On November 12–13, in the cosmopolitan city of Los Angeles, members and others attending the Sigma Xi Forum will consider the role of science in bridging the gaps between the 6.3 billion of us who populate our increasingly crowded planet. In just 400 generations, human beings have developed crop agriculture and used the secure food supplies that it makes possible to develop civilization, with all of its positive and negative aspects. Our overall population has grown from an estimated several million people at the dawn of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, to its present level; consumption has grown to unprecedented levels, with 20 percent of the world’s people enjoying the benefits of approximately 85 percent of the world’s economy; the other 80 percent of us survive on the remaining 15 percent. Some 1.3 billion people, about one in every five persons, live in absolute poverty, on less than $1(US) per day, approximately 800 million malnourished to the point at which their brains do not develop properly and their bodies are literally wasting away.
We are overusing what the world produces by about 20 percent at present, and as consumption (affluence) and population grow, and we continue to use outmoded technologies, we are using up the world’s sustainable sources of agriculture, fuels, waste-absorption capacity, forests and biodiversity much faster than they are replenished—in other words, unsustainably. New consumers in the developing world are joining the entrenched consumers in the industrialized world, so that the gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly. For the poor people of the world, the chance to contribute to our common advance is minute: Particularly for women and children, there is little opportunity to do anything but gather firewood, collect water and cook meals in smoky huts with carcinogenic substances highly concentrated in the air within.
We can achieve global stability, security and sustainability only if we reach some stable population level, reduce our consumption to levels that can be sustained throughout the world and find improved technologies that reduce our impact on potentially sustainable systems. About 11 percent of the world’s land surface is cultivated for crops, and an additional 20 percent is grazed, mostly destructively; three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are declining in the face of overuse. We are estimated to be using, wasting or diverting almost half of the planet’s terrestrial photosynthetic productivity and over half of the renewable supplies of fresh water. No wonder that so many of the world’s species, which are, as far as we know, our only living companions in the universe, are disappearing so rapidly.
In the midst of this challenging situation, science offers a route to progress and a common language for worldwide dialogue. Closest to home, we have great opportunities for constructive communication within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) community, and these will be given special attention at our Los Angeles forum. Eminent scientists from Mexico and around the world will address and enlighten us, and we will learn new ways to coexist and recognize better the inherent ability that is possessed by every human being. Come and contribute to the discussion, learn from it and take the lessons home to your classrooms and communities. There is no greater challenge in the world than that of enlightenment, and the science we do provides one sure pathway to better understanding.
Peter H. Raven
President, Sigma Xi