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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Political Activism

Once those questions are raised and one sees a problem, you almost have to put on another hat. The scientist becomes the political activist on environmental issues. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes it is. I felt that if we were losing one species per day I wanted to try to do something about that. I could bestir my professional biologist colleagues, and a good number of them like Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven and Jane Lubchenco, there's a whole long line of them, have done a very, very great deal indeed. But I must say that most professional biologists, living at a time when Earth's diversity and abundance of life forms is being depleted like nothing in the last 65 million years, they seem to see no reason to say anything much about it at all. In fact some, and this may be more on my side of the Atlantic than yours, but some over here as well, even tend to say, "Why do you spend time running after the policy makers, the politicians, doing broadcasts to the public and writing popular books? Doesn't this somehow demean our science? The public wouldn't understand it, and what business is it of theirs?" I'm inclined to say that the more we go to Capital Hill and make a big noise about mass extinction of species, the more the legislature might be inclined to supply more money for science, so of course we'll all win.

How do you account for this difference in your philosophy?

Oh boy. You're really putting me on the spot here and I don't want to say it and be undiplomatic.

Maybe it was your education in Berkeley.

I really don't want to sound critical of my colleagues, though I suppose I am in a way. But I find a lot of scientists get very wrapped up in what they're doing. They are pushing back the frontiers of truth, which is fine. We need a lot more of that, a great deal more of that. But they become so absorbed in what they're doing that they become a little bit detached from the world of politics and public opinion and policy making. And that, I think, is why, unwittingly, they don't get involved in that scene out there.

The one exception to this during the Cold War, of course, was the anti-nuclear movement which drew heavily from scientists. Were you influenced at all by their efforts to cap the arms race?

Yes. Yes I was. In fact in 1983 I engaged in a scientific analysis headed by Carl Sagan and John Holdren, looking at nuclear winter, looking at the environmental impacts of nuclear war. We came to the conclusion that even if one side won cold turkey, with no immediate damage to itself, nevertheless the smoke and other damage in the vanquished side would swirl right around the Earth and it would bring on nuclear winter. There would be enough smoke to shut out the sun, plants would die. We'd have very little chance of survival. So that meant that no side could possibly win. They might win in a strictly military sense, but in any sense that mattered we'd all be losers. We could go off to New Zealand, we could sit in a hut at the South Pole. That still wouldn't help us.

In a sense, the world was more politically ripe for those concerns about the dangers of a nuclear arms race because the Soviet - U.S. confrontation was so visible. Was the environmental setting as ripe once you got into political activism with regard to the data that you were finding?

In terms of the public response and the political response, no. And it still isn't. Even though in 1987 a United Nations commission made up of bankers, industrialists, lawyers, farmers, politicians, all kinds of people from around the world, not a single eco-freak among them, spent three years looking at environment and development, sustainable development. I remember sitting in a Moscow restaurant on the last meeting wondering how they could start a report. They finally came up with this: they said, "Humankind faces two great threats. The first is the threat of a nuclear exchange, and pray God that is a receding prospect for the future. And the second great threat is grand-scale environmental ruin worldwide. And far from being a prospect for the future, that is taking place right now." They said that in 1986, leading politicians, prime ministers, leading financiers. Nobody took very much notice. How much more are we threatened by environmental stuff now.

I remember Gorbachev saying in 1991, "The threat from the skies is no longer nuclear missiles, it is global warming and ozone layer depletion." There are lots of other statements from these hard-eyed political leaders, but the public doesn't seem to take much notice. Maybe they don't believe it. And in your election last week there was hardly a single mention of the environment, even though your country's losing 4 percent of its GDP to environmental problems. That means a big brake on the economy. That means higher interest rates, higher mortgage rates, higher inflation, higher job losses. That's the economy! People's preoccupation last week, the way they voted, was determined by the economy. They don't realize they're also talking about the environment.

In your book on environmental security you spoke of our limited capacity to think clearly about matters that are new to our experience. And you spoke of the need for imagination and not just intelligence and knowledge. Is that what is the problem here, or is it also political interest?

That's a tough one. I sometimes speculate that humankind has spent 99 percent of its existence as a hunter-gatherer, before we even got into our caves, let alone got out. And to survive as a hunter-gatherer you had to look beyond your own nose, you had to pool your own self interest with a hunting band of maybe 50 others. They are the people who survived and passed on their enlightened genes to the next generation. We had to identify with 50 other people. Then when we came out of our caves we started living in villages, maybe 500 people, and we had to expand our notions of loyalty. And then little cities of maybe 5,000 people, and bigger cities, 50,000 people. City-states, maybe half a million people, like ancient Athens and Rome and so on.

People kept on having to expand their horizons, but do it with the evolutionary equipment of living for 99 percent of our time as hunter-gatherers with groups of just 50 people. Now we live in nation states of, well 270 million in the United States and some have even more. We're to make the final jump to a hunting band of six billion people, some of these students will be living in a world of nine billion people. And to make that big final step is going to be very difficult. But again it does not mean denying loyalty to the United States. It means recognizing we are all card-carrying members of one great global community. And that is tough.

I must say I find it hard to identify with those Bangladeshis who were drowning last week, maybe 50,000 of them. Intellectually, I feel that's awful, that's dreadful, we should just not allow it. But emotionally and psychically, and I suppose in a sense spiritually, it doesn't move me in a way that it should, to maybe get up and do more of what I am doing. I run around the world making lectures at Berkeley and so on about all this, but I really wonder what else I could do. I am committed to the cause, but I wonder what else? I'm quite sure that in twenty or thirty years' time, when the Earth is ravaged with all kinds of environmental problems and we've impoverished the planet for the next five million years for goodness sake, people will say, "Hey you guys, you experts in the late 1990s, you knew what was happening, what did you do about it?" And I'm not sure I have a sufficient response. I write books, I give lectures, I lobby the White House and the World Bank and the United Nations, Prime Ministers, and goodness knows who. But I think people might say, "That wasn't enough, was it? Why didn't they think of something even better than that?" I don't have an answer yet.

So as the Paul Revere of the environmental movement, your horse isn't adequate to take the messages as far as you want. I'm curious here. If you look at your career, you had to work the Masai, in a sense. And by "work" I mean in a political sense, to educate them about the issues that required change. As a consultant you're clearly a person who moves and speaks to important business groups, to political leaders, and as a teacher, students. Do you see differences in these groups in their response to convincing arguments about their environment?

Yes I do. There are very big responses. You see the business community, with some very notable exceptions I must say, tend to look just at the bottom line, the next quarter report. That's their time horizon. Politicians look to the next election, and who is to blame them; if I was a politician I think I'd do the same. And the marketplace says, in effect, that there's no future beyond ten years. Interest rates, discount rates, mean that there's no future after ten years. There you can think about today. I think about my children and my grandchildren, so I'm thinking about fifty years ahead, but then I won't be around in another fifty years. Norman Myers, with tree But the things we're doing to our planet will have an impoverishing impact for at least a thousand years, and in some cases five million years. So I find it very, very difficult to stretch my mind like that. Arnold Schultz, where are you? Come and help!

At the same time, I think that we can squeeze through this bottleneck with reduced losses, let's say. We are going to lose a lot, but we could also win a lot, we could still save a lot. I am struck how politicians can sometimes get off their butts and do something. For instance, I would not have taken on a bet ten years ago that by the year 2000 we'd get rid of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and we'd have peace in South Africa, peace in Northern Ireland, possibly peace in the Middle East. I would never have taken a bet like that. Some people say, "Well, you can't change people's consumption patterns" for instance -- we have to get people off fossil fuels or we'll have a globally warmed climate. People say you can't change consumption patterns. In the last ten years, sixty million Americans have given up smoking. That's like a social earthquake overnight. There's no limit to what we can do if we really want to get on with it.

Would it require a cataclysm, some horrible event, a sinking of a supertanker or something, or something in nature itself, to wake us up?

Well, you know we aren't very good at planning, whether we're politicians or individual citizens. We tend to wait for the morning's mail to see what problems it has brought and then deal with them. And that is purely reactive. Why can't we anticipate the morning's mail and anticipate these problems? We've got lots of signs that tell us what's going to fall out of the sky onto our heads, why can't we anticipate? And I do wonder about this myopia. It's not so much ignorance, it's ignore-ance. It's like that line from the Dire Straits song, "Denial is not just a river in Egypt." We don't want to think about the future like that. And yet we undoubtedly have the capacity to squeeze through this bottleneck.

Can I tell you what does inspire me is the thought that we live in a time altogether unprecedented. For the first time in human history, entire segments of the global ecosystem face terminal threat. We're about to lose all tropical forests within the next three or four decades. We might lose savannas. We might screw up the climate, and so on. And these are problems which have never arisen before. But we still have it in our hands, we still have time to do a great deal to turn those appalling problems into magnificent opportunities. We can still do it if we really want to. Do we really want to? Well, I think of what politicians have done and those Americans giving up smoking. We could do it. We're the only generation that has had to face a challenge of this sort. No generation of the past has had to because the problems weren't there. And no generation of the future will ever have our glorious chance because, if we don't fix this problem, or today's students don't, people in the future will have nothing left to do but to pick up the pieces off the floor that we pass on to them. So it's in our hands. And I think it's a magnificent opportunity, a great challenge. Sure it's a super-scale challenge, altogether unprecedented. If we measure up to it we can feel like giants of the human condition. A marvelous time to be alive.

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