Global sustainability

Global sustainability

An article written by Professor Judith Howard FRS and Professor Martyn Chamberlain.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared around 200,000 years ago. Our acquisition of skills, our development of technology and the growth of civilisation has been a risky process. Our survival and success have been challenged throughout history by climate change, by disease and by shortages of food, materials and energy. Anthropologists tell us that, at one point, the human population was reduced to c.15,000 individuals as a result of catastrophic climate change. Had the effects of that incident, a volcanic eruption, been just a fraction greater, the clock would have stopped for humanity.

Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub FRS discusses infectious diseases and sustainability. (3:30 mins, requires Flash Player).

Nothing is guaranteed about the survival of humankind, despite the immense progress that our species has subsequently made in science, medicine, technology and the creation of complex urban societies. So how should we face the future of the planet in the current situation of climatic swings, population growth, the ever-increasing pressure on scarce resource and the remorseless growth of new and subtle disease patterns? Is pessimism the only solution, or can we take a hard look at how new developments in the study of prediction and risk, together with  recent advances across the physical, biological and medical sciences can help us overcome this? Do we have the economic and social models and the attitudes and behaviour patterns to cope with the worst?

    Dr Vicky Pope on extremes of weather in the UK (2 mins).
  • Listen here.

Climate change is a key concern for discussions concerning the sustainability of the planet.  Scientists cannot give precise predictions of what will happen in 100 years, or even in the next 10 years; however, they are able to give a range of possible outcomes. But how should such predictions be interpreted, and do scientists and their political masters sometimes confuse short-term fluctuations with longer term trends?  The world’s leading meteorological services have, over many years, accumulated sufficient data and have developed a wide range of modelling tools able to assign probabilities to their projections.

Offshore wind turbines, Barrow, UK (credit: Andy Dingley).

But there are difficulties: not only do models often disagree, especially about what type of input data should be used, but also there remains a strong public exasperation with science’s apparent indecisiveness that often leads to public indifference or, worse, pessimism. However, it is a reasonable conclusion that if carbon and other emissions continue to grow at present rates, the changes will be so large and so rapid that the adverse effects will quickly outweigh any local benefits and come to dominate in all regions of the world.

    Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub FRS on the effect of climate change on disease
    (3 mins).
  • Listen here.

We have demonstrated an ever-increasing demand for water, energy, nourishment and medical care. We now need to take a careful look at the mathematical modelling that underpins scenario planning. Energy planning is crucial to much of this discussion: not only is a balance of renewables, nuclear and carbon-based sources becoming essential, but every individual will be required to adapt their consumption patterns. Collectively, it will be incumbent upon us become responsible for the generation of some part of our needs through the application of clever catalytic chemistry for energy storage, and the use of efficient biofuels and improved, lower-cost solar cells for energy generation.

The security of our food supplies is also under threat as harsher weather conditions become established and as new types of crop disease emerge. The growing addiction to animal-sourced protein implies more land usage and increased emissions.  One possible solution is through genetically-modified (GM) crops, taking advantage of new genomics tools to isolate and deploy disease resistant genes, but here societal attitudes are significant and the engagement of the wider population is vital.

Flooded Mamirauá rainforest in Brazil (credit: Instituto Mamirauá).

The rapid growth of cities can, surprisingly, lead to advantages for medical provision as well as for energy conservation as communities become denser, supply chains are shortened and expertise is concentrated. But too often, the effects of increased urbanisation most adversely affect the poorest sections of society. Climate change, water shortage and increased population are all implicated in the emergence, or re-emergence, of diseases such as Chagas’ Disease, West Nile Virus, Ebola Virus, TB and Dengue Fever. How can we deploy simple scientific tools to combat these? Furthermore, how can the most advanced therapies, such as stem cell treatments, be made available to the developing world? Finally, do we have appropriate models and mechanisms available in the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps building on developments in genomics and systems biology, to provide solutions to the ever-growing demand for treatments?

The key to success is to match potential scientific and technological solutions to the challenges faced by humankind in wider social, economic and ethical contexts.  Pessimism, in the face of formidable change is not the way forward: what is needed is a sustained effort by scientists, engineers and clinicians to engage the public, to educate and inform, and to develop national and international polices that can genuinely change the way we live, benefit humankind as a whole and ensure that our continued survival is not merely a matter of chance.

Banner image: Stock photo.

Discussion meeting

This article is based on the discussion meeting 'The sustainable planet: opportunities and challenges for science, technology and society' which was held on 12-14 July 2010.

Related policy report

Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture

Published October 2009.

From the Royal Society's archives

Fellows of the Royal Society have reported on ways to treat disease since the earliest years of the Society, ranging from Dr James Fever Powder (George Pearson FRS, 1791) to the famous antibiotic effects of Penicillium notatum (Alexander Fleming FRS, 1928). However, new disease strains arise all the time, frequently afflicting the poorest members of society. This fact, together with shortages of food and resource, lead to the issues of balancing ‘human rights’ and ‘human obligations’ and developing sustainable ways of living.

James Lovelock FRS has argued for engineering solutions to this predicament1. Two earlier Fellows - Elsie Widdowson and Robert McCance - simply suggested that a nourishing diet should be based on sustainable sources. Their 1940 report The chemical composition of foods was ofimmense value to Britain during World War II and has proved to be highly influential.

Today, studies of sustainability cover all aspects of the need for energy and resources that impact on ecological diversity.  In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus FRS warned that dire consequences await the human race if our consumption of resources continues unchecked but it was not until the discoveries of greenhouse gases in the late 20th century that the degree of the threat became apparent.

Despite the great advances made in our understanding of sustainability since then, some nevertheless fear that disaster may be close. But before we prepare for the worst, we should note the opinion of Robert May FRS at the beginning of the 21st century: the important aspects of science are “laden with values” whilst the facts of science are “value free”2. This profound view will spur future efforts to recognize, monitor and model resource changes and adjust individual and societal behaviour to prevent future calamity.

[1] J. Lovelock (2008) A geophysiologist's thoughts on geoengineering, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 13 November 2008, vol. 366 no. 1882, 3883-3890

[2] R. May (2005) Royal Society Anniversary Address