Science Diplomacy for the 21st Century

Universe in 2009 / by Nina Fedoroff /

On being a citizen of a world without borders or boundaries.

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New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has attracted attention with his declaration that the world is flat. By this he means that the internet revolution and globalization have put all peoples of the world on an equal economic footing. A comforting message.

But despite the extraordinary increase in our ability to communicate and access information, we all know that the world is far from flat, even metaphorically.

There is a profound gap between the well-fed citizens of affluent nations with access to up-to-date technology and excellent educational opportunities and citizens of the poorest countries of every continent, many of whom lack adequate food and often have no electricity, never mind broadband internet access or higher education.

In this year’s book, Friedman concedes that the flat world is also hot and crowded. He has begun to acknowledge the degradation and depredation of our planet by a very large and clever human population still growing in both numbers and affluence. He calls for a Green Revolution to strengthen America and to ameliorate global warming and biodiversity loss through conservation and clean energy innovations.

Curiously, Friedman does not address what most of the world understands as the meaning of the Green Revolution: increasing the productivity of farmers in poor countries that have not yet benefited from 20th-century advances in scientific farming.

But I have no real quarrel with Friedman. Indeed, his optimism is essential. And one simply can’t tackle — much less solve — all of the world’s problems at once.

Yet that is precisely the challenge that the 21st century thrusts on us by virtue of the last century’s spectacular success in using fossil fuels to grow more food, to move us faster, and to make more hats and houses to sell each other. Climate change is a wake-up call: A changing climate knows no borders.

But it is only a wake-up call. Once awake, we notice that our rush toward renewable energy from biofuels accelerates deforestation in the Amazon, however indirectly, and that with each acre lost, another multitude of species goes extinct. We begin to understand that trade barriers and farm subsidies do nothing to move a hungry billion off food aid and toward food security.

An empty operation theater in an African hospital. Courtesy: Teseum.

We see that filling our hospitals with Pakistani doctors and African nurses leaves hospitals in Pakistan and Africa hurting. We understand that building walls is not kind — and no kind of answer to poor and hungry people seeking better lives. We acknowledge that airplanes can make SARS and multidrugresistant TB our problem in a heartbeat. And then we suddenly realize that Wall Street’s malady is the whole world’s sickness.

We are finally awake to the fact that we are citizens of a world without borders.

Of late the pundits and commentators have begun to say that food and energy are fungible: They are on parallel, interconnected ladders climbing out of sight. A short breather now as prices tumble a bit. But there’s pressure from 6 billion people building toward an inexorable 7, sensibly clamoring for better food, more protein, with each step up out of poverty.

What about the water and the land to grow the food —  and feed and fiber and fuel? Both in short supply. And did you know that the amount of arable land has not changed appreciably in more than half a century? We are losing it to salinization, desertification, and urbanization about as fast as we’re adding it. And it’s almost a sure bet that pulling down what remains of our tropical forests will impact climate. It’s one big thorny tangle: people, money, food, energy, health, water, land, climate, biodiversity. We live in a small and crowded world without borders or boundaries.

But how do we become citizens of a crowded world (without borders or boundaries) that speaks myriad languages and worships more than one mutually exclusive only god?

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