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Growth, Sustainability Focus of Gibbons’ Talk

By Erik Snowberg

John H. Gibbons, former science advisor to President Clinton , discussed the challenges for science and technology in the 21st century in his third Karl Taylor Compton lecture. His talk was entitled, “Sustainable Growth: Fantasy or Vision.”

Gibbons, who served as Clinton’s Science Advisor from 1992-1998, focused on environmental issues and also stressed the role of scientists in keeping track of public policy.

After exploring the challenges mankind will face in the next century he concluded that he was “not optimistic” about the future of humanity. He said that in dealing with these challenges “humanity will fall short of its potential.”

Talk third in series

Gibbons began his talk by reviewing the contents of his other two Compton Lectures. Those lectures dealt with the historical impacts of science and technology -- both good and bad.

Gibbons defined several issues which he felt would be of paramount importance in the next century. He said that we had come to a “moment of truth” in the world’s history. “This will be a momentous and extraordinary century in human history,” he said.

He showed several slides which detailed projected population expansion over the next century. Other slides showed the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He pointed to these factors as “clear evidence that the Earth was reaching it’s limits.”

Gibbons compared humanity’s impact on the planet to that of an asteroid. The difference between the two was that the impact of humans took place over hundreds of years, whereas an asteroid’s damage occurred all at once. Humans are “the hit that keeps on hitting.”

Vision and Fantasy

Gibbons classified approaches to sustainable growth and development as either vision or fantasy. He said that the usual approaches fell into the category of fantasy. These approaches included “sticking it to the next generation” which he said would no longer work.

Another approach based in fantasy was what he called “Disney’s Law -- wishing will make the problems go away.” He said this approach was typified by Congress’ recent instructions to the Environmental Protection Agency which do not allow the agency to do any research on global warming.

He said that approaches based in vision were those designed to “foresee and forestall” problems. These policies should be “anchored in reality,” and backed up by research.

Challenges for the Future

Gibbons listed what he felt were the most important challenges of the future. According to Gibbons, the first challenge is to avoid the use of weapons of mass destruction. He said that it was important to finish the strategic arms limitation treaties, START II and START III as well as the comprehensive test ban treaty.

Gibbons also suggested that we need to change the way we provide goods and services. He said that life cycle costs of buildings and appliances should be considered. Industry and the government should work towards zero net carbon emission energy supplies.

Another challenge was the use of free resources. He said that national forests, which were set aside for sustainable use, were instead being used as tree farms.

The final challenge enumerated by Gibbons was stabilizing world population. He described the current exponential rate of population growth as the “biggest threat to humanity.”

Gibbons served as the director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment before his appointment as President Clinton’s Science Advisor. He earned his Ph.D. from Duke University in Nuclear Physics and worked for several years in alternative energy development at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has held numerous government posts over the years.

The Karl Taylor Compton Lectures were established to honor the ninth president of MIT. The Lectures are sponsored by a different department each year; this year’s were sponsored by the Political Science Department. Past lecturers have included the head of the National Academy of Engineering and a Nobel Laureate.