Danforth Center
11:15 pm
Sun February 16, 2014

Commentary: Drive To Understand Can Help Hold Off Potential Environmental Disaster

Condensed from the State of the Center report to the community.

When we started, I dreamed, perhaps romantically, that our center would be part of a major human adventure of the 21st century. We would try to make the most of the wonderful human desire to know how the world really works, in our case how plants really work. This drive to understand, shaped through its evermore powerful modern offspring, science, can help hold off potential environmental disaster. In doing so, we hoped also to bring benefits and perhaps even a little credit to our home community.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Credit Provided by the center

Pursuing such goals is exhilarating for me; I hoped it would be for others as well. But I worried; science can seem esoteric and difficult to understand. Moreover the benefits of better understanding can be delayed, even a decade or more while results that are faster, even if not as game-changing, may seem more appealing to many donors. To really succeed we would have to have world-class scientists and scientific leaders, volunteers, donors, facilities, wise decision-makers, a helpful local culture, money and luck.

I could not have expected when we started that our center would be as successful as it is by February 2014. I did not know that this building would be full or dream that we would be preparing to start a new wing, or that we would have an endowment worth over $230 million, or annual gifts well over $1.5 million, from over 740 supporters or that our science and scientific leaders would be world class, as would our staff, or that BRDG park would be successful, or that there would even be an Ag Innovation Showcase or strong education programs, or that our contributions to science and modern technologies would have advanced so rapidly that we would be in the leadership role we are today.

Ability to adapt

The world faces a serious challenge, different in magnitude from ever before. Humans in the past have suffered greatly from environmental problems. A decade ago Jared Diamond wrote “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” an arresting book on ecological disasters of Easter Island of the Pitcairn Island chain, of the Mayans and of the Norse in Greenland, all caught by unforeseen environmental change to which they failed to adapt.

Why did they not change and adapt? One, failure to perceive the problems, two, failure to act after perceiving the problem, especially failure to act for selfish reasons – e.g. “If I continue doing what I am doing, others may suffer, but my family will still be OK.” I’d add another reason: too short time horizons; we think in weeks when we should be thinking in decades. I imagine that such causes of error are always with humans.

But today the risks are truly greater. 

Populations have grown. I was born in 1926 when the world’s population was about 2 billion, having doubled in the previous century. Today it is about 7.15 billion, three and a half times as many as when I joined.  And the numbers continue to grow.

Rapid use of resources. As meat eating has spread, each person needs much -- more land, more water, more energy and more fertilizer -- just to eat. In addition, with the help of science and technology we humans now consume more resources as we pursue our dreams.

We can fly to California or Beijing or Paris. We can reclaim petroleum and coal buried for centuries, extract the energy and use it to drive to Schnucks and buy blueberries with outside temperatures below zero. We can build massive bridges and tunnels, we can transform mountains into ski resorts with hot food and warm buildings.

Learning what is needed

No one knows what the carrying capacity of the world is, but no one thinks it is infinite. Humans, like all living things, are dependent on a supportive environment for survival. In the past when environments have collapsed, those affected have died or moved on while the rest of the world hardly noticed. But now there are so many of us with so much power we can change the environment of the whole world all at once, and we can’t run away to the moon or Mars.

Edward Gibbon, author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” is often quoted as pointing out that history “registers the crimes, follies and misfortunes of humankind.” I doubt if any of us would disagree or could not add chapter and verse.

But we might not sound so pessimistic. We have seen too many unselfish heroes, too many good things, too much improvement in the health and wellbeing of most people, too much expansion of democracy and freedom and learning and you can add to the list. These wonders have come to us because of deeper understanding of how the world really works, insights gained slowly and painfully over centuries of trial and error.

But fortunately science has speeded up and hastened discovery and learning so that we have fewer excuses for repeating the errors of the past. And thanks to science, we have seen an enormous increase in understanding of nature, how to live with it, how to preserve the environment and even how to make it better. And we now detect warning signs better so that, if we are willing, we can recognize the risk of environmental catastrophes that caught our ancestors unprepared. And we have also learned how to learn faster, much faster.

We live in a grand and glorious era, with opportunities for each generation to learn more from history and chart wiser courses.  Since this is the annual report of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, you will not be surprised if I say that we are all contributing by helping center scientists succeed in the quest better to understand how plants really work, how they fit into the environment, how we can alter them to make them work better for us, how we humans can alter our behavior to make us better partners with plants in feeding the hungry and in preserving and improving the environment.

Finally, I believe if we educate ourselves and put our confidence in human intelligence and in science rigorously applied by talented individuals, we can help add another positive chapter to the human story. Thanks for being a part of all this.

Note: Because of an editor's error, the byline was incorrect on an earlier version of this article.

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