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Peter Raven Calls on Scientists to Address Poverty and Environmental Damage
In a fiery address that opened the 2002 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, AAAS President Peter H. Raven admonished the United States and other wealthy nations to reach out to the poor and disenfranchised of the world, and to cut back on levels of consumption that are destroying the earth’s environment.
Referring to the terrorist attacks on 11 September, Raven noted the importance of preventing acts of terrorism, but the overall goal, he said, "should be no less than the empowerment of individuals throughout the world, and the ultimate construction of a society in which people can live in peace and justice."
Raven’s talk began with a description of humanity’s destruction of the environment and the resulting loss of biodiversity. He pointed to fields that can no longer sustain billions of cattle, sheep and goats; to fisheries that no longer produce many fish; to grain yields that are no longer enough to meet the demand; and habitats that explode with alien plants and animals, causing great devastation.
"The world has been converted in an instant of time from a wild, natural one to one in which human beings are consuming, wasting, or diverting an estimated 45 percent of total net biological productivity on land and using more than half the renewable fresh water."
The environmental damage affects human beings as well, Raven said, pointing to the world’s failure to properly feed the 700,000 million people who are malnourished and the 14 million children who die of starvation every year.
Raven reserved his sternest criticism for the United States. With only 4.5 percent of the earth’s population, he said, "we control 25 percent of the world’s wealth and produce 25-30 percent of the world’s pollution…In the face of these relationships, it is remarkable that the United States, the richest nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth, is the lowest donor of international development assistance on a per capita basis of any industrialized nation."
Raven envisions a crucial role for science and technology in addressing the social and economic ills he described in his talk, but not only for what they can do in a tangible economic sense. He said that scientists and engineers should work to increase the number of scientists worldwide; to share the benefits of science and technology with poor countries; to work to make citizens of all countries more knowledgeable about science. Most important, Raven added, "is the development of a culture of science throughout the world."
Growing awareness among citizens in developed nations can influence how companies and governments do business, Raven said. "The people who are pursuing sustainability in a direct and personal way will hugely affect the shape of the world in the future."
As he considered a vision for the future, Raven cited President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. "Why do so few world leaders hold them to be of fundamental importance?" he asked, "when in fact our acceptance of them will set the shape of the world for centuries to come…"
Raven ended his talk with a call to AAAS members, "to dedicate ourselves to expanding our global leadership role on behalf of science and society. In our interconnected and challenging world, both the connections between the disciplines that are celebrated by our fellowship, and the global connections so evident in the fields of science and engineering are of extraordinary significance."
-- Coimbra Sirica