Those who survive us in the coming centuries might see sugar maples wiped out south of the Maine border, the Everglades under water, more rain across the planet as well as more drought, and population explosions such as Africa alone topping 4.5 billion people, according to Dr. John H. Gibbons, who was science advisor to President Clinton from 1992 until earlier this year.
Dr. Gibbons, who delivered his first of two talks as Karl Taylor Compton lecturer last Thursday in the Tang Center's Wong Auditorium, spoke on "The 21st Century: Will Science and Technology Contribute to Society or Scuttle It?"
"Human activities are beginning to dominate our global parameters. We can't blithely say it's OK, but how do we fix it?" Dr. Gibbons said. "The 21st century is the time to do something about that."
Technology is causing the planet to lose species and habitats at an amazing rate, affecting the atmosphere on a global scale and causing growing world populations to outstrip the planet's resources, he said. The million-dollar question is whether people can get motivated enough now to counter environmental effects that take a "a century or two to make a difference."
Dr. Gibbons, whom President Charles Vest described as "a forceful and effective advocate for using science and technology to address larger public issues," was previously a longtime director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. An accomplished nuclear physicist, he worked at Duke and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, where he did pioneer work in energy conservation research and development.
Quoting Robert Louis Stevenson and economist Robert Heilbronner, among others, on the tenuous relationship between humans and technology, Dr. Gibbons said he is still awestruck by the power that technology wields. When he looks up at the heavens, he said he realizes that the stratosphere has been altered by ozone depletion caused by human activities, and carbon dioxide is reaching levels not seen for 50 million years.
The good news, he said, is that innovative technology coupled with political decrees have helped slow ozone depletion to a point where the atmosphere can recover over the next few decades.
The biggest challenge in addressing problems like ozone depletion, carbon dioxide buildup and overpopulation is that they escalate steadily and irreversibly while people respond to them too slowly to effect timely change, he said.
"With sufficient lead time, most of these issues can be addressed using ingenuity with science and technology, but we need the political will to do so, before our back is up against the wall," Dr. Gibbons said.
Because humans have the potential for both good and evil, technology can be used to both ends, he said. While technology has spawned conveniences and amenities too numerous to list, it also has "led to weapons of mass destruction on a scale never before witnessed on the face of the Earth," he said.
In the 20th century, economic growth was equated with progress, but in the next century, growth may not be able to continue at the same rate. While there's "no limit to human greed," Dr. Gibbons said he hopes people will think more carefully about growth and progress. "It's incumbent on us to think about the futureï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ [this includes] outreach to the developing world on understanding the value of alternative growth patterns for a sustainable future."
Sponsored each time by a different academic department, the Compton Lectures have brought a distinguished array of global leaders to the MIT campus. Compton Lecturers have included statesmen Hubert Humphrey and former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and Nobel laureates Niels Bohr and Linus Pauling. (Last year's lecturer was both a statesman and a Nobel laureate, Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica.)
This year's lecture series is sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Department of Political Science. Dr. Gibbons will deliver the second lecture of the series on November 30 in the Tang Center.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 28, 1998.