From the director: Earth Day and the next 40 years

Posted by KristenM on April 22nd, 2010

SERC director Anson 'Tuck' Hines

Anson 'Tuck' Hines, director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

This spring we celebrate the 40th Earth Day – an anniversary marking a journey of commitment for me and others at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. For the first Earth Day in 1970, I was a new graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. Then as now, it was a raucous time with the country at war and intense focus on civil rights and the role of government.

The first Earth Day developed as a grassroots movement with teach-ins focused on the environment. I focused on a career in ecology, but Earth Day inspired my commitment to solutions for human impacts on the biosphere. In the ivory tower of Berkeley, applied research was then portrayed as a lower calling to “pure research.” But I was committed to merging fundamental ecology applied to human impacts, now a hallmark of SERC research.

NASA photo of Earth from space.

Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

Several issues then highlighted the environmental crisis and point to both progress and major concerns today. One was a ban DDT, the insecticide featured in Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, which causes egg shell thinning and drastic declines in bird populations. A success story, today we celebrate many ospreys and a pair of eagles nesting at SERC. However, we are still worried about toxic mercury spewing into the environment and accumulating up the food chain like DDT. Today SERC microbial ecologist Cindy Gilmour sees new hope as mercury is beginning to be scrubbed from coal-fired power plants.

In 1970 the Whole Earth Catalog with its iconic cover image was a major resource for information on sustainability; I still have copies. As Apple’s Steve Jobs points out, this was the precursor to Google in a time before the Internet. Today our access to the World Wide Web allows instantaneous global connection to information, as SERC’s distance learning programs and Web site show well.

The first Earth Day emphasized the future impacts of human population growth, exemplified then by Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb. In 1970 the world’s population was 3.7 billion. Today it has nearly doubled to 6.8 billion, with projections of more than 9 billion people in another 40 years. Forty years ago 8 million people lived in the Chesapeake watershed; today there are 17 million, headed toward 25 million by 2050. Our economy assumes that growth can be sustained indefinitely, but ecology shows that resources are finite and limit populations at ecosystem carrying capacity. SERC research indicates overfishing by the ever-growing human population is limiting the Chesapeake blue crab stock, like many other fisheries around the world.

The first Earth Day stressed the integration of Earth’s ecosystems. In just 40 years, global change – especially the effects of climate warming – is rapidly overwhelming us. SERC was established just 45 years ago with the prescient purpose of understanding how coastal ecosystems respond to climate change. I hope that you feel the urgency of SERC’s mission to understand and sustain the Earth’s ecosystems over the next 40 years and beyond.

— Anson “Tuck” Hines, Director
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

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