "Population is rising, urbanization is increasing at an unbelievable rate, and poverty and hunger in these urban areas is going up, not down," Corell said. "Also there are changing patterns of land use. We're rapidly depleting this very important resource." Trying to meet basic needs, in short, is putting more and more strain on Earth's resources. And where basic needs are being met, overconsumption is the rule.

Corell, an oceanographer and engineer and a former assistant director of the National Science Foundation, framed the resulting challenge as a question. "How do we feed, nurture, house, educate and employ the world's growing human population while conserving Earth's basic life support systems and biodiversity?" It can be done, he suggested. But in order to do it, humans will have to alter their present course. Not all at once, maybe, but starting right now. "There has to be a transition toward sustainability."

The term is not a new one. "For our purposes," Corell said, "sustainability was defined 20 years ago," by the U.N.'s Brundtland Commission. "It's a stewardship idea. And it has nested in it some ethical and moral issues. What is to be sustained? Over what time period? How?"

To address these questions, Corell argued, will require a new approach to research. A blueprint for that approach, he said, is present in Our Common Journey, the report published by the National Research Council in 1999.

Sustainability science, Corell said, "is not a new science, but a new framework, for a science more integrally linked to the society in which we reside.

"The challenges we face require that we do more than extend current approaches. We will need to develop focused programs aimed at solving practical problems, like how to accommodate rapid urbanization in Nigeria and Brazil, or how to reverse the decline of agriculture in the Sahel region." To create such programs will require "not just crossing disciplines but engaging new disciplines, and even going beyond the science community to find new partners for the co-production of knowledge."

It also means conducting more of what Corell called "place-based" research. "Over the past 20 years," he explained, "we've learned a lot about how the planet behaves on average. But that kind of knowledge has its limits as far as guiding public policy. We need better understanding at the local level. Because we already know that the planet behaves in patchy ways." Alaska, for example where Corell is involved in a multi-year study, has felt a two to three degree C rise in average temperature over the last30 years, "while northern Sweden, over the same period, has seen no change."

Social and geopolitical conditions are at least as varied as climatic ones. "Very different issues have prominence in the United States and Nigeria and Thailand," Corell said. And all of these things are interrelated.

A primary goal of sustainability science is to better understand those complicated relationships, thereby avoiding surprises. The recently discovered ozone hole over Antarctica, for example, "caught us by surprise. In retrospect, we probably could have predicted it, but we weren't smart enough to put the atmospheric chemistry together with the light systems that had developed in the Antarctic as a consequence of the tilting of the planet," Corell said.

"And we're going to see more of these surprises. The system is full of unresolved uncertainties. The planet doesn't change nice and smoothly. There are all kinds of non-linearities"— hidden "switches" in the system where small changes can result in "exponential behavior," he said. One such switch controls the great ocean circulation belt that regulates global temperature. Another mediates the interplay between global warming and the spread of tropical diseases like dengue fever and malaria into zones previously protected by winter freezes.

The latter example demonstrates, once again, the essential interconnectedness of global scale problems, which cross not only disciplines of study but geopolitical boundaries. The dire problems facing developing countries are very different than those developed countries face. But these problems, increasingly, have global implications. And in some cases they have their origins in the developed countries.

"One of the tensions that arises is that between national and international interests," Corell said. Regional problems will require regional solutions. But some regions lack the resources even to study these problems, let alone solve them. "I have a colleague who has a two-year-old mass spectrometer that he hasn't taken out of the box because he has no power to run it.

"Developing countries are in real deep trouble with regard to intellectual infrastructure," Corell said. "The foreign-aid money that once built universities and other facilities has been shut down. The U.S. today invests one-fourth as much in foreign aid as it did 20 years ago—0.8 percent of the GDP."

Achieving the right balance, he said, "is not an easy game. It requires trade-offs. But if we can adopt a more integrated perspective, we will make better decisions." The research community, Corell stressed, must be more involved in the making of those decisions. "There's a growing social demand. Society is asking us to be more involved.

"It will increasingly fall on us to bring the debate over the decisions that will shape a sustainable future," he concluded. "Not just to produce the necessary knowledge, as we have traditionally done, but to work with other players to ensure that that knowledge is transformed into action.

"If we don't take the positive steps, it's not going to happen."

Robert W. Corell, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the atmospheric policy program of the American Meteorological Society and a senior research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. Until January 2000, he was assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation, where he had oversight of atmospheric, earth, and ocean sciences and for global-change programs. Corell also served as the chair of the National Science and Technology Council's committee that has oversight of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Last Updated May 01, 2002