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FUSEE sees a Wildfire Triad that inalienably links Safety with Ethics and Ecology. If expedient policy decisions cause unsafe outcomes for wildland firefighters, then most probably ethics and ecosystems become damaged. When captured processes yield unethical results then, no doubt, safety becomes compromised and wildland ecology becomes harmed. When wildland management strictures trammel ecosystems, then you can bet firefighter safety withers and our legacy of wildland ethics atrophies. Scientific analyses remain the best chronicles of this triad. In this series, we explore crucial articles, analyses, and reports that demonstrate the best in wildland fire research.  

At the approach of the 21st century, Jane Lubchenco’s article, Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science described “urgent and unprecedented environmental and social changes’ and advocated a “new social contract” that urges scientists to focus on the most important and crucial societal quandaries in exchange for public funding. This “includes more comprehensive information, understanding, and technologies for society to move toward a more sustainable biosphere—one which is ecologically sound, economically feasible, and socially just.” 

We offer a summary of Dr. Lubchenco’s noteworthy article.

Global Changes and Their Causes. Human population growth and explosive resource extraction have altered Earth in aberrant ways. Industry, commerce, agriculture, fisheries, and recreation have transformed land and sea; altered biogeochemical cycles (carbon, nitrogen, water, synthetic chemicals, etc.); and profoundly harmed genetically distinct populations through exploitation, habitat loss, and spread of invasive species. 

Humans “dominate Earth in six ways: (i) humans transformed almost one-half of land surface; (ii) atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration increased 30% since the Industrial Revolution; (iii) more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural terrestrial sources combined; (iv) more than half of all accessible surface freshwater is recruited for human use; (v) about one-quarter of the bird species are now extinct; and (vi) approximately two-thirds of major marine fisheries have been fully exploited or depleted.

Changes for Ecosystem Services and Humanity.  Human health and prosperity depend upon diverse, functioning ecological systems in profound and unknown ways. Primary threats to ecosystem services include habitat degradation or loss, changes in biodiversity, release of toxic substances, stratospheric ozone depletion, and synergistic interactions among these factors with rapid climate change, However, the functioning of many ecosystems could be restored if appropriate actions were taken in time. 

Lubchenco also advocates a Redefining of the Concept of the “Environment.”  

  1. Human health. Components of human health strongly tied to environmental health include good air quality, clean drinking water, clean food, and minimal exposure to toxic chemicals and UV-B radiation. Direct environmental effects include increases in heat stress, decreases in cold-related mortality, and increases in air pollution–related pulmonary and allergic complications. Indirect environmental impacts on human health include land-use practices, climatic change, and population density on emergence and transmission of diseases {such as Lyme disease, hantavirus, malaria, trypanosomiasis, schistosomiasis, cholera, and yellow fever.}
    Over the last century, human activities have more than doubled the 140 Tg/year amount of naturally fixed nitrogen and entering the global terrestrial nitrogen cycle. Fertilizer manufacture, planting of legumes unnaturally over larger areas, and burning of fossil fuels—now contribute more than an additional 140 Tg/year. Dangers lurk in increased atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, smog, and acid rain. Soils become acidified and stripped of nutrients essential for continued fertility. Streams and lakes risk becoming acidified and deposit toxic levels of nitrogen compounds into estuaries and coastal waters and lead to long-term declines in coastal fisheries and accelerated losses of species diversity in aquatic and land-based ecosystems. Many harmful algal blooms respond to increases in nutrients.
  2. The economy. The economy depends on a healthy environment, not a “jobs versus the environment” false choice, and not a decision between short-term gain and long-term, sustained prosperity. When we destroy wetlands, clear-cut forests, degrade coral reefs, drive natural populations and species to extinction, and introduce alien species, we disrupt the functioning of ecosystems and incur staggering unanticipated costs. Also, we risk having to manufacture, grow, or otherwise provide what we once got for free.  Ecosystem services operate on such a grand scale and in such intricate and little-explored ways that most could not replaced by technology.
  3. Social justice. Economically disadvantaged groups disproportionately bear the consequences of environmental degradation. Wealthier countries ship off their pollution while their rich citizens move away from degraded and contaminated sites. Wealthy people readily access information about alternative choices, influence political processes, cope with environmental disasters, buy better food, and purchase quality medical services.
  4. National security. Analysts view environmental issues as national security concerns, with multiple, complex connections among population growth, environmental quality, and competition for scarce resources. Degrading environments will cause economic and social dislocation and disruption, leading to disease, migration, ethnic strife, civil war, insurgency, world war, and ecoterrorism. 

In summary, national security, social justice, the economy, and human health are appropriately considered to be environmental issues because each is dependent to some degree on the structure, functioning, and resiliency of ecological systems. Linkages among the social, political, economic, physical, biological, chemical, and geological systems present new challenges to scientists. 

The Roles of Science. Society expects two outcomes from its investment in science: the best possible science and the production of something useful. An emphasis on investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed science helps meet the first expectation.

The second part of the contract anticipates that societal investments in science will lead to winning wars, conquering diseases, creating products, and improving the economy. This second expectation often directs decisions concerning allocating funds that anticipate a benefit to society.

In summary, the traditional roles of science—to discover, communicate, and use knowledge and train the next generation of scientists—have not changed, but the needs of society have been altered dramatically. The extent of human dominance of our planet will require new kinds of scientific knowledge and applications needed to reduce rates that we alter Earth systems. We must better understand Earth’s ecosystems and how they interact with the numerous components of human-caused global change. We must derive a comprehensive and integrative knowledge to manage our planet. 

A New Social Contract for Science? This New Social Contract should recognize the extent of human domination of the planet. The Contract should assume that scientists will (i) address the most urgent needs of society, in proportion to their importance; (ii) communicate their knowledge and understanding widely in order to inform decisions of individuals and institutions; and (iii) exercise good judgment, wisdom, and humility. 

The new Contract could model “the Manhattan Project and anticipate major investments in fundamental research that extend well beyond basic research and training activities. Scientists must communicate to the public and policy-makers the extent and urgency of the environmental and social problems before us and assist society to move toward a more sustainable biosphere.  We must reexamine the “grand problems” traditionally researched in various scientific disciplines. We can no longer afford to have the environment accorded a marginal status on our agendas. The environment is not a marginal issue, it is the issue of the future, and the future is here now.