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i 10 HUMAN DIMENSIONS OF GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE* Roberta Bals tad Miller We have known for centuries that man has the power to alter the surface of the earth. A thousand years ago an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet described the ox that pulled his plow through newly cleared fields as the "grey enemy of the wood." But although the poet could see the gradual transformation of forests into farmland, he could not see the far-reaching second- and third-order consequences of the deforestation of the British Isles. Today we know that the changes set in motion by the ancient plowman did not stop with the destruction of the woods but led to widespread alterations in the land itself, affecting soil drainage, ero- sion, and fertility and eventually altering the climate that surrounded his descendants. WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? In the last 100 years, we have learned a great deal more than the Anglo-Saxon poet could have guessed about the variety of ways that we human beings continuously transform the earth. We have learned, first ? that seemingly insignificant patterns of behavior, repeated over long periods of time, can have major consequences for the environment. For example, we have seen that such basic agricultural activities as plowing and grazing have caused and continue to cause radical changes in the landscape that can lead to severe environmental problems. We have learned, further, that the soil erosion resulting from agriculture may be a far more serious source of water pollution than industrial effluents, that wildlife and the continued survival of certain plant species are as threatened by agricultural expansion as by the more visible encroachment of urbanization, and that land use patterns may be as critical a factor in climate change as are the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of chemicals by modern industry. *This paper was published in a somewhat different form as '"Global Change Research Challenges Social Sciences' in The AAAS Observor, July 7, 1989, p. 5. Copyright (c) 1989 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 84
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85 Second, we have learned that modern technologies, both through their demands for energy and through the life-styles they foster, are one of the major sources of global environmental change. At the present time, moreover, technology-based environmental change is intensifying. The rapid advances in technology characteristic of the twentieth century combined with the dissemination of these technologies across the globe conspire to increase anthropogenic or human influences on the environ- ment. What is particularly chilling about this source of environmental stress is that we have not had enough experience with these technologies or with their by-products to know what their long-term effects will be. We know that small manufactories from the mid-nineteenth century continue to pollute running water more than 100 years later. But the long-term influence of the chemical and technological residues of our own day--the insecticides and fertilizers, plastics and detergents, vehicular and industrial emissions--are generally unknown to us. We do know that 100 years from now, they will play a more significant role in shaping the environment of our grandchildren than the abandoned mills of the nine- teenth century have played in shaping our environment. Third, we have learned that one of the major threats to the earth's environment is the sheer mass of the earth's population. For example, one of the most important predictors of carbon dioxide production in any area is population density. Even if the population of the earth were stable, this would be a cause for concern. But our population is not stable; it is increasing more rapidly at the present time than it has at any previous point in the earth's history. Equally important, this growth in the world population is accompanied by an increase in the per capita consumption of goods. Together, the growth in population and the growth in consumption continually accelerate the complexity and magnitude of human impacts on the environment. WHAT IS BEING DONE? At the present time, the scientific community is engaged in a major international effort to study, model, and predict changes on the surface of the earth and in the atmosphere above the earth. Scientific attention has focused, however, on physical and biological processes of change. The activities of the Anglo-Saxon plowman and his successors are not seen as an integral part of research on these physical and biological pro- cesses. Instead, the human dimension has been isolated from ongoing scientific research on the earth system and relegated to distinctly separate spheres called "'social science" and "policy." It has been isolated not because it is unimportant, but because of the argument that the complexity of examining biogeochemical changes on a global scale will not permit the addition of so messy a set of analytic variables as humans and the institutions they create. This situation is changing. Increasingly, physical scientists are recognizing that their knowledge of physical processes of terrestrial or atmospheric change is incomplete without some understanding of the human
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86 dimensions of this change or of the ways that human action sets physical processes in motion and modifies ongoing processes. Similarly, biolo- gists and ecologists realize that a critical element in their study of ecological systems is human action. They have concluded that for sci- entific reasons they can no longer ignore human interactions with the environment. THE NATURE OF SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON GLOBAL CHANGE Parallel to this growing recognition among natural scientists of the need for research on the interactions of human, biological, and physical systems in global change is a similar interest within the social science community. Social scientists argue, however, that the nature of the research that is needed is broader than the natural scientists realize. Because natural scientists are primarily interested in physical and biological change, they recognize the need to learn more about anthro- pogenic influences on such change, that is, the direct interaction between human behavior and physical systems. But social scientists argue that to understand the human dimensions of global change, we must also understand patterns of behavior and interactions far more complex than that relatively straightforward nexus between the individual and the environment. There are two major reasons for this expansion of the scope of re- search. First, research on the human dimensions of global change must deal with a changing target over time, one that encompasses both human action and human reaction to the environment. We disturb the universe, to echo T. S. Eliot, and then we change our behavior in environmentally significant ways--in response both to the environmental changes we initiate and to other factors totally unrelated to the environment. A second reason that the human dimensions of global change are far more complex than the physical or natural dimensions of such change is that human action is embedded in institutions and cultures. We are influenced by economic, cultural, and political forces as well as by individual motivations. Research on the human dimensions of global change that ignores institutional imperatives, that ignores the various economic and political influences on people in different nations, that ignores the cultural diversity that distinguishes and, in some respects, dominates our actions, would be nearly as inadequate as research that ignores the human dimension altogether. THE RESEARCH AGENDA What is needed, and what is currently being started in a number of countries, is a series of broad social science research programs on the human dimensions of environmental change. Such research programs should be able to accomplish two tasks: (1) They should feed into the physical and natural science research activities already under way, and (2) they should simultaneously be concerned with those elements of the global change research agenda that are purely social and economic but that
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87 ultimately are as powerful determinants of environmental change as on- going physical and biological processes. This dual research agenda is rather daunting, yet both aspects are necessary. In addition, social science research on the human dimensions of global change must be global in scope, international in organization, institutional in focus, and historical in breadth. It must be global in scope because we are dealing with processes of change and interactions that are global. At the present time, social science research focuses on units of analysis that fall on a continuum stretching from the case study to the national study. Comparative cross-national research is an exception to this general practice, but even in comparative studies, research most frequently consists of a comparison of national phenomena or behavior in two or more nations. To understand global change, however, we must go beyond the nation state in defining research topics, for it is clear that environmentally significant events and actions work together across national boundaries. This is not to negate national influences or activities. National reg- ulations and laws, for example, continue to be important influences on global change both in the nation and in larger geographic areas. How- ever, if we are to understand the very critical interaction between the nation state and global change, national phenomena must be examined within the larger global context. A similar interaction takes place in local and regional environmental change. Whatever the geographic scale of our research, we must deal with the interactions between small-scale and global phenomena. The research program must also be international in organization. This is not the same as global. Global refers to space; international refers to political units across the globe. If there is to be a successful social science research program on global environmental change, it must involve collaboration and cooperation among social scientists of many nations. This is necessary to foster standardization of data collection, to test hypotheses in various settings, and to understand the role of cultural influences in shaping environmental attitudes. Social science research on global change must be institutional in focus. Environmentally significant human action is determined by structural and institutional requirements and by limitations ranging from national laws and regulations to profit margins, transportation patterns, agricultural markets, and tax structures, to name a few. To ignore the structural and institutional influences on human behavior is to close one of the most important windows we have on understanding environmental change. Finally, this research must be historical. By this, I mean it must be concerned with human and institutional activities over long periods of time. Because time constitutes an active variable in social behavior, social scientists tend to define the time limits of their research very carefully and, in practice, very narrowly. In empirical research pro- jects in particular, the time period covered by social science research is generally quite short. But the study of global change requires re- search over long time periods, and if we are to understand human inter- actions with the environment in their full complexity, social scientists -
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88 must be prepared to undertake research projects that examine changes over decades, or even centuries. RESEARCH AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY If such a research program were in place in the United States and in other nations, would it tell us what to do about the environment or how to reduce the adverse effects of human action? Unfortunately, it would not. There is a rapidly growing appreciation of the environmental problems caused by human action, and we recognize increasingly that we must respond to these problems as individuals and as nations before the changes we are setting in motion cause irreversible damage to the envi- ronment. There is a sense of urgency about the problem that is quite appropriate, given its magnitude. Yet we must be cautious about looking to research, whether in the social or the natural sciences, for definitive answers to difficult policy questions. Research is essential to understand the processes of change in the environment, and that understanding is critical for the ability of governments to make wise policy choices. Sound environmental policy must be informed by scientifically sound research in the social and natural sciences. But research in the social sciences or the natural sciences cannot--and should not--be used to prescribe a course of action for governments to take. This is not to underestimate the need for social science research on the human dimensions of global change. But it is to emphasize that the role of social science research in public policy is one of illumination, of informing the policy process. Goethe's last words on his deathbed were "mehr licht" (more light). I think they describe quite well what social science contributes to environmental policy--more light, essential light, without which our policies will be inadequate to meet the chal- lenge of our deteriorating environment. More light, without which we will never be able to comprehend the complex interrelationships between human beings and the globe we inhabit. SUMMARY In conclusion, the following points summarize important aspects about the study of human systems in global change. First, cumulative and in- tensifying environmental change on a global scale is the major problem facing the world at this point in our history. The scientific informa- tion we need must encompass physical, biological, and social processes of change. Second, in examining human and social forces in environmental change, we must deal both with direct human action and indirect institutional and structural causes of change in the earth system. We must examine de- forestation and the market economy that makes it profitable. We must examine ozone depletion and the regulatory climate that fosters continued use of chlorofluorocarbons. The topic of indirect structural and
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89 institutional influences on environmental change is one that requires a great deal of fundamental research in the next several years. Third, scientific research is essential to understand the environ- mental processes that are transforming the earth, but research itself cannot determine public policy. Sound national and international policies for coping with environmental change must be informed and clarified by scientific research, and particularly by social science research, but ultimately environmental policy, if it is to be effective, must be determined through the political process. In most nations, environmental policies will be produced within the framework of a social and political consensus on what constitutes just and responsible action. This is a task that will increasingly absorb the energies of our govern- ments over the next several decades, and if we expect to have wise and effective policies, we need to ensure that government officials have access to the best and most complete scientific understanding of envi- ronmental change. Writing in the eighth century' Bede compared the life of man on earth to the flight of a sparrow through a hall in which people are eating and talking on a winter's day. Outside it is cold and stormy. Inside it is warm and light. The sparrow flies in through one door and quickly out the other. While he is inside, he is safe from the storm, but after this brief moment of comfort he vanishes into the dark winter. ''In the same way," Bede wrote, tithe life of man on earth is only a short space. Of what went before and what follows after we know nothing." In some sense, this analogy applies to our study of global change. We have, until this point, concentrated on what is lighted and com- fortable, that is, the observable, measurable processes of change in concrete physical and biological systems. The next step must be to examine the darkness, those unknown processes of change operating outside the hall, the difficult analytical task of understanding the human dimensions in environmental change. If we do not venture outside the lighted area, we will have a fair chance of understanding what is going on within eyesight, but we will be condemned to having incomplete knowledge of the world. However, if we go beyond this, outside the comfort of what we know through empirical observation of physical systems, if we dare to challenge the darkness, we will be frequently confused, at times overwhelmed, but ultimately on the right track to understanding global change.
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