The Three Greatest Challenges of the 20th Century
by Dr. A. Alan Moghissi
Poverty has been a way of life for a huge segment of the human population since antiquity. Ignorance, toodespite considerable efforts by scholars, governments, and other groupsis a major, long-standing global problem. In contrast, the need to protect the environment has been recognized only recently. Although these three challenges may appear independent of one another, they have a causal interrelationship.
One of the great challenges of the current century has become defunct: Because of the development and large-scale production of weapons of mass destruction, it is likely that humankind has seen its final world war. No developed democracy would risk wholesale destruction of its citizens and infrastructure. While a few countries that possess such weapons may be willing to use them as more than deterrents, the world community actively seeks to promote democracy in those countries. Further, there is a concerted worldwide effort to prevent the use of such weapons. Regrettably, civil wars and ethnic and sectarian conflicts continue to kill multitudes, degrade the environment, and bring misery to millions of people. But the gravest problem of the 20th and recent centuriesextensive multinational warsapparently has been solved.
Precisely where societywide education was first attempted is unknown. China, Greece, Spain, and the countries of the Middle East had institutions of learning in ancient times. Probably the first documented law mandating education for all children was established in Strasbourg, France, in 1598. Today, all industrialized countriesindeed, the overwhelming majority of nationshave laws that mandate public education. The thrust of public education has long been two-pronged: to make children able to read and write and to provide them with basic instruction in literature, mathematics, and certain other subjects, such as history, geography, and art.
Despite enormous progress in world education, ignorance continues to be an important global problem. There are two major reasons for this: First, the difference between a society's desire for public education and its ability to provide it can be vast. Although literacy has improved significantly worldwide in recent decades, a large segment of the human population cannot read or write. Second, fighting illiteracy is not enough. Ignorance does not necessarily include an inability to read or write, and certainly illiterates are not necessarily ignorant. The faculty of reason is what chiefly distinguishes humans from other species. Literacy facilitates not only communication but also reasoning; it increases the probability of obtaining information and, therefore, the likelihood of making informed, reasonable decisions. But even the most compelling speakers and writers are not necessarily reasonable. Therefore, the thrust of public education, traditionally two-pronged, must be expanded to include a third "prong": critical thinking, lack of which undercuts efforts against poverty and environmental degradation.
As for poverty, some believe that it is a problem only for those countries in which it persists, but poverty has an impact on virtually every nation. Improvements in communication technology have enabled full awareness of human misery by the citizenries of all developed countries. Widespread famine is recurrent despite superabundant food production.
Recognizing poverty as their primary problem, many countries have set about aggressive development programs whose sole objective is to increase their respective populations' standard of living. But, in many cases, local education cannot meet development- program needs with respect to numbers of skilled workers, and environmental-protection needs are given short shrift.
How can one convince a poverty-stricken parent whose child is sick or hungry that protecting the environment is important? Destitute people have little or no desire to protect the environment. There is a misconception within the environmentalist community that technologic development and protecting the environment are inherently incompatible. Apparently, many environmentalists neglect (a) the equivalence between poverty and exposure to the most toxic pollutants and (b) poverty's causal relationship to environmental problems, such as the large-scale destruction of flora and fauna, soil erosion, and water pollution.
While most industrialized societies have a good understanding of poverty and at least a marginal understanding of ignorance, what constitutes protecting the environment is controversial. In certain countries, advocates of environmental protection call themselves ecologists. One environmentalist slogan is "Support your ecology." Most dictionaries (and the Natural Resources Defense Council) define "ecology" primarily as a branch of science whose focus is the relationship between organisms and their environment. By this definition, an ecologist is a scientist specializing in the study of such relationships. But the cores of most environmental advocacy organizations do not consist of scientists proficient in that field. The philosophy of most environmentalist groups is, in effect, that members of endangered species deserve protection and that, because there are billions of humans, humanity does not qualify for protection.
In the United States and in nearly all other democracies, environmental laws are established primarily to protect humans. For example, wildlife-preservation laws serve to maintain gene pools, which are potentially useful to human therapeutics. Although every civilized society has accepted avoidance of unnecessary harm to nonhuman animals as an ethical obligation, no society is willing to compare human lives to the lives of other organisms.
In the next century, poverty, ignorance, and protecting the environment will be the greatest challenges to the world community. Public education with three fociliteracy, the sciences, and critical thinkingis necessary for the elimination of poverty. And the elimination of ignorance and poverty is necessary for efficient protection of the environment. Excessive allocation of resources to deal with one of the three challenges will probably further complicate dealing with the other two.
Optimal allocation of resources requires that the scientific and engineering communitieswith their peer-review and consensus processesparticipate in policy development. The role of advocacy groups for any causeincluding fighting poverty, promoting education, and protecting the environmentis to convince the electorate that their goals must be met and that their respective strategies for achieving these goals are sound. But ignorance should not be promoted, even inadvertently, for any cause. Therefore, every scientific or engineering aspect of advocacy-group goals and related strategies belongs exclusively within the purview of the scientific and engineering communities.
A. Alan Moghissi, Ph.D., chairs ACSH's board of directors and heads the Institute for Regulatory Science, in Alexandria, Virginia.
© 1997 & 1998 American Council on Science and Health