Norman Myers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Journey of an Environmental Scientist: Conversation with Norman Myers; 11/11/98 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Conceptualizing Environmental Problems

What would you tell a student are the key skills that an environmental scientist has to have?

Well, to realize that everything is interconnected. Boring, everybody knows that. But yet we don't altogether know that. I mentioned in the lecture yesterday about the pro-life people interceding with Congress to cut back on family planning funding. I don't agree with the pro-life people, but in a democratic country they are entirely welcome to their own opinion. But as a consequence of intervening with Congress and cutting back on family planning, they have triggered an enormous increase in abortions in developing countries, quite the opposite of what they would have intended. They didn't consider that you can never do only one thing. If you come over here, you're not going over there. If you buy oranges, you don't then have money left to buy apples. There are always these tradeoffs, always these inter-linkages.

One also gets a sense in reading environmental work that one really has to have a global perspective, which is something that not all disciplines have.

Right, right. Acid rain, the burning of all that fossil fuel in the cars and so on in Ohio dumps acid rain over the border into Canada, and vice versa. If the Indians want to build their 100 million refrigerators without using CFCs, which are a bit expensive, that will deplete the ozone layer for people over in California. If the Chinese want to fuel their development processes with all their cheap coal, they will throw enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into everybody's skies, and that will one day cause global warming over North America and might even cause your great rain belt to become unbuckled. I believe we're no longer just Americans and Britons. We are first and foremost card-carrying citizens of one great global community. And secondly we are Britons and Americans. That doesn't mean any less loyalty to our nation states. At the Olympic games people can cheer their socks off for their own teams and beat those damn Britons. But in significant ways, we are now all living together, whether we are aware of it or not, as one big global community. And that is a great challenge for the next century, I think, trying to figure out what that means and how to live along those lines.

A third element that you've already touched on is a long-term perspective, because the problem you're creating today isn't always apparent today, it's down the road that it really has its impact.

Yes indeed. You see, a student going to class today, or people who are walking the streets anywhere today, will almost certainly walk in an atmosphere that is changing more rapidly than at any time in the last 50,000 years because of global warming. Very difficult to perceive it because you can't see it, you can't taste it, you can't smell it, but it is happening. It won't become a manifest problem for maybe another ten or twenty years. But we are setting up the problem now by our burning of fossil fuels. And another one with a longer term perspective still, and that is mass extinction of species. All our other problems can be fixed up. If we want to clean up acid rain we can do it. If we want to take care of global warming we could do it. It might take a thousand years but we could do it. The length of time it will take evolution to come up with replacement species to match what we have today won't be a few centuries or thousands of years, it will be at least 5 million years. So what we do or don't do in the next few decades will have an impact on the planetary ecosystem, upon our earth, our world, for the next 5 million years. That is twenty times longer than humans have been a species themselves.

You mention the problem of species extinction and the deforestation of the rain forest, which are two areas where you did path-breaking work. Once you left school, what were the factors in pointing you in the direction of these problems and how you came to conceptualize the problems?

After I got finished at Berkeley I went back to dear old Kenya because I loved the place so much. And I started out on a two-year project for the World Wildlife Fund looking into the status of the cheetah throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Very big area, three times the size of the United States. So I traveled around a lot. And it turned out that the main problem for the cheetah was not the fur coat trade, as had been thought, but the spread of livestock husbandry, whether by subsistence pastoralists or by commercial ventures. Dr. Norman Myers You see, they were taking over the grasslands for their sheep and cattle, and the gazelles and other prey for the cheetah were getting squeezed out. And it struck me that these guys weren't doing anything wrong, they weren't breaking any law. They were just trying to earn a living, trying to get supper on the table. It was a case of right versus right. That was when I really wanted to get more into population and economics and so on. After I'd done that work I began to wonder how fast species were really going extinct. The official view by the World Wildlife Fund was one species per year. But I said, "Well, did that include insects?"

"Oh no, we haven't looked at the insects, we don't know."

"Does that include the species that you haven't identified as yet?"

"No, how could it?"

I did an analysis looking at all species, plants, insects, the whole lot, and my calculation was at least one species per day, not one per year.

Were being extinguished?

Yes. And what also struck me about that was that this was a new question. And I wondered why those hot-shot scientists -- I was only just out of grad school for goodness sake -- why those hot-shot scientists, biologists working in the wildlife field, why hadn't they asked that question? It was a bit like the non-barking dog; they never thought to ask the question: how fast are species really going extinct? Are we possibly into the opening phase of a mass extinction which, if allowed to continue, would match the dinosaur disaster 65 million years ago? And a lot of my career has been, no so much supplying the right answers to established questions, but trying to raise the right questions.

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