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Dr. Peter Raven Comments on Global Change

The following brief excerpts are from Dr. Peter Raven. His speech was given in February 2002 at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS; the President's address to the society). In describing global changes observed in recent time, Dr. Raven describes a world in decline.

From Dr. Raven's speech we hear ...

... he first observes that we are going to either accept the challenges stemming from global change and thus actively respond or the alternative is that humanity takes note but then returns to business as usual—without doing anything in the face of change.

To review how we got to this point, Dr. Raven gave a time based account of population growth on earth. After all, the number of humans on earth has a direct bearing on consumption and the demands humanity puts on natural resources.

He notes that over the course of some 400 generations, from the time when humans began to cultivate crops, the earth’s human population grew from several million people to approximately 7 billion today (population reached by 2012).

The constant intense interactions that the 6.1 billion of us have with the world today have no counterparts in the past. But is undoubtedly true that since we are only 400 generations away from a hunter-gatherer mode of surviving…[the ways of the past were only appropriate for that time]… so how can we find new ways of thinking that will serve us into the future?

A little over 200 years ago the planet’s population reached 1 billion. With this growth and into the 19th and 20th centuries humanity survived and flourished by using wood, then coal and later gas (petroleum and natural gas) resources. The fossil fuels were then as now used for manufacturing and to make pesticides and herbicides. For food production and thus for our survival we presently use pesticides at a rate of some 3 million metric tons per year. Humanity has learned how to make the nitrogen (as fertilizers) that are now poisoning the earth and its waters.

Presently the world’s total cultivated agricultural lands have grown to the size of South America.

And the range lands on which some 180 million of us raise 3.3 billion cattle, sheep, and goats have come to occupy about a fifth of the world’s land. Although those lands are rapidly deteriorating under the increasing human hunger for animal protein. About two-thirds of the world’s fisheries are being harvested beyond sustainability. And over the last half century we’ve lost about a fifth of our top soil, about a fifth of our agricultural land, about a fifth of our forests… we are changing the characteristics of the atmosphere by pouring out vast amounts of carbon dioxide and by depleting the stratospheric ozone layer… so that habitats throughout the world have been decimated while everywhere populations of alien invasive plants and animals have invaded natural and cultivated habitats at great cost to the global system.

The most serious environmental change, however, is completely irreversible and has the most serious consequences for us over the long run is the loss of biodiversity ... which has risen from what we can interpret by the fossil record of the past 55 million years at the extinction of about one species per million [species] per year …to about 100 to 1,000 species per million per year. And it’s increasing with enormous rapidity.

At current rates, Dr. Raven notes that only about 5% of tropical moist forests will survive to the middle of the coming century. In general, by present trends, we will see a coming extinction of about two-thirds of all living species unless humans take steps to preserve the biodiversity of today. And this projection does not take into consideration the impact of continued climate change, pollution, or the destructive influence of alien invasive species. All total this creates a picture of an extinction event that rivals that at the end of the Cretaceous period… but in this case this is an event driven by ourselves.

Dr. Raven’s speech continues from these remarks. His role after all is to provide motivation for the society’s annual meeting. Yet, that motivation seems to focus on a world that has changed in a mere instance of geological time, driven by humans, with irreversible consequences that cannot go on unaddressed. But how and who will come to save humanity from its present plight is not a new question.

Within WindowView we consider both the role of stewardship of the human and divine kind. Still, in considering the talks and symposia presented at scientific meetings much like 2002 annual meeting for AAAS, we still see humans talking about humanity saving the planet and itself. And still humanity moves on as if the problems can wait.

Ten years before, at the Sigma Xi forum in 1991, you could hear Dr. Raven give a presentation that echoes virtually every theme he touched on in 2002. If his projections are correct, and certainly there are many more problems to this than mentioned here, where will we find ourselves in ten years?

This has to be comprehended as a matrix of interlinked events. Change is not simple, nor from one source alone. In spite of some efforts by world leaders and organizations, in comprehensive material terms, there is no present effective counter force. Convergence here brings a picture of decline to the crossroads of time future. Dr. Raven noted that scientists and humanity as a whole can continue to strive for developing sustainable practices.

Sustainability then holds hope for reversing the decline. But science has yet to fully define the means to achieve sustainability! Even so, will sustainable practice even then hold the capacity to save the earth and biodiversity? Dr. Raven's most insightful remarks focus on the fact that sustainability indeed will 'kick in' but only at some point along the line of future decline. What point of global decline will we be at before sustainability serves to wholly reverse the trends we now see? No one knows! We are not even guaranteed that sustainable practices will ever provide full counter measures!

In truly professional fashion, Dr. Raven cited examples of scientific, government, and leadership cooperation that can make a difference in the future. Yet, with this motivational language ringing through the conference center—couched in hopeful terms—the reality of change still looms large over the face of the entire earth.

The one conclusion that can be made is that there has never, ever, been a set of circumstances like this. Might we one day be finding ourselves holding to life resources on this planet by our fingernails? We could delve into anyone of a number of horrible scenarios, but here we only reflect on all this as a sign of our times. We've been told these signs will come and that we will not recognize these for what they are. So, if humans cannot heed such signs, then certainly the crossroads ahead will only be characterized in troubling terms. And if 'we cannot save ourselves,’ then who will?

WindowView Director's Note: The "Creator's Window" was initiated as a writing project over a decade ago. The compelling presentations at a forum hosted by one scientific society, Sigma Xi, indicated global change was a complex problem that cut across all disciplines. Not one science or sector of society could be excluded from the anticipated effort needed to find solutions. If change is a sign of our times, then how much time is left for meaningful responses? And if we've passed some or many points of no return, what will the state of our planet be tomorrow? Time will tell.

The importance to global change is in looking at how social, biological, and physical sciences all reveal data and signs for more ominous changes in the near future. This is change in every aspect of human and earthly affairs ... globally. The Window looks further to see change as a backdrop to a biblical timeline. Driving forces for change force us to ask the most important questions about our true origin, who we are, why we are here, and what the Scriptures tell us about the future. Change forces us to look deeper to face choice or crisis. Life is an opportunity to look for the answers.

This is just one of many panes in the WindowView. This is a fraction of the process identified earlier within the section entitled 'Convergence.' Keep exploring the view, visit our page titled 'Experience WindowView' to see how global changes are part of a larger holistic paradigm which is the reason behind assembling this cyber-place. Putting the picture together helps to envision humanity's direction along the dimension of time.

A copy of this text with footnotes and a complete listing of references used in writing this text can be obtained by downloading the chapters and reference list for the Creator's Window. References that appear as ''(SXi #)'' signify the page number from Sigma Xi's publication related to a 1991 forum on global change (see reference list for the Creator's Window for a complete citation of this work).

References from Sigma Xi refer to the Sigma Xi Forum Proceedings: Global Change and the Human Prospect: Issues in Population, Science, Technology and Equity, November 1991. The importance of this science society's forum is that the meeting was forward looking and demonstrates how scientists from social, biological, and physical sciences all saw change on the rise. Not just climate change, but change in every aspect of human and earth affairs ... globally.

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