Philippe D. Tortell, PNAS
Edited By Restore Earth Initiative
April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the birth of the modern environmental movement.
As we look back over the past half century, we can gain significant insights into the evolving human imprint on Earth’s biophysical systems, and the role of science and scientists in driving societal transitions toward greater sustainability. Science is a foundation for such transitions, but it is not enough. Rather, it is through wide collaborations across fields, including law, economics, and politics, and through direct engagement with civil society, that science can illuminate a better path forward.
This is illustrated through a number of case studies highlighting the role of scientists in leading positive societal change, often in the face of strong oppositional forces. The past five decades reveal significant triumphs of environmental protection, but also notable failures, which have led to the continuing deterioration of Earth’s natural systems.
Today, more than ever, these historical lessons loom large as we face increasingly complex and pernicious environmental problems.
The lessons of the past 50 years loom large as we reflect on the daunting environmental challenges we face today. History has provided many examples of our own failures as stewards of planet Earth, but there have also been some remarkable successes.
Where there is will and motivation, there is no doubt that we can take bold and concrete actions to tackle grand societal challenges, informed by robust science. As Greta Thunberg said in a 2019 address to the US Congress, “You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible.
Because giving up can never ever be an option.” As scientists, we must each recognize our own opportunities and responsibilities to help lead the way toward transformative societal change.
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