Ecologist calls for creation of an international panel to assess human behavior

August 01, 2004

Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich is urging fellow ecologists to join with social scientists to form an international panel that will discuss and recommend changes in the way human beings treat one another and the environment.

Ehrlich is scheduled to call for the establishment of a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB) during a speech at the 89th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 2. The goal of MAHB will be to avoid the approaching collision between humanity and its life-support systems, he noted.

''For the first time in human history, global civilization is threatened with collapse,'' said Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford. ''The world therefore needs an ongoing discussion of key ethical issues related to the human predicament in order to help generate the urgently required response.''

As a precedent, he pointed to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - an organization of scientists that has issued several highly regarded reports assessing the possible impacts of rapid climate change and the actions that might be taken to reduce those threats. The conclusions of that panel are based on state-of-the-art science, somewhat filtered by political considerations, Ehrlich said.

''Similarly there is now a global effort by hundreds of scientists to evaluate the condition of the world's ecosystems - humanity's life-support apparatus - called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,'' he continued. ''But there is no parallel effort to examine and air what is known about how human cultures, and especially ethics, change, and what kinds of changes might be instigated to lessen the chances of a catastrophic global collapse.''

Ethics and humanity

Although modeled on the ecosystem assessment project and the IPCC, MAHB would mainly focus on the social sciences, providing more consideration of the ethical dimensions of how people treat one another other and the environment, he added.

''The MAHB at a minimum would need to determine where and how human behavior must change if any semblances of today's societies are to persist,'' Ehrlich explained. ''Behavioral scientists and lay persons alike must do that most difficult of all tasks - examine their own values, see how they relate to environmental sustainability and ask themselves whether their values are really leading to the sort of world they want for their descendents. Americans, for example, must ask themselves if their 'way of life' should really be, as the first President Bush said, 'not negotiable.' And they need to discuss possible lifestyle changes in a framework not just of what is possible for citizens of powerful nations, but also of what is ethical.''

Ideally, he noted, the MAHB would be sponsored by the United Nations and supported by the world's governments, which would work to provide wide citizen participation and substantial and continuous media coverage.

''It would deal with tough questions,'' he said. ''It could explore how to reconcile different ethical standards. It could discuss who should 'own' and have the right to exploit global resources like fossil fuels, whose use has consequences for all, including future generations. It could examine how to reduce racial, religious, gender and economic inequities and whether any nations can ethically produce or store weapons of mass destruction.''

Ehrlich pointed out that the scientific community is well aware of the nature of the threats and the ''population-consumption drivers'' creating them, but the actions to counter those threats have been scattered and, with some notable exceptions, absent or inadequate.

''There is a disconnect between what most of the ecological community believes is necessary and ethically required - for example, reduction of greenhouse gas fluxes, establishment of marine reserves, limiting population growth and wasteful consumption - and actions the rest of society, and especially politicians, are willing to take,'' he said.

''To oversimplify, the scientific community has known for decades that humanity was on the wrong course, but its counsel has fallen largely on deaf ears,'' he argued. ''The locus of necessary action has shifted into the domain of the social sciences - and thus an MAHB - to find ways of bridging the disconnect.''

Academic challenges

Ehrlich also said that members of academic communities faced a great ethical challenge: ''Can we become moral entrepreneurs and persuade universities to retool themselves to become major forces in solving the human predicament? It would mean faculty adopting new values, and more often trying to do what is right for a broader community, rather than what is comfortable for those isolated from society in their ivory towers. Unhappily, in a world rapidly becoming more dangerous, they are organizations not accustomed to operate on 'Manhattan Project time,''' he said, referring to the all-out effort by physicists during World War II to design and build a nuclear bomb.

''I am privileged to be at Stanford, one of the very best universities,'' he added, ''and yet more than three decades of effort by small groups of faculty and a few administrators have failed to get a frequently dysfunctional university senate to make needed changes in university rules and structure to permit interdisciplinary collaboration to flourish. That's about 10 times as long as it took to create the atomic bomb.

''One of the few remaining places where the United States leads the world is in its great research universities, but they are in severe danger of sinking under the weight of the conservatism of the majority of their faculties,'' he continued. ''Universities must be reorganized to become agents of change in the 21st century. The need for such reorganization is most apparent in the social sciences.''

As an example, he pointed to Stanford, which has separate departments of sociology, history, economics, political science and psychology - as well as two departments of anthropology. ''The absurdity of this disciplinary organization has not gone unrecognized by social scientists,'' Ehrlich asserted, ''but there seems to be no real movement to correct the situation. Participation in an MAHB might help them sort themselves out.''

A member of the Stanford faculty since 1959, Ehrlich was named ESA's Eminent Ecologist in 2001. He is the author of several popular books on humanity and the environment, including One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future,'' which he co-authored with his wife, Anne Ehrlich, a senior research scientist at Stanford.

ESA was founded in 1915 to promote and raise public awareness of the importance of ecological science.
COMMENT: Paul R. Ehrlich, Department of Biological Sciences: 650-723-3171,

EDITORS: The 89th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America will be held at the Portland Convention Center, Aug. 1-6, 2004. Paul Ehrlich will address the meeting on Monday, Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. PDT. Ehrlich will be available for interviews at his Stanford University office on the afternoons of July 28, 29 and 30. A photo of Professor Ehrlich can be obtained by contacting Mark Shwartz at the Stanford News Service.

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