Schlesinger's finale

Antonia Shoumatoff
Bill Schlesinger receives a standing ovation at his talk "If I Had a Hammer".

Scientists have been sounding the alarm for our planet for at least several decades, but perhaps no voice has been as consistent as that of Dr. William Schlesinger of the Cary Institute. On April 25, to a packed audience, Schlesinger gave his last Friday night talk before he retires in June.

"This is my last significant public appearance. I am proud of our Friday night presentations at the Cary Institute, as well as our author and artist residencies and the WAMC Earth Wise. I wanted to translate the complicated issues of our times so they could be better understood by the public."

Dr. Schlesinger's mission has been to bring science into the public arena. During his term as president, he and his team of scientists have done much to explain critical scientific research and make it available in a broader sphere.

In his final talk, called "If I Had a Hammer," he "hammered" home what he sees as the critical four points, which he calls the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." The points are unbridled population growth, the fallacy of the benefits of economic growth, unmitigated greed, and species and habitat decimation. With all of this, he warns that the waging of new wars would have dire consequences for an environment that is already fragile.

An environmentalist without Dr. Schlesinger's scientific training might be accused of being alarmist, but Dr. Schlesinger had science, statistics and line graphs to back up his points. Our situation is dire, more dire than we may think.

"We are fouling our nest, and we need to do better. The fisheries of the ocean are being depleted, and we are experiencing a severe loss of species. Our population rates may be slowing but they are still growing, and the per capita power consumption has increased by a power of ten as the growth of population has gone from one billion to almost seven billion in the last two hundred years."

Dr. Schlesinger emphasized the need for family planning in developing countries and the right of women to choose whether to have children. He said there is a direct correlation between the number of people and the amount of carbon dioxide on the planet.

The second "Horseman of the Apocalypse" was what he called the fallacy of the benefits of economic growth.

"Companies should be satisfied with making a small profit and putting some of that back into research and development; bigger is not always better. Only madmen and economists believe in unmitigated growth. Some people say we have grown economically because of the production of nitrogen fertilizers producing more food, but the environmental effects of those fertilizers have fouled the fresh and coastal waters."

Continuing in this cheerful vein, Dr. Schlesinger brought up what he sees as the third Apocalyptic Horseman, the forces of greed:

"Looking at the squirrels on my bird feeder, I am reminded of the behavior on Wall Street. We still want our large cars and our large houses. When it snows, we want our roads salted right away so we can drive right away to get more stuff. Darwinian behavior is manifest in human behavior. A corporate world without regulation is a sure road to the apocalypse of the planet."

"We will never get off fossil fuels unless we start taxing carbon emissions," he continued, with some authority as one of the leading experts on climate change and carbon sequestration.

The Fourth Horseman, he said, heralds species decimation. Explaining that the Cary Institute does a lot of biochemical studies trying to understand the effects of human behavior on the environment, Dr. Schlesinger showed a photo of a frog, deformed from the use of a pesticide, Atrazine, that is widely used on crops.

"Many species are now in rapid decline. Species diversity is what makes a difference to the world at large. Each individual species plays a unique role in holding an ecosystem together. It may be illegal to kill an endangered species outright but okay to develop the land that provides its habitat. You cannot predict which species destruction might cause the collapse of an entire ecosystem. One third of species are expected to go extinct in the next century."

That fewer birds can result in more destructive insects was one of the long-term trends that emerged in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest study done by the Cary Institute.

Towards the end of his talk, Dr. Schlesinger acknowledged the critical role of Flagler Trust trustee Ned Ames in supporting Cary's work and helping the research to get into the national science arena as well as major public information disseminators such as National Public Radio. Dr. Schlesinger brought up his staff and many of his supporters to share in the standing ovation he received in this meaningful final talk.

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