Great Expectations

"Science should not only push forward the frontiers of knowledge but also serve human welfare."
Dr. Joseph Robtlat, Nuclear Physicist and Winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize

From the early days of the ancient Greeks through the recent breakthroughs in dynamic new areas like biotechnology and nanotechnology, science and its application have long played a leading role in the advancement of Western civilization. Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Science, emphasized in his commentary of December 7, 2001, that now the rich Western nations need to ask what science can do, "not just for the West but for the Rest." According to Kennedy:

"The need is compelling, because so many of the world's great problems (including the one that has absorbed all of us since September 11) emerge from a single gripping reality: the inequitable global distribution of resources. It is not only a matter of poverty, but of consumption rates. The nations of the North use most of Earth's nonrenewable wealth, such as fossil fuels; they also contribute disproportionately to the depreciation of precious assets that are replenished only slowly, such as ocean fisheries or the quality of the atmosphere. This North/South imbalance is an equation that is certain to generate continuing tension."

It is clear that during the 21st century, our human population (presently six billion), will move into a zone -- eight to 12 billion -- many analysts predict could exceed the Earth's supportive capacity. Improving standards of living for the current poor of the world, plus providing for the billions still to come, will increase global demand for food, water, energy, wood, housing, sanitation and disposal of wastes.

Leaders of some developing nations have expressed concern that the spread of Western technology may promote unsustainable consumption and production patterns that cause resource depletion, loss of species and other environmental degradation. Yet, this doesn't have to be the case.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg from Aug. 26 - Sept. 4 examined the growing economic disparity between the West and the Rest. Some of the major issues addressed at the summit included increased access of the world's population to safe drinking water, increased investment in cleaner production of goods, promotion of renewable and alternative energy technologies, prevention of water pollution, oceans and coast management, global climate change and biodiversity.

Some critics view President Bush's short-sighted decision not to attend the summit as reflecting his disinterest in global environmental problems. His absence from the summit is particularly striking considering his father, then President Bush, attended the previous world summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Numerous groups have complained that the agreement worked out at the Johannesburg summit failed to adequately address many specific environmental issues, such as reaching a consensus concerning a timetable for the conversion from oil and gas to renewable sources of energy, The summit, however, did at least help to focus world attention on breaking the link between economic growth and environmental degradation.

In our cover story, author Brennan Van Dyke, director of the Regional Office for North America for the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), describes the agency's recent initiatives to promote advanced North American environmental technologies in developing nations. Another hopeful development was the launching at the Johannesburg summit of an initiative known as WASH, an acronym for Water, Hygiene and Sanitation for All. The global effort to provide water and sanitation to more than 1.1 billion people involves governments, development banks, U.N. agencies and businesses.

Following along the same lines, Science, the weekly magazine published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Nature, the weekly international journal of science, are teaming up to promote their Web site It is a free access Internet-based network devoted to reporting on and discussing those aspects of modern science and technology that are relevant to the sustainable development and the social and economic needs of developing countries. The project is based on the premise that those who stand to benefit most from modern science and technology are also those who have the least access to information about it.

The Biblical admonition goes "To those who much is given, much is expected." The United States and other advanced nations have benefited enormously from the exponential increases in scientific knowledge and technology during the past 100 years. Our country, both through its public and private sectors, should assume a leadership position in bringing environmental technology into developing nations. Examples include promoting technology that treats polluted water, facilitates new energy forms and encourages less resource intensive industrial and agricultural production. Western science and technology should play an integral role in distributing economic and social opportunity more evenly in today's politically unstable world. Much is expected.

This article originally appeared in the October 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 9, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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