Conversations With Outstanding Americans: Jane Lubchenco
A world-class researcher, this professor of zoology has a down-to-earth perspective on the unprecedented changes affecting the natural world and is joining fellow scientists in voicing her concerns more vigorously.
STRAWBERRY HILL, ORE. — It's early morning along the Oregon coast, and Jane Lubchenco is doing what she loves most - mucking about in tide pools.
Rubber-booted and sure-footed, she moves over the rocky area, checking the marine plants and animals exposed during low tide, noting the harbor seals loitering on rocks just offshore, greeting the graduate students she oversees at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
"This is one of the most lovely places in the world to work," she says.
As a Distinguished Professor of Zoology and a world-class researcher, Dr. Lubchenco has been documenting marine life along the coast here for more than 15 years.
It's sophisticated science, sometimes involving helicopters, remote sensors, and satellites. But she also totes a plastic bucket labeled "Bob's Secret Sauce" (formerly used at a fast-food joint) to carry the more mundane tools of her trade. A screw driver to pry starfish off rocks. The turkey baster for slurping water out of sea anemones. "Tuffy" pot scrapers, which, fixed to rocks, attract mussels for study.
It seems idyllic and timeless, a place where native Americans spent time hundreds of years ago, leaving behind piles of broken shells still visible along the bank.
But when Lubchenco talks about what's going on here and what it represents in the bigger picture of life on Earth - climate change, the loss of biological diversity, the spread of toxic wastes, human population expected to double before the end of the next century - there is an urgency in her tone, a sense that mankind's impact on the land and seas needs to change.
"We're changing things faster than we understand them," she says. "We're changing the world in ways that it's never been changed before, at faster rates and over larger scales, and we don't know the consequences. It's a massive experiment, and we don't know the outcome.
"And we should not be blas about the results. There are going to be very big surprises, and [they] are not likely to be in our favor. And therefore, we should be more cautious...."
In person, Jane Lubchenco is low-key and a bit of a science nerd. (This reporter struggles to keep up with photosynthates, Pfiesteria piscicida, and "a really nasty dinoflagellate.") But she has taken a lead public role among ecologists concerned about this "massive experiment."
And increasingly she's being listened to. By members of Congress, by fellow scientists, by religious leaders. And most recently by the White House, where she was one of seven experts summoned to a briefing on global warming.
Still at mid-career, Lubchenco has racked up an impressive resume.
Among other places, her work has taken her to Central America, China, and the Aegean Sea. Next month, she'll be in the Black Sea.
Over the years, she also has worked hard to maintain time for family. For 10 years, she and her husband, Bruce Menge (also a professor of marine biology at OSU), split a faculty position so that they could devote time to their two sons. It was a decision to shun both the "fast track" and the "mommy track" in favor of what they call the "sane track."
When the two biologists spent several months each year doing research in Panama through this period, their two young sons tagged along.
"We were able to spend much more time with our children than would have been the case," they wrote in the April 1993 issue of BioScience magazine. "It was easier to breast-feed; to trade taking care of them; to volunteer as soccer, baseball, and basketball coaches; and generally to share in the joys, frustrations, tribulations, and rewards of parenting."
As the boys got older (Duncan is now 16, Alexei is 19), Lubchenco and Dr. Menge worked three-quarter time for two more years. Both are now full-time tenured professors.
But in addition to teaching courses in ecology, environmental sciences, and marine biology, Lubchenco now spends much of her time traveling in the United States and abroad carrying the message that anthropogenic (human-caused) changes are impacting the earth in ways that need to be better understood and acted upon.
Seated on a rock among the tide pools at a place called Strawberry Hill, she says it's important to realize that environmentalism means more than preserving the postcard-like scene here along the Oregon coast, reducing the smog level in Mexico City, or limiting industrial logging in Indonesia. And seen in its broadest sense, the environment - and how it's treated - is directly connected to human health, the economy, social justice, and national security.
"If you asked most people how they depend on nature, they will focus on the things that we get - the food, the fiber, medicines, genes," she says. "But most people are unaware of the fact that ecosystems also provide services.... For example, forests provide flood control. They absorb water. They keep the water from just gushing downslope and causing floods.... Other services include things like the provision of pollinators, the generation of fertile soil, the purification of air and water."
In the spring 1997 issue of Issues in Ecology (the publication of the Ecological Society of America), Lubchenco and other scientists listed more services provided by nature: detoxification and decomposition of wastes, dispersal of seeds, cycling and movement of nutrients, control of most agricultural pests, protection of shorelines from erosion, protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays, and moderation of weather extremes.
But the problem, she says, is that "the services by and large are outside our economic valuation system. We don't buy and sell and trade them. They're just there. We've always taken them for granted."
Looking around at the hillsides in a region that has been heavily logged, she says, "Right now, you gain a tremendous amount if you clearcut these forests because you sell the timber and then you can sell the land to develop it. There's nothing in that accounting that says what the loss of the services are or that enables you to evaluate the tradeoffs."
Recently, she notes, research sponsored by the National Science Foundation concluded that the annual value of services provided by nature worldwide averaged some $33 trillion - nearly twice the global gross national product of $18 billion.
"Those numbers are real fuzzy," she acknowledges. "Nevertheless, everybody that's done some calculation about the global value of ecosystem services has come up with trillions of dollars.... It's just way, way up there."
For Lubchenco and other ecologists, much of the "massive experiment" resulting in environmental changes around the world can be quantified.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (the prime "greenhouse gas" suspected of causing global warming) has increased 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Sixty-six percent of marine fisheries are overexploited or have reached the limit of the exploitation.
Species are going extinct at least 10 times faster than in the millennia before modern-day humans. Other species have become "biological invaders," introduced by such human activity as ballast water in ships or in the fur of domestic animals to new areas where they degrade human health, cause economic loss (as the zebra mussel in North America has done), or disrupt ecosystems to the extent that native species go extinct.
Another example that Lubchenco sees in her own work as a marine biologist: Human activity has doubled the amount of nitrogen that is "fixed" (combined with carbon, hydrogen and/or oxygen so that it can be used by living organisms).
"Much of the nitrogen supplied by fertilizers into fields or golf courses or lawns is greatly excessive," she says. "Most of that washes into rivers and streams.... We've got good documentation of vast increases in the amount of nitrogen in coastal areas.
"And what we are seeing is an increase in harmful algal blooms, increases in the frequency and intensity of these things - some of which are red tides, some of which are brown tides, some of which are colorless - but many of which cause problems."
Among such problems are large amounts of decomposing algae, which use up oxygen and thereby kill fish by the millions, and production of poisons that are absorbed by shellfish and can be harmful to humans.
(In Virginia last week, a federal judge fined a hog producer $12.6 million for dumping waste into a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. Such wastes are tied to algae blooms harmful to fish. It was also reported last week that the Environmental Protection Agency this year has issued 2,200 warnings not to eat certain kinds of freshwater fish from lakes and rivers in 47 states because of pollution.)
"I guess I think of all the different things that are happening on Earth in a hierarchical sense," she says. "And that the ultimate driver of anthropogenic changes is first and foremost the explosive growth of the human population."
It's a subject she stressed during her presidential address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle in February: "In 50 years, twice as many people will need to be fed.
Although the exact slope of the increase is not known for certain, the direction is clear." It was during this speech to some 5,000 scientists that she drew together population, environment, and social equity.
Lubchenco acknowledges that real progress has been made in some areas, such as the international agreement to reduce the use of chemicals damaging to the earth's ozone layer. Some countries (including the US) have seen pollution reduced. The United Nations-sponsored Earth Summit in 1992 and the UN's conference on population in Cairo two years later saw serious proposals for progress.
She is encouraged by such things as the large number of Americans who recycle wastes, the public opinion polls consistently indicating widespread concern about the environment, the rejection in Congress of proposals to weaken environmental-protection laws.
"There's a real difference between what we need and what we want," she says. "I think more and more people are changing their minds about that, and I think that's definitely for the good."
But in many other ways, the toughest global environmental issues are getting worse and in some cases at an accelerating rate. And beyond relatively easy steps (like recycling) is the need for harder things like cutting the use of fossil fuels.
Back along the Oregon coast, Lubchenco talks about the values and attitudes that need to be examined if such warnings are to be heeded. "No one deliberately set out to mess up the world," she says. "But what most people don't appreciate is how messy we've become, and it's happened very quickly and a lot of the more serious things are not that easy for people to see. And so it's easy to think, 'Gee, it's not that bad. Gee, there are a lot of naysayers, and they just don't like things, and they're causing trouble.' "
Traditionally, scientists are cautious - they rely on facts to back up their assertions - and they generally have been hesitant to take a prominent role in promoting public policy. "In my view, the role of science in all of this is really to inform," says Lubchenco. (And she adds, "You need to have scientists who can better explain that information in something other than tech-nerd terms.")
But she also asserts that scientists should not hesitate to spell out what they believe to be the consequences of different policy options (changes to laws affecting water quality or air quality, for example).
Lubchenco has been called on to testify before Congress on such things as the need to protect endangered species. And in recent years, she has been involved with Religion, Science, and the Environment - an international partnership of scientists and religious leaders of all faiths that organizes ecumenical gatherings focusing on the environment.
In 1995, she took part in a symposium (held aboard ship in the Aegean and sponsored by the Orthodox Church) that used the 1,900th anniversary of the writing of the Book of Revelation to focus on the Apocalypse and the environment.
One major interpretation voiced by participants, she says, was that "the environmental destruction that we're seeing now is the Apocalypse, and whether it turns into a time of destruction or a time of renewal and recreation ... depends on whether humans accept the God-given responsibility to be better stewards and to convert the current destruction into something that is more in balance."
"The patriarchs announced at the end that they were now recognizing a new category of sin," she says, "that it would be as much of a sin to pollute, to cause species to go extinct, to degrade the environment as any of their traditional ideas of sin. And they were calling this 'sins against creation.' This is pretty powerful."
Next month, Lubchenco will take a lead role on a similar gathering in the Black Sea. She finds more religious leaders questioning a traditional theology which confused "dominion" with "domination," resulting in environmental degradation.
"I see people genuinely interested in taking responsibility for stewardship of the planet in ways that I think are appropriate." She describes herself as "spiritual," but "not really a religious person," adding, "I'm more than willing to be helpful in that." Of her own beliefs, she says, "There's a part of me that really connects at a nonintellectual level with much of the natural world .... For whatever reason and in ways that I can't explain and probably can't articulate, I do feel an emotional connection with the rest of creation, even though I don't believe it was created, I believe it evolved." Sitting here along the Pacific coast - "one of the most lovely places in the world to work" - it's hard not to feel that same connection.
* Other in the Outstanding Americans series: Elie Wiesel, Dec. 10, 1996; Sandra Day O'Connor, Jan. 28, 1997; Leon Lederman, Feb. 25; Bobby Bowden, April 14; Edward Said, May 27.
'All organisms modify their environment, and humans are no exception. What's different is not the rate at which we are changing things because there are so many of us and because of our technologies. What we have unwittingly done is begin to modify the planet in massive ways, and that's what I'm calling an experiment. We're changing things in ways that the rest of life on earth has never experienced.'
'Part of what I focused on [in briefing the president and vice president on climate change] are some of the predictions we can make with some confidence. For example, if sea level rises only a foot, which is ... in the mid-range of what's expected, we would lose one-third of the Everglades.'
'I don't see environmental issues as partisan issues at all. They're really ones that impact everyone and that everyone needs to care about.'
'It takes a lot of courage for scientists to speak out. But what's happening is a real revolution in the scientific community, where more and more ecologists ... are becoming convinced that the systems they have known and loved and studied for years are changing ... in ways they wouldn't have believed possible. And they are feeling ... frustrated that the information that they think they have to share has not been heard or sought.'
'Our government massively subsidizes the burning of fossil fuels, and the price that we pay at the gasoline pump is not the true cost. You go to any other country in the world and you pay much more for gasoline, and that cost is much more a reflection of the true cost.'
JANE LUBCHENCO CHRONOLOGY
* Born Denver, Colorado, 1947.
* BA, Colorado College,1969 (in biology); took a summer course in marine zoology at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Mass.
* MS, University of Washington, 1971 (in zoology). Here, met Bruce Menge, a doctoral student in marine biology, who became her husband.
* PhD, Harvard University, 1975 (in ecology); assistant professor, Harvard,1975-77.
* Wanting to raise a family, Lubchenco and Menge proposed to several universities that they be allowed to split a professorship. They received one positive response - from Oregon State University in Corvallis. Each relinquished a full-time assistant professorship to accept a half-time, tenure-track, assistant professorship at OSU.
* Professor, Oregon State University, 1977-present. (Her academic titles are Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology.)
* OSU Outstanding Teacher of the Year, 1986.
* President, Ecological Society of America, 1990.
* MacArthur Fellow, 1993.
* Oregon Scientist of the Year, 1994 (Oregon Academy of Sciences).
* President, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1996; Named to National Academy of Sciences, 1996.
* Appointed to National Science Board by President Clinton in 1996; confirmed by Senate in 1997.
* Serves as scientific adviser to Religion, Science, and the Environment, an international partnership of scientists and religious leaders to promote environmental stewardship, 1995-present.
* Member of the boards of directors of World Resources Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Serves on advisory committees for the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, National Public Radio's "Living on Earth," the United Nations Environment Program, and UNESCO.
Population Links To Environment, Social Equity
Developed countries represent less than a quarter of the world's population, but they cause around three-quarters of the pollution and use more than three-quarters of its natural resources.
"Consider these comparisons of relative energy use: One person from the United States uses the energy equivalent to that of six Mexicans, 14 Chinese, and 38 people in India. Since 1950, the richest billion people have doubled their consumption of energy, meat, steel, copper and timber, while the poorest billion have hardly expanded their consumption of these items at all.
"The growing inequity not only among nations, but also within every nation on Earth ... is a problem whose full impact is yet to be realized. It is important to recognize that although the rates of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition are declining, the number of people affected by each is increasing.
"The connections between these factors and social disruption are beginning to be recognized. Population growth and environmental degradation can drive people from the country into cities and across national borders. The emigration often leads to social disintegration and political fragmentation....
"I have emphasized that the rates, scales, and kinds of changes are faster, larger, different from ever before. As a consequence we must think about sustainability in fundamentally different ways than ever before. It is no longer sufficient to talk just about sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, or sustainable fisheries, but indeed it is the sustainability of the biosphere that is our proper concern.
"Clearly, we are not talking about business-as-usual here. This is an entirely new world. The environmental changes occurring are so different in scale, in rate, and in kind from those of the past that the past offers little insight into likely responses.
"We should expect increasing rates of change, greater uncertainty about responses of these complex biological systems, and more surprises."
- Excerpt from the presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February 1997.