Woodwell discusses environment

by Jean Blackerby | 11/13/96 6:00am

George Woodwell '50 discussed yesterday the potential impacts of several current environmental problems and said it is the scientific community's responsibility to defend the public interest in the environmental arena.

Woodwell, an environmental scientist who is the founder, president and director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, Mass., is this term's second Montgomery Fellow.

Woodwell gave a speech to a 70-member audience, titled "The Co-Evolution of Science and Democracy: Has Anyone Seen the Public Interest Recently?" in which he discussed potential impacts of overpopulation, biotic impoverishment and global warming.

"This series of environmental transitions has the potential for shaping the world and bringing major changes in civilization, even reducing the level at which it can proceed," Woodwell said.

He said overpopulation is one problem currently changing the nature of the environment.

The global population, which stands at 6 billion people, has doubled since 1960 and is expected to double again before 2050, he said.

Increasing immigration pressures on already-pressured Western nations will be the initial effect of this rise in population, Woodwell said.

The long-term consequences involve the population's exceeding the earth's carrying capacity, he said.

Woodwell also identified the "progressive biotic impoverishment of the earth" as a major problem facing the global community.

"There is an accumulation of land that has fallen out of the economic system, reducing the capability of the earth to support people," he said.

Global warming was the the third major environmental problem Woodwell addressed. He said the warming of the earth is "a product of the density of the use of fossil fuels in the Northern hemisphere."

Woodwell said the treaty drafted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 is a vital step toward reversing this trend. He said the treaty calls for an immediate 50 percent reduction in the use of fossil fuels led by the United States.

The Woods Hole Research Center helped with the Framework Convention on Climate Change -- an international treaty that was written, prepared and signed at the Rio Conference.

If the global community fails to curb the global warming trend, Woodwell said, the consequences will include a "general warming of the earth and the migration of the climatic zones."

"The warming of the earth, itself, affects plants on a 24-hour basis," which contributes to the biotic impoverishment of the environment and further limits available resources for humans, he said.

Woodwell said scientific and academic communities must adopt the role of "defining and defending the public interest" in the realm of environmental issues.

He said the public needs to be informed about the enviornment and to use forums like the recent election to act in the public's best interest.

"I want absolute guarantees that my air is breathable, that my water is drinkable and that my food is clean," he said. "We can expect and demand that government represent the public interest."

"The initiation of what the government must do should come from the academic community, not from corporations," he said. "It will take more government, and we are rich enough to afford it."

But Woodwell said the government is not coping sufficiently with environmental issues, and non-governmental agencies have had to work to "keep government doing its job."

Woodwell concluded by challenging academia to work to insure future generations "a place to live and a reason for living."

Dean of the Faculty James Wright introduced Woodwell and commended him for his many roles in national environmental policy and welcomed him back to Dartmouth.

"Woodwell joins a distinguished company of Montgomery Fellows," including Toni Morrison and Gerald Ford, Wright said.

He praised the establishment of the Montgomery Fellowship as "one of the shining intellectual jewels of Dartmouth."

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