Pulling Together to Save the Planet

Our environmental institute brings a focused approach.

March/April 2004

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Pulling Together to Save the Planet

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

It has been nearly 35 years since a small band of ecovisionaries, led by Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Stanford alumnus Denis Hayes, ’69, organized the first Earth Day. Lack of attention to environmental issues had led to agricultural and industrial pollution in lakes, streams and the atmosphere; a growth in automobile traffic with minimal emission controls had polluted the air in many cities and suburbs.

Today, our problems have evolved but they are no less challenging. Now we understand how to avoid the most egregious errors of the past. What is less clear is how to build a world that supports sustainable development—a world where there is sufficient fresh water, clean air, energy and food to support a population that continues to grow.

It is in that challenging context that I recently announced the launch of the Stanford Institute for the Environment, which I believe will set a new standard for environmental research and teaching. The institute will bring together faculty and students from all seven of Stanford’s schools to attack some of the most pressing environmental challenges of the new century.

Anyone who knows Stanford’s roots won’t be surprised that our students and faculty have made the environment a priority. Jane and Leland Stanford were clear that the University should seek to improve the world. Many of the pioneers of environmental science—people like Paul Ehrlich, Donald Kennedy and Perry McCarty—have made Stanford a center of research in this area. What is surprising, perhaps, is that Stanford has never formally brought together the researchers from these many disciplines, given the vast scope of environmental challenges that the world faces.

But patience in this regard has been a virtue. The absence of a centralized “school of environmental science” has generated creative research throughout the University, as well as collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. In that sense, the development of the study of the environment is in the best tradition of Stanford—significant research initiated by faculty at the grassroots and coalescing into broader initiatives. It is on that strong foundation that we are building this new institute.

Under the leadership of Jeffrey R. Koseff, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Barton H. Thompson, professor of law, the institute will promote multidisciplinary environmental research, provide enhanced environmental education and foster outreach to policy makers. Our goal is to create the scientific infrastructure, discover and demonstrate solutions, and help develop policies that will lead to sustainable approaches to development.

If our informal efforts have yielded such positive results, why do we need a new institute? It’s a fair question, and the answer is twofold. First, the challenges have become increasingly complex and now involve an array of scientific, sociocultural, economic and ethical dimensions. Second, the institute is necessary to consolidate and enhance Stanford’s many existing environmental programs and attract scholars on the cutting edge of these disciplines to the University.

To cite even a couple of examples of how the institute might make a difference makes clear the magnitude of the task. Somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water or proper sewage disposal and treatment facilities. The consequence is a devastating range of public health problems and disease. Stanford faculty already are exploring the innovative use of new technologies for water conservation as well as the development of economic, institutional and legal frameworks that will smooth the transition to sustainable water use.

On a different front, there are increasing dangers to the millions of species with whom we share the planet. Human activities are driving the extinction of species at rates hundreds of times faster than occur naturally. As we lose those species and the ecosystems they inhabit, we lose the possibilities of new foods and pharmaceuticals and systems that in the past provided us with clean water and fertile soils. We also lose some of the precious biodiversity that can never be regained. At Stanford, we draw together expertise from biology, geology, anthropology, economics and law to develop approaches to the conservation of ecosystems and the plants and animals that inhabit them.

These are only two examples. There are many more challenges that our faculty and students will address in the new institute—problems such as the effects of growing industrialization; the task of producing and distributing food in an environmentally sustainable manner for a population expected to grow by several billion people in the next 50 years; clean and efficient energy production; and environmental challenges to urban systems.

It is hard not to sound melodramatic when talking about the enormity of the undertaking in this area. This is the century when human beings must learn how to live on this planet in an environmentally sustainable way. I believe that the Stanford Institute for the Environment can make a difference in that eminently worthwhile effort.

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