Men and women live on the face of the Earth, breathe its air, and exploit its resources. Our physically weak species has risen to the top of the food chain, establishing ecological niches across the globe. For millennia we have transformed the Earth by our actions. The changing Earth has also altered human behavior, in some cases enhancing our use of the Earth, in others limiting and punishing our behavior, and in others threatening the survival of future generations. Yet few social and behavioral scientists have been articulate in raising issues about man’s role in Earth transformation, and fewer still have carried out research programs.

The idea of initiating a Council project focused on questions that arise from social science concerns about the human role in and human response to global environmental change has generated much enthusiasm both in the social science community and at the Council. A proposal to develop an interdisciplinary national program focused on a core social science agenda will be reviewed by the Council’s Committee on Problems and Policy (P&P) when it meets in June 1988. P&P, which provides intellectual guidance to the Council and approves the initiation of new projects, will be asked to approve the appointment of a planning committee.

“Over the past 300, or 500, or 1,000 years—no one has completed the historical accounting—there has been a radical change in how humans interact with their environment.”

Over the past 300, or 500, or 1,000 years—no one has completed the historical accounting—there has been a radical change in how humans interact with their environment. This change has been signaled by an order-of-magnitude increase in the scale of the effects of human activity on the environment, by an extension beyond the normal vision of governments and individuals of the time horizons in which human actions elicit significant environmental change, and by increasing complexity in the interaction of past environmental changes with current stresses on the environment.

These themes have increasingly become the focus of research by biologists, chemists, and physicists over the past 10 to 15 years. Researchers in these disciplines are aware of the great need for improved understanding of what is happening as humans transform the Earth. Governments have also responded, assigning significant portions of their Gross National Product to an industry that did not even exist a few decades ago—environmental management and pollution control. Citizen environmental movements have arisen in virtually every industrialized and developing nation, particularly since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring.

As the Russian geographer Vladimir Ivanovitch Vernadsky argued 60 years ago, humans have become a large-scale geologic force. We are sharply changing the chemistry and physics of the environment. New measurements and models show that human activities are now inducing change on a scale comparable to changes induced by the natural cycles of the Earth. This radical amplification of the interactions of humans with nature makes more central the role in physical and biological processes of humans and their institutions and organizations. To Vernadsky, the central role in environmental change was not that of human technology but of the global knowledge and communications engendered by that technology.

The time has surely come to incorporate social perspectives more adequately into research on humans as forces in nature. In international forums in recent years, both the socialist nations and the developing nations have urged increased attention to the need for fundamental social science research on these matters and to the need for sustained interaction among physical, biological, and social scientists. Scientists who have long worked in the field have voiced similar hopes. Such insistence has led to a variety of responses from the social science community, of which the Council’s interest represents a portion: that portion focused on developing a U.S. national program designed to formulate a social science research agenda and to develop the field.

“What is needed is a research agenda that places the question squarely within the social sciences in an effective interdisciplinary, not simply multidisciplinary, way.”

If the study of the interactions of humans and nature is to attract the needed level of interest among social scientists, the research problems must interest social scientists on their scientific merits. The research agenda must offer some hope of enriching social science by advancing an understanding of general socioeconomic processes. While social scientists are no less concerned than are other citizens about the erosion of soils, the pollution of the air of cities, the hazards of earthquakes in built-up areas, the genetic dangers of biochemical control of weeds and pests, and the long-term menace of rising global mean temperatures, these concerns in themselves have not proved enough to causes us to enlist in research endeavors in large numbers. Nor have repeated pleas from natural scientists that social scientists help them address their problems. What is needed is a formulation of research issues that are intrinsic to the viewpoint of the social sciences. What is needed is a research agenda that places the question squarely within the social sciences in an effective interdisciplinary, not simply multidisciplinary, way.

That the problem can be seen as prime candidates for cutting-edge research in the social sciences should require little argument. Social facts, as Émile Durkheim understood them, are at the core of the interactions of human with nature. The concept of “natural resources,” often considered the domain of natural scientists, is a socially-constructed and historically-contingent process. Only the human occupation of the Earth gives meaning to energy and to natural resources such as coal. The Domesday Book of 1085–86 did not mention the abundance of coal in England, although it presumed to describe all the resources and assets of that land for William the Conqueror, because no one viewed coal at that time as a source of energy, much less a source of chemicals.

Council seminar

The Council embraced this opportunity for fostering research by convening a seminar during the December 1987 meeting of P&P and a subsequent planning meeting held on the Brown University campus on April 29–30, 1988.

In preparation for the December seminar, William C. Clark of the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University and Robert W. Kates of the World Hunger Program at Brown University—a member of the Council’s board of directors—produced a “sampler” of questions rooted in social science that merit research attention. That list included the following observations:

  • Global changes to and transformations of the earth are increasingly driven by human activities. What are the persistent, broad-scale social structures and processes that underlie these changes? In particular, what are the relative roles of the amount and concentration of human population, the character and use of technology, the changing relation between places of production and consumption, and the “reach” and power of state and other institutional structures? How do these roles vary across cultures, and through history?
  • Episodes of abrupt change, discontinuities, and surprise are central to the history and possible futures of global change. How can the nonlinear processes, unique events, perception thresholds, and stochastic phenomena that underlie these episodes be more creatively addressed and systematically understood? How can institutional structures be designed to monitor and manage them more effectively?
  • The scale of significant interactions between human activities and the environment has progressively expanded to the point at which local, regional, and global phenomena are now involved. How have institutional structures and policies changed to cope with this expansion? What new modes of social organization have emerged? Which institutional responses have been relatively effective in linking local action to global change? Where are more effective social structures most needed and how can they be created?
  • In the 25 years since Silent Spring, the “environment” issue has become an economy that commands 1–2 per cent of the industrialized countries’ GNP, a politics that crosses traditional divisions, and a persistent concern on the public agenda. How can these phenomena be explored and explained? How special are they relative to other emerging issues?
  • Calls for more “sustainable” development proliferate. But what are the strengths and limitations of alternative approaches to improving the living standards of individuals in developing countries while placing fewer stresses on the natural environment and resource base? More broadly, what ought to be the human use of the biosphere?
  • Many organizations collect and disseminate data relevant to global change. What additional global data on the human condition are necessary to monitor and manage the social dimension of such change?
  • Knowledge of the physics, chemistry, and biology of global change has increased dramatically over the last decade; advances over the next 10–20 years are certain to be even greater. But this scientific knowledge is and will remain incomplete, more able to raise social alarms than to resolve them. What methodological or institutional measures can be taken to deal more effectively with this dilemma? More generally, how can social use of the incomplete but policy relevant knowledge of global change be better understood?

Providence planning meeting

This list of question served as the foundation for a subsequent meeting held in April 1988 on the Brown University campus in Providence. The purpose of the meeting was to test the proposition that there is a plausible research agenda that grows out of the social sciences, to add to the “sampler” of questions above, and to make initial plans for how the Council might proceed. Participants included Robert Chen, Brown University; William C. Clark, Harvard University; Roger Kasperon, Clark University; Robert W. Kates, Brown University; William H. McNeill, University of Chicago; Robert Mitchell, Clark University; John F. Richard, Duke University; Sara R. Millman, Brown University; and Billie Lee Turner, Clark University. Richard C. Rockwell represented the Council.

“The group took as its aim the formulation of a program that will enable social scientists better to understand the circumstances of change in the environment…”

The group took as its aim the formulation of a program that will enable social scientists better to understand the circumstances of change in the environment, to extend the effectiveness and wisdom of conscious human attempts to manage Earth transformation, to assist in the creation of policies that might avert some of the feared ecological mishaps and tragedies, and to develop the data base required for this research.

The group proposed that the Council create a research planning program around several themes. Those themes will be articulated in a paper now being drafted by Mr. Kasperson with contributions from other participants in the Providence workshop. What is envisioned spans the social sciences: anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, sociology, and statistics, as well as such allied fields as legal studies, policy analysis, and risk analysis. In general terms, the program encompasses: (1) the human driving forces of transformation of the Earth; (2) social feedback processes, including conscious mobilizations and “invisible hands”; (3) the vulnerability and resilience of human societies to environmental change; (4) a historical perspective; and (5) data bases focused on social phenomena. Participants were mindful of the rich new technologies available for monitoring change in human activities as well as in the environment, including satellite observation of human settlement and resource use, and of the considerable utility of computer models and simulations.

Participants emphasized that the proposed program requires a long-term investment of human and financial resources. At least three years will be required simply to build up a research agenda and complete some exemplary studies. Another five years will probably be required to establish career tracks in universities and research settings, to recruit outstanding young researchers to the endeavor, and to raise enough funding to support the necessary substantial research program.

The hope is that by about 1995 a strong interdisciplinary field will have produced some reliable and useful findings about human processes in the transformation of the Earth and that these findings will feed further advances in the social sciences. The group aspires to aid in the recruitment by that time of a cohort of young social scientists from many disciplines who will be pursuing concrete, well-funded research programs.

Richard Rockwell is the associate head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He worked at the Council from 1979 to 1991, where he served on the programs in International Peace and Security Studies, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the Global Social Consequences of the AIDS Epidemic, and the Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change, which started with events mentioned in this piece.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 42, No. 1/2 in June 1988. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.