[Paleopsych] Eureka: Ecologist calls for creation of an international panel to assess human behavior

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Ecologist calls for creation of an international panel to assess human behavior
    Contact: Mark Shwartz
    [2]mshwartz at stanford.edu
    [3]Stanford University

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

    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

    ''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, [4]pre at stanford.edu

    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.

    Relevant Web URLs:

    News Service website: [8]http://www.stanford.edu/news/

    Stanford Report (university newspaper): [9]http://news.stanford.edu

    Most recent news releases from Stanford:

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    Phone: 650-723-2558


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