TO end its first century - and begin the next - the world's fourth-largest magazine wanted to do more than focus on itself. This month, 40 million readers of the December issue will find on the cover an arresting holographic image of a crystal globe being shattered by a bullet, with the accompanying question: ``Can man save this fragile earth?''
Always a friend of the environment - 80 years ago they fought for California's Redwoods - National Geographic editors have also done something they never had in 1,200 previous issues: devote the entire magazine to a single subject, the environment. Perhaps most important, behind the pictures and prose are at least two major, national 1988 initiatives providing tools for a worldwide, geo-environmental ``great leap forward.''
``Environmental apocalypse is now,'' said Wilbur Garrett, the editor, after a last-issue kickoff speech in which he recounted the burgeoning lexicon of environmental admonitions: ``ozone holes,'' ``greenhouse effect,'' ``global warning,'' ``solid waste,'' ``pesticide poisoning,'' ``extinctions,'' ``acid rain.''
``These aren't just scare words anymore, they are realities. We've borrowed the earth from our children, and unless we come around very quickly, we're going to give it back to them in very bad shape.''
To start that ``come-around,'' the National Geographic Society last January held a major, five-day symposium on global prospects with speakers from two dozen disciplines. The idea was not to encourage mere handwringing, but to focus new eyes - even corporate pocketbooks - on urging corrective measures for the future.
And in the spring, the organization announced its $20 million National Geographic Education Foundation, aimed at not only obliterating geographic illiteracy among children but in stimulating careers in geography and related fields. A growing reservoir of research grants is earmarked for studies into the problems posed by its symposium. The foundation intends to provide a permanent basis of support for the society's activities in geography education.
Lloyd H. Elliott, president of George Washington University and now president of the foundation, says he wants the foundation to focus public attention on the critical lack of geographic literacy in this country, to bring together the resources needed to remedy the situation, and to target those funds where they can make a real difference: in the hands of classroom teachers and students.
The current issue uses stylized maps, opulent photos, and thoughtful stories to provide a warning of environmental apocalypse. ``During one brief century mankind has passed the point of global optimism and entered an era of global protection,'' writes society board chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor. ``There is hardly a place in this land where the lesson is not written plain for all to see.''
And for the entire year of their centennial, Mr. Grosvenor and top editors have been beating the drum for their environmental theme in speeches, conferences, and grass-roots discussions. The current issue, with lavish displays on Brazil's Imperiled Rain Forest, Alaskan Caribou, Whales, and oil-drilling in the Arctic, sounds a sobering bugle call. But in remarks accompanying the magazine-cover unveiling, editor Garrett sees much room for optimism.
``I don't think the human animal is crazy enough to commit suicide deliberately,'' he says, ``but I think we'll go close to the edge before we back off.''
Garrett sees the issue of environment in the next four years as one that will unite political and geo-social constituencies like an ``invasion from Mars, in which each will drop his petty differences with the other to combat the common, greater enemy.'' He welcomes an ever-increasing warming trend in the social ``environment'' for environmentalists. ``Not long ago we were called radicals and tree huggers and whale lovers and subjected to ribbings of all kinds,'' he says. ``Now even a businessman can stand up and declare himself an environmentalist and be applauded for it.''
That new awareness will carry over into politics in the next four years, he says, more so than any time before in this century. ``You won't see anyone elected in 1992 that is not extremely conversant with the environment and its issues.''
Participants in the society's symposium highlighted some of those issues: the impact of genetic engineering on increased plant productivity, resistance to disease, and in reducing needs for pesticides and fertilizers; electrical superconductivity; fusion power; the need to preserve fossil fuels; and extinctions.
``Possibly the most important factor of anything being done by any environmentalist,'' says Garrett, ``is the preservation of species, both plant and animal. We have no idea which of these might contain the life-saving agent that might help produce a disease-resistant strain of corn, for instance.''
A section of the current issue is devoted to one such reason for optimism: the Nature Conservancy. Thirty years ago, conservancy founders came to the conclusion that the surest, most efficient way to preserve natural land was ``not to beg for it, but to buy it.'' Purchasing lands from the Carolinas to the Dakotas and Latin America, the Conservancy has created 1,100 preserves and boasts 1,000 acres more a day.
Another reason for optimism, according to Garrett, is a project he has been involved with in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. ``La Ruta Maya'' is a multinational effort to unite historical and cultural sites with other recreational attractions - beaches, villages - to provide tourist income to fight abject poverty and to create preservation incentives.
``Now that we've overdeveloped our part of the world, we can't just go to these people of abject poverty and say, `Don't cut your trees, we need them to provide oxygen,''' says Garrett. ``We have to give them an economic/cultural incentive.''
``Part of the problem with international solutions to environmental problems is breaking down historical and regional prejudices,'' he says. ``In two years [working on La Ruta Maya] we managed with a lot of people's help to see these barriers broken,'' the editor says. At a recent meeting, Guatemalan hosts referred to invited Belizeans as sus hermanos - our brothers. ``The newspapers picked it up and said it was the first time a Belizean was invited to Guatemala for other than a lynching,'' he says.
One of the biggest boosts to public awareness of the environment, says Garrett, is the US space program. ``From John Glenn to Apollo, these men have gone out and helped show us something you can't see any other way,'' he says. ``That is that this layer of oxygen that supports us is very thin, like an onion skin to the whole. And so far they haven't found another earth, so when we have this one wrapped up, that's the end of it.''
Garrett, who has spent 34 years with the magazine, since 1980 as editor, says the current push goes beyond awareness - to activism.
``What you do when you become aware of these issues is join groups like the Nature Conservancy, seek out environmentally sensitive candidates, support bonds that defend the environment,'' says Garrett. He cites a recent national poll showing that 72 percent of respondents consider themselves to be environmentalists.
``That activism can start with laughing an environmentally naive politician off the stage, and end with not buying a 400-horsepower car.''