The morning of Saturday, Sept. 11 found a groggy line for coffee winding through Exeley Science Center as people filed in for “Where on Earth are We Going?” a symposium on the environment.
The conference, which began at 8:30 a.m., drew an audience of over 400. Students, faculty, and staff packed Science Center 150, while others watched the panelists on streaming video in nearby classrooms.
“Over 400 people remained for five hours.,” said event organizer Barry Chernoff, Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies. “That speaks to how interested and engrossed the attendees were,”
The symposium brought in speakers from other universities and from non-profit and research groups, like the National Academy of Sciences, American Meteorological Society and Worldwatch Institute.
The event honored Maurice Strong, a fervent environmentalist with an extensive biography of prestigious awards and accomplishments, including convening the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and receiving the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Science.
“We have literally become masters of our own fate, architects of our own future,” Strong said in his keynote address. “It is a challenge and a responsibility of awesome dimensions for which I believe we are as yet ill prepared to meet.”
The significance of the date was not overlooked by participants, and the day began with a moment of silence for the victims of Sept. 11.
“Why could we on 9/11 be talking about issues of human well-being and the environment?” said William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science. “It’s because those issues on [Sept. 10, 2001] were the great, grand, big issues shaping how this world will be, and on the day after they were, and today they are.”
Panelists reiterated environmental concerns, but also suggested solutions and raised hope for major change.
Clark gave statistics about worldwide deaths related to environmental degradation. According to Clark, every day approximately 10,000 children around the world die from environmental causes.
“We have not figured out ways to improve human livelihood and life prospects without so degrading the environment that the environment kills us,” Clark said.
Tony Leiserowitz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Oregon, cited a survey that found that 80 percent of people are concerned about the general state of the environment, and 70 percent of them are very worried – that is, the highest possible response – about specific environmental issues. Similarly, 90 percent of people say we have a responsibility to other animals, to plants, and to non-living nature, yet positive environmental change is not being affected.
“What we have is a fundamental attitude-behavior gap,” Leiserowitz said.
On a different panel, John Holdren, Harvard Professor of Environmental Policy, presented encouraging evidence of the possibility of reducing carbon emissions, and therefore global warming, by working together with industries.
Heather Olins ’05, an Earth and Environmental Sciences major, noted the importance of the conference
“I know a lot of the stuff they’re talking about, but it definitely stressed a sense of urgency to me,” she said. “I’m familiar with a lot of the facts but even I hadn’t realized how bad it was.”
Strong suggested the gravity of the situation in his keynote address.
“Science cannot tell us how long we have to affect the change, but my own intuition, assisted by scientific evidence, persuades me that what we do or fail to do in the first decade of this century is likely to decide the course of the human future,” he said.
Participants repeatedly emphasized the interdependence of all nations, which turns local problems with pollution or waste into a global crisis. Some suggested action on an international scale, such as the 1996 UN Conference on the Environment, while others maintained that small, localized accomplishments are the best way to conquer the larger problem.
Despite varying messages, all speakers agreed that change is urgent.
“There is hope for the future but we must take responsibility, we must get involved and we must begin to act now,” Chernoff said.
He plans to use the enthusiasm of the conference to establish dialogue on campus, not only to raise awareness about environmental issues, but also to take positive steps toward reducing the environmental impact of the University.