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The New Century and Millennium: Are We Ready?

With this issue of American Scientist we turn a page on the millennium calendar. Some people fervently expected the end of the world a year ago and waited up late for a "rapture" that never arrived. As we mark the actual turn of the millennium, I personally think we have more important things to do—for there is much to put right in the house of humanity.

We citizens of the earth have made spectacular progress, especially over the last century, in improving our lot by using the extraordinary capabilities bestowed upon us. Through science and technology we've achieved better health and more creature comforts for people than could have been imagined earlier in the millennium. And the rate of scientific discovery and technological invention continues at a dizzying pace.

When things seem to be going along swimmingly, that's a very important time to step back and ponder our status and outlook. I hope that Sigma Xi members will set aside at least a few hours as the new century is launched to turn their focus from the present moment. It's a good time to reflect on where we've traveled over these past 100 years and speculate on the challenges and opportunities of the coming century.

In my own preliminary musings I've concluded that it will probably be a Dickens-like century: simultaneously "the best of times and the worst of times." The 21st will be a century-long moment of truth for humanity. Global population, still growing by 80 million people per year in a world already battered by human activities, must make giant strides toward equilibrium if we hope to be good stewards of the global biosphere. With extremely clever engineering and science we might be able to provide support for 10 billion–12 billion people on the planet, but there's no assurance that a quality of life similar to what most citizens in the industrial world now enjoy will be possible for that number.

Therefore one question worthy of addressing, I'd suggest, is whether humanity should continue toward the implicit goal of maximizing human population count, or adopt a new goal of stabilizing population at a level where there's an excellent chance that each citizen will be able to achieve his or her full promise. The momentum of population growth is such that we have precious little time to reach equilibrium. Good progress is being made in parts of the world, thanks to education and technology, but when we consider that approximately 90 percent of the population increase will occur in developing countries, the challenge remains enormous. Even if population were to level out at 8 billion, we'd still face great difficulties.

The 21st century must also witness a transformation in the way we produce goods and services for people. For example, we are well on the way to exhaustion of the best of ancient forests and fossil fuels, and along with this consumption runaway increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The recent evidence of diverse impacts from the global buildup of greenhouse gases tells us that it must be during the 21st century that we transform the global, carbon-intensive energy system into a net-zero-carbon energy system. Such a transformation challenges our best minds, but it must be made if we hope to mitigate (it's too late to prevent) the consequences of human-induced climate change. There is ample opportunity to effect this transformation, but we must use caution as well as cunning. The thought of engineering the planet to accommodate human desires and fecundity is at best discomforting.

Must there be a disaster to bring us to our senses? The Sigma Xi community is constituted of the very people who can—and should—be in the forefront of the transformation.

It was once said of nuclear fission that it brings "?the promises of heaven and the perils of hell." That's relevant to all extraordinarily powerful ideas. The same might be said of humanity and its impact on the biosphere. Some say that if things get bad enough, we can just fly away, presumably to despoil some other imagined world. I say we must stay and use our potential to enable the earth to remain the crown jewel of creation. That's my "new millennium wish."

John H. Gibbons
President, Sigma Xi

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