It’s a puzzling world. Few of the puzzles are more intriguing than those of global environmental change: what is going on, where is the change coming from, how do we stop it or control it, what effects is it having on us and on our planet, what kind of world will our grandchildren experience? Puzzles are the delight of the sciences, but these are the hardest kind because none of them is the province of a single discipline. Sooner or later, each one forces researchers to cross disciplinary boundaries, often the boundaries between the social sciences and the natural sciences.“Although the subject matter of the social sciences is at the core of many questions about global environmental change, it is uncertain whether the social sciences will play a central role.”
These are not the first problems to cross those firm boundaries—most medical problems also cross them—but we are nevertheless poorly prepared for the bridge-building and development of dual competences that they require. Although the subject matter of the social sciences is at the core of many questions about global environmental change, it is uncertain whether the social sciences will play a central role. Today we are not playing such a role.
This paper poses some of the social science puzzles that confront researchers of global environmental change. It does so in the context of an effort by the Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change to foster collaborative interdisciplinary research on some of these problems through working groups focused on particular topics.1With the assistance of the National Science Foundation, the SSRC has appointed a Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change. Its members include: Edith Brown Weiss, Georgetown University Law Center, chair; Richard A. Berk, University of California, Los Angeles; William C. Clark, Harvard University; Harold K. Jacobson, University of Michigan; Diana M. Liverman, Pennsylvania State University; William D. Nordhaus, Yale University; John F. Richards, Duke University; Thomas C. Schelling, Harvard University; Stephen H. Schneider, National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, Colorado); and Billie Lee Turner II, Clark University. The committee has appointed a number of working groups on research questions raised in this article. These working groups will meet frequently to critique the progress of their research in its earliest stages and to redesign their research projects so as to maximize the cumulation of findings. They will sponsor workshops, conferences, networks, and scholarly articles.
Environmental changes being considered go far beyond the emission of greenhouse gasses with the possibility of resulting global warming and rise of sea level, although those currently popular concerns are surely included. They also include the depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere, acid rain, the depletion and pollution of water resources, loss of biodiversity, the mounting problem of disposal of solid wastes and nuclear by-products, deforestation, and oil loss and degradation, to start the list. These changes share two characteristics: each occurs over periods of decades to centuries, and each occurs on a scale of continents or broader. As problems of long-term, global change of any sort have not often been the focus of social science research, we are faced not only by the need to bridge disciplinary boundaries but also by the imperatives to lift our foci from the society-bound studies that have long characterized our research and to improve our models of change.
These environmental changes affect humanity in manifold ways. At the individual level, they pose threats to health and degrade the quality of life. They also challenge the integrity of societies and economies, and the capacity of the international system to manage conflict and change. At the extreme, they imperil the ability of humans to live on this planet. Human actions largely cause these changes in the environment. As the Russian geographer V.I. Vernadsky noted years ago, humanity is today a force of geological proportions in changing the face of the Earth. And only human action can reverse these changes, control them, or prepare our heirs to adapt to a changed planet.
That there should be social science research on these problems seems undisputed. What is at issue in various science-planning discussions are the following: (1) should the research agenda be rooted in long-standing questions of the social sciences or should it derive from questions posed by natural scientists? (2) what concretely are the social sciences prepared to bring to such research? and (3) what contributions might the pursuit of such an agenda make to the social sciences themselves? My incomplete answers are: (1) the abundant agenda that already exists has roots in both the natural sciences and the social sciences; any protectiveness of the right of the social sciences to define their “own” agenda is misplaced; (2) the problem of what we can bring to this research is not so much one of ideas and inherent competence as it is one of personnel—there are too few social scientists who are prepared to work with natural scientists in efficient collaboration (and vice-versa); and (3) some of the oldest questions of the social sciences can be illuminated by research on global environmental change. These questions are now before the new Committee on Human Dimensions of Global Change of the National Research Council for full consideration.
Over the past several years of reading and attending conferences in this area, I have accumulated a mental shelf of research questions. Natural scientists have posed these questions as often as have social scientists. The questions roughly fall into the following topical areas and will be taken up in this order:
- Getting the facts right
- Projecting critically important conditions and trends
- Introducing culture and politics into the research
- Modeling dirty data
- Sharpening the core concept of sustainable development
- Understanding human processes that lead to environmental changes
- Anticipating the range of possible human response to these changes
- Managing both the processes that lead to change and the changes themselves
Getting the facts right“There are a number of obvious but largely unanswered questions about human use of the land.”
Many of the facts at issue have to do with the land, the basis of human existence even for those who earn their living from the seas and those after us who may earn their living from the skies. There are a number of obvious but largely unanswered questions about human use of the land. What is the global pattern of human habitation of the land, and how have distribution and density patterns changed over the centuries? Such information is needed on a relatively fine grid, perhaps at the level of 10,000 square kilometers. To what uses do humans put the land, and how have these uses changed? Again, this information is needed in great detail; such categories as forest, grazing land, cultivation, and village will not suffice. And this information on the land itself must be overlaid with facts about cultures: for example, what land tenure arrangements are employed, and what property rights are assumed by tenants and their societies?2A working group on land use, in collaboration with the NAS Committee on Global Change, is addressing some of these questions.
Some of the answers to these questions might be found in national statistics, others in remote observation from satellites, and others in historical records, but many answers may be found nowhere easily. Even the available information is often suspect and difficult to utilize. Data collected by national governments on the size, distribution, and settlement patterns of their populations are of highly variable quality; in some cases, governments consider such detailed information to be secret because of national security concerns. Data on land use are not alone among the data that social scientists must question and seek to improve; national statistics on energy consumption, industrial production, and food production are also candidates for suspicious examination.
Satellites permit the collection of current land use information but present two great problems: remotely-observed data require validation by studies on the ground, and these data flow in such overwhelming profusion that they could easily overwhelm our ability to manage as well as to conceptualize them. The former problem points to methodological research: how can field data from the social sciences be compared with data from satellite observation? The latter challenges our conceptual abilities. We have not only relied upon relatively gross systems for classifying human use of the land, but we also have yet to develop, other than to some extent in geography, analytical schemes in which spatial relationships and time sequences are intrinsic and powerfully examined. Because distance and pattern matter in analyzing environmental changes, and because the spacing and timing of environmental events also matter, we will require much more powerful techniques than employed today and the theories to exploit them. Most available statistical techniques discard spatial information and reduce information on the timing of sequences to simple before-after relationships. Social scientists also need to help develop new conceptualizations of the surface cover of the globe that are precise enough for automated coding.
In order to understand possible changes in the quality of human life as a result, say, of global warming, we must first be able to document the present conditions of humanity. However, even such rudimentary documentation as that of the nutritional status of various populations is obscure and often unreliable; there have recently been major debates in the United States about the presence of hunger and malnutrition in the population of this developed and heavily-studied nation. The Program in World Hunger at Brown University is doing significant work towards producing information for the globe, as well as towards answering a harder question: what accounts for the disparities in nutrition among nations, and among groups within nations? Understanding the extent and sources of under-nutrition in a world before global warming may be critical to foreseeing how human populations can cope with both the possible effects on food production of a changed climate and the increased demand of a growing population.
One of my favorite puzzles, posed to the social sciences by the natural sciences,3See Taro Takahashi. “The Carbon Dioxide Puzzle,” Oceanus, 32 (2), Summer 1989. pp. 22–29. is that of the case of the missing CO2. When atmospheric chemists make gross estimates of the amount of CO2 that has been dumped into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels over the decades since the industrial revolution and add that to the amount which enters the atmosphere from other gas emitters such as animal life, the resulting tonnage of CO2 is substantially larger than is actually found in the atmosphere. Where is the missing CO2? It might have been absorbed in the oceans, but little is apparently known about the capacity of the oceans to absorb this gas or whether they are supersaturated or nearing saturation. Whether or not the oceans can serve as a repository for this greenhouse gas affects models of the buildup of gasses that might lead to global warming. There is also, of course, the question of what an increased concentration of CO2 in the oceans would do to their capacity to sustain life, beginning with effects on the plankton that apparently produce substantial amounts of oxygen. This is a problem not only for atmospheric chemistry but also for the social sciences, particularly history, because the models turn upon the accuracy of the gross estimates of fossil fuel burning. We need to be able to discuss with some certainty the historical pattern and developing intensity of industrialization throughout the world, a job only partially accomplished through previous case studies.“We need to tease out from cultures their assumptions about the environment…”
We also need to understand existing limitations on food, energy, and housing that are imposed not by nature but by mores and folkways in both developed and developing societies. This may help us understand why cultures make the choices they do in energy technologies, agricultural production, and settlement patterns. Around the world we see growth of the cities, with the implication that the few in rural areas are somehow expected to be able to feed the many in the cities. Is the implicit conversion of rural production to modern technology both energy-efficient and sustainable? We need to tease out from cultures their assumptions about the environment: what are the myths, what is it “right” to do with and to do to the environment, what responsibility is owed either to the planet or to future generations, what limitations do cultures place upon that human behavior which damages the environment?
Projecting critically important conditions and trends
Modeling such trends as increases in the emission of greenhouse gasses or further depletion of the ozone layer requires estimation of parameters from the provinces of the social sciences as well as the natural sciences: worldwide economic growth rates, population growth and distribution, energy consumption and demand, agricultural production, and conservation practices. These parameters are often shakily estimated, particularly when researchers must reach outside their own disciplines for the estimates. Skepticism is in short supply among many modelers. Models of global demands for electric power have been based upon estimates of worldwide economic growth of 3.5 percent, even though for most developing nations outside the Pacific Rim that rate of economic growth would constitute a boom. Agricultural production has been modeled as if only technological inputs mattered and as if there were arable land infinitely available for the taking. Energy demands have been modeled as if the people of developing nations would be able to purchase automobiles, install appliances, and air-condition their houses if they only had access to energy.
A striking example of uncritical acceptance of parameters is found in Global Change and Our Common Future (1989), papers from a forum sponsored by the NAS Committee on Global Change. The Foreword dramatically asserts “During the approximately 4,000 days that remain before the dawn of the third millennium, Planet Earth will be asked to accommodate another billion people …. Within the next 50 years, we must somehow learn to feed, clothe, house, educate, and meaningfully employ an additional five billion individuals—the current population of the entire world. Over 90 percent of this increase will take place in developing countries.”
The certainty implicit in these numbers is worrisome: the track record of demography in forecasting population growth (or decline) is good but not perfect. Moreover, there are factors already at work that render the forecasts dubious: declines in the growth rate of many nations, epidemics such as AIDS that may affect growth rates to some degree, famines and food shortages that hinder reproduction and shorten life, wars, and the effects of environmental change itself—including the feedbacks from possible global warming to the feeding and thus the growth of the human population. That an increase of large scale will occur in the next 10 years seems clear, but its magnitude is uncertain. Even more uncertain is the magnitude of the increase over the next 50 years.
The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Prime Minister Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, and its influential volume, Our Common Future (1987), are strong in this proclamation. That volume argued that there are no absolute limits to growth, an unarguable proposition given the dearth of absolutes in human affairs. Indeed, it is not possible to foresee all of the technologies and accommodations that might make it possible for 10 billion people to live satisfying lives on this planet. However, there are limits, as pointed out by Paul Ehrlich and his coauthors in their discussion of the carrying capacity of the Earth in Global Change and Our Common Future. They point out that there are no fail-safe backup mechanisms designed into the population-food system, and that instead we depend, even under favorable climates, on the fact that agricultural disasters do not occur everywhere at once. They urge moving towards population shrinkage as rapidly as possible. To suggest that we “must somehow” accommodate an additional five billion individuals over the next 50 years is similar to the proclamation that the West Side Highway must accommodate an additional 30,000 automobiles next Friday, because projections indicate that this many more people than usual are expected to exit New York City for its northern suburbs. Even in New York, a transportation commissioner who proceeded as if this were a realistic possibility would be reprimanded.“We need a better sense of the likely range of projections under various reasonable assumptions, not simply point estimates.”
My point is not that population growth must be curtailed, although that is certainly a defensible proposition. It is instead that this projection, and others like it, require skeptical examination by social scientists. Together, these projections are the foundation for projections of the emission of greenhouse gasses over the next 50 years. If a projection of growth of the world economy, energy consumption, fossil fuel burning, or adoption of conservation measures is substantially wrong, the resulting projections of global warming may also be wrong. At the least, we need a better sense of the likely range of projections under various reasonable assumptions, not simply point estimates.
Another kind of projection is the currently popular assertion that environmental changes will become national and international security concerns, particularly as East-West conflict in Europe recedes. There is indeed a long history of states going to war over environmental issues, particularly over the control of water. And environmental disasters would threaten the national security of some nations; for example, a modest rise in sea level caused by the thermal expansion of sea water (and possibly melting of ice caps) due to global warming could inundate the arable portion of Bangladesh and parts of Indonesia. But social scientists need to move beyond this kind of polemical argument to analysis: what kinds of environmental changes might lead to conflicts among or within states, what kinds of conflicts might be expected, and what mechanisms exist for resolving those conflicts?4A working group on international conflict is addressing some of these questions.
In his 1979 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Kenneth Boulding noted that it is remarkably easy to forecast the behavior of unchanging configurations such as the Solar System—but difficult to forecast the behavior of human systems which can change because people want change. We might wish that we could retreat to the behavior captured in a wisecrack popular among economic forecasters: “If you must forecast, do so often. And never about the future.” However, projections will be made, and improving their accuracy is critically important in this evolving collaboration of social and natural scientists.
Introducing culture and politics into the research
The history of policy interventions that made good environmental sense is blotched by many collisions between science and culture. Culture tends to prevail. Political or economic wisdom may also not accord with environmental wisdom and scientific rationality; policy makers often face trade-offs. There is no guarantee that even those policy makers with sound knowledge and good intentions will implement environmentally sensible programs. Trade-offs and compromises with culture may force environmentally sub-optimal decisions. In some nations, the daily struggle for survival seems to force the short-term exploitation of resources, sometimes in full recognition of the long-term costs. This sub-optimality often frustrates scientists and engineers who cannot understand, for example, why the people of a nation refuse to produce or consume the crops that environmental wisdom dictates they should grow. Or why a sensible plan to decentralize the production of electric power to villages collides with the desire of the central government to control its production. Or why the cultural benefits of cattle-owning override the calculation that greater economic benefits could be obtained from forest products if only the forests were not transformed into bare cattle ranges.5A working group on social learning is addressing some of these questions.
The social sciences can particularly look to area specialists for research on cultural and economic questions, political trade-offs, and the feasibility of proposed solutions. These scholars—located in many social science and humanities disciplines, trained in an often-exotic language, and deeply literate in a foreign culture—regularly inject a note of cultural reality into abstract debates. Their contributions are needed here.
Modeling dirty data“The social sciences could also contribute to the development of improved modeling methods in the natural sciences.”
The social sciences could also contribute to the development of improved modeling methods in the natural sciences. The social sciences have long coped with dirty or noisy data, lack of continuity of measurement, missing observations, surrogate measures, and the need to interpolate observations—all problems faced by climate modelers and others. Climate models that now produce only estimates of mean temperatures per season could be made far more useful if they also forecast the variances of temperatures across a season and the extremes. The social sciences have had to model variances and extremes as well as means—an ability likely to be crucial in attempts to understand and forecast biological changes in small areas, as well as the human response to climate change. They have developed robust methods of estimating missing observations and of interpolating data points, including multiple imputation from logistic regression, and of linking macro- and micro-level processes through hierarchical analyses. These analytical skills, found not only in statistics but also in sociology, economics, and demography, could be drawn upon by our colleagues in the natural sciences.6This observation was made by Richard A. Berk in a July 1989 symposium held at the University of California, Davis.
Sharpening the core concept of sustainable development
The concept of “sustainable development” pervades contemporary political discussion of management of the interactions of humans with their environment. In its simplest form, it urges development that meets the needs and aspirations of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations also to meet their needs. In some formulations, it adds two additional key concepts: a declaration of the overriding priority of meeting the needs of the world’s poor, and recognition of the limitations of both technology and social organization. Embedded in the concept is the conflict between the interests of developing nations and (1) the long-term environmental effects of past actions of the industrialized nations and (2) the need of the developing world to exploit its resources for its own development, whether they be rain forests or coal reserves.
The concept is, in the first analysis, inherently political. “Needs and aspirations” are value-laden concepts. The conflict between less-developed countries (LDCs) and industrialized nations generates the declaration of priority for the needs of the world’s poor. It generates the perception, already obvious among leaders of LDCs, that the industrialized nations would like to prohibit them from following the same (environmentally-damaging) development paths as did the industrialized nations. When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom declared that no one can opt out from control of chloroflurocarbons, the response from some was that the industrialized West had emitted most of the chloroflurocarbons now found in the atmosphere and was responsible for repairing the damage it had caused, without impairing other nation’s progress.
To move the concept from political symbol to a scientifically sound criterion for development policies requires conceptual analysis and research. To expand the concept to analysis of the risks of development and of the trade-offs between short-term “repairable” environmental degradation and long-term development requires pushing the concept far beyond political analysis.
How would we recognize sustainable development if we saw it? Recall that at one time nuclear power was heralded as a permanent solution to energy needs, so cheap as not to require metering and safe to boot. In the Texas oil fields in the 1930s and later, natural gas was a nuisance in the way of production of crude oil; it was uneconomic to pipe it away, so it was burned at the well. The Domesday Book of 1085–86 recorded for William the Conqueror all the resources of England—but not the existence of coal, because it was seen as of no value. We are only now coming to see the biodiversity of tropical jungles as a resource worth conserving, after having reduced the number of species at the rate of perhaps 4,000 species per year. What else might future generations fault us for not conserving? That is, of what must we take account in determining whether a particular development is sustainable? What kinds of development do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs—assuming that we know what their needs will be—and how can we tell without waiting to see? For that matter, are we sure that we could recognize unsustainable development in all its guises? Are all actions that drastically change the environment in a given area for future generations unsustainable by definition, even if the environment is made more livable for humans?
We need comparative case studies of instances of what appears to be clearly sustainable or unsustainable development. This research should address the ecological and social context, how this direction of development was chosen, what failures were encountered, and what risks remain. The hypothesis is that sustainable development often has a history of crisis and failure. Differentiating those histories from the likely similar histories of unsustainable development may help to sharpen the concept. This also is a domain in which area studies specialists can be integral to the research.7A working group on comparative case studies of development is addressing some of these questions.
Understanding human processes that lead to environmental change
As Stephen Schneider has noted, the watchword for avoiding human transformation of the Earth is “Don’t waste”—don’t waste fossil fuel, plastics, Freon, fixed nitrogen, toxic wastes from industrial processes, the heat stored in a house, the thousands of beetles in tropical forests, topsoil, human labor. But human profligacy with our natural heritage is not the only source of environmental change. Urbanization, for example, is perhaps a critical aspect of the changing environment. It has implications for land use, the organization of agricultural production and storage, energy consumption, and perhaps even the albedo8 Fraction of light or radiation reflected by a body. of the Earth. We have greatly increased the intensity with which we use resources of energy and materials. But we have decreased the intensity with which we use plant species for food: by some estimates, although we once ate the products of 7,000 species, today we depend on the product of around 20 species. And we are moving towards dematerialization of some manufacturing processes, so that production is becoming less resource-dependent and the waste of one process becomes the resource for the next. In many nations, we are increasing the intensity of cultivation rather than expanding land under cultivation, largely by moving towards wetland rice cultivation. Why are these processes occurring? What are possible futures for these trends?“Social scientists need to challenge existing measures in the developed world.”
One area deserving particular attention is the measurement of changes in labor productivity. The measurements employed in the United States have long been critiqued as outdated in such areas as the production of housing, the incorporation of improvements in quality, and production by the service sector. Econometric models have often taken these measurements as valid and produced explanations of what might be, at least partially, statistical artifacts. Social scientists need to challenge existing measures in the developed world. They also need to construct measures that are more appropriate for the developing world. This will enable us to understand better the historical record of human productivity, the sources of change in it, and possible trajectories for change in the future. If part of our aim is to better meet the needs and aspirations of the present generations, we first need to improve our knowledge of how well we are doing now.
We also need sharp economic calculations of the long-term costs and benefits of pursuing one development strategy or another: that of clear-cutting of forests rather than of selective removal of mature trees throughout the life span of a forest; that of the allocation of land for urbanization rather than for agriculture (someone has said that half of the best agricultural land of Canada can be seen from the top of the CNN Tower in Toronto—and that it is all paved over); and that of investments in better fuel efficiency for private automobiles rather than in better mass transportation systems. Because of the political power of economic arguments, demonstrations of the long-term economic costs of pursuing one development strategy rather than another may prove far more persuasive to policy makers than could any other kind of long-term argument. However, the problem is hard: if there were no political barriers to worldwide implementation of policies that made good environmental sense, does anyone have a clue as to what would make good economic sense? To what extent must issues of equity enter into economic calculations—equity between developed and developing nations, between the rich and the poor within nations, between the present generation and those of the future?9A working group on externalities and economic choices is addressing some of these questions.
Anticipating the ranges of possible human responses to these changes
A debate of almost canonical dimensions divides scientists who study environmental change: should one strive to prevent further environmental changes or should one learn to adapt to changes? This kind of question cannot be answered analytically, except to the degree that research might demonstrate that adaptation will not be possible. This requires anticipation of the range of possibility in human responses to environmental change. For example, under some scenarios environmental changes on the horizon will lead to an increased incidence of human diseases. Toxic chemicals and nuclear wastes are obviously threats to human life, but disease might also flow from water-borne diseases associated with increased wetlands rice cultivation and irrigation, from increased exposure to ultraviolet rays, from increased growth of parasitic and symbiotic species on crops, or from an increase in the number of insects due to shorter and less severe winters. How can humans adapt to these changed conditions for disease? What kinds of diseases might occur, and with what impacts on the human community? Would widespread adoption of modern public health measures suffice to prevent disease, and at what cost?10A working group on the epidemiology of environmental change is addressing some of these questions.
In much successful research on environmental change, the success appears to be at least partly due to the researcher having selected a particular human-nature interface on which to focus; otherwise, the research can quickly get out of hand. A focus that might prove profitable for study of human adaptation to environmental change is the design of water systems—the provision of something fundamental to human existence. Most existing water systems are unprepared to adapt to changes in weather or climate, heavily subsidized, and productive of inequities among regions and nations. The politics of water are often bitter and divisive, and the management structures for making decisions about water systems are often fragmented and ineffective. There are water-poor societies and water-rich societies, but inflexible water systems make it difficult to remedy these inequities. Although by some estimates there is enough water available to sustain a population of 20 billion people, many societies are now pressing the limits of their supplies. Global warming could relieve their problems, while putting other societies into water deficits. Pollution of water supplies is a growing concern throughout the world, with special attention now being focused on the contamination of water in aquifers beneath the surface of the Earth and thus not exposed to the oxygen that can help to transform some pollutants. Many diseases are associated with the transport and processing of water. All these are problems at the interstices of the social and natural sciences on which social scientists might profitably work.“Social scientists can help develop those counts of increments to societal well-being, thus realizing an old aim of the ‘social indicators movement.’”
Societies have been accustomed to thinking of the input to goods and services as the measure of societal well-being: how many kilowatt hours of electricity are generated, how much food is provided, how many tons of steel are produced? This leads to a lopsided calculus of social and economic development, one in which the provision of desired goods and services is not directly measured. It does not matter whether an apartment house is built with 100 tons of new steel or with 100 tons of recycled girders, so long as it is built. The proper count is of acceptable housing units, not of tons of steel; the object is to house people, not to make steel. Social scientists can help develop those counts of increments to societal well-being, thus realizing an old aim of the “social indicators movement.” And analysis of those counts might show that conservation is not incompatible with prosperity.
There is much concern in developing nations today that they will be prevented from pursuing their own development because powerful industrial nations will prevent the developing world from pursuing the same environmentally-damaging development paths as they pursued. However, it is possible to conceive of the developing world leapfrogging the developed world, by adopting technologies that yield the same or greater benefits without the environmental consequences. It is even possible to think of radical changes in human organization, economic relationships, and governance that would enable developing nations to bypass the present industrial powers. In the wave of self-congratulation sweeping the West after the failure of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, we would do well to recognize the likelihood that free-market capitalism has not yet demonstrated its success, especially at coping with environmental problems—only that Stalinist regimes have demonstrated their failures. Environmental imperatives have considerable potential for restructuring societies and economies.
Managing both the processes that lead to change and the changes themselves
Two major sets of questions must be addressed: (1) what management steps can be taken to reverse environmental degradation, to maintain the environment, or to mitigate the environmental effects of past and present human actions; and (2) what management steps are needed to enable humans and human societies to adapt to changing environmental conditions? Whatever the institutional structures and processes we employ or design for these ends, they must be capable of proceeding in the continuing presence of considerable scientific uncertainty. Uncertainty can be a pretext for doing nothing, but it can also be a reason for searching out prudent management tools that do as little harm as possible if their scientific base turns out to be wrong. Beyond uncertainty, institutional structures must be capable of dealing with surprise, including challenges to the environment that no one has anticipated. The emergence of the ozone hole over Antarctica was one such surprise, the growth of Legionnaire’s bacteria in office cooling towers another. The January 1990 Exxon oil spill off Staten Island illustrates once again the dangers inherent in bureaucratic rigidity: the pipe that burst was of too low a capacity to fall within the purview of a Federal regulatory agency, but because it moved oil between two states, no state agency was responsible. All concerned were surprised when an allegedly-faulty monitoring system turned out to have given a correct signal after all—as had happened earlier at Three Mile Island.
Central to much thinking about management of the global environment is the presumption that the same kinds of laws, treaties, and protocols that have been employed to deal with other problems can be called upon for solutions to these problems. Consider, for example, the growing enthusiasm for international agreements to protect the environment, such as the 1987 Montreal protocol on ozone. How realistic are the assumptions about nation-states implicit in such agreements? To what extent will a given state—whether in a market-driven, centrally-planned, or anarchic economy—be able to implement domestically the agreements to which it puts its pen internationally? There is a presumption among many politicians and some scholars that only the nation-state can act for societies, but in today’s rapid erosion of the power of many state regimes over their societies, it is problematic whether agreements among nation-states are always an effective approach.11A working group on the national implementation of international accords is addressing some of these questions.
There are two sets of laws to be weighed when designing management responses to environmental change: the laws of science and the laws of humanity.12Discussion of this dilemma may be found in Alvin Weinberg’s article, “Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy,” Science, 177(4043), July 7, 1972, p. 33. Consider nuclear waste disposal. Given the long half-life of many nuclear products, storage systems must simultaneously meet two goals. They must be designed not only to remain physically safe for longer than the Pyramids have lasted, but also to be recognized as dangers for longer than was required for the archaic Indo-European root language to evolve into today’s mutually incomprehensible European languages. How can a message of danger be accurately and reliably communicated across the millennia as languages and cultures change in unforeseeable ways? A skull-and-crossbones or the “universal symbol” of atomic energy could lose their meanings, particularly if electric power technology abandons fission. To argue that governmental institutions will persist and retain the needed memories is doubtful in view of the charge that the Manhattan Project of only 45 years ago left contaminated manufacturing and disposal sites of which there is now no record.“Despite years of study of the use of scientific knowledge in policy making and program evaluation, social scientists still do not yet know how to advise advocates of particular policies to make their cases.”
Scientists and social scientists are often frustrated by their inabilities to sway governments; what seems a clear and rational analysis may get little hearing. Despite years of study of the use of scientific knowledge in policy making and program evaluation, social scientists still do not yet know how to advise advocates of particular policies to make their cases. We need case studies of effective interventions by scientists in policy formulation and of ineffective interventions. Such case studies were among the interests of Paul F. Lazarsfeld near the end of his life and could well occupy a successor generation.
The potential contributions of social science to research on global environmental change are clear and can be realized. The problem can evoke research that will be central to our own disciplines: research on social organization, social control, social differentiation, political power, political change, cultural differences, learning, population processes, values, and social change. The research will be done because it must be done. It is not necessary for us to plead the case with natural scientists for our involvement; there is now no lack of recognition within the natural sciences of the salience of social science problems. I detect nothing but an open door to the social sciences in the various committees and research programs that the natural sciences have established, beginning with the pivotal International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. There is, however, curiosity about whether we are up to the task, both scientifically and organizationally.
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 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. 44, No. 1 in March 1990. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.