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Stuart Oskamp [*]
The most serious long-term threat facing the world is the danger that human actions are producing irreversible, harmful changes to the environmental conditions that support life on Earth. If this problem is not overcome, there may be no viable world for our descendants to inhabit. Because this threat is caused by human population growth, overconsumption, and lack of resource conservation, social scientists have a vital role in helping our world escape ecological disaster and approach a sustainable level of impact on the environment--one that can be maintained indefinitely. Enormous changes to human lifestyles and cultural practices may be required to reach this goal. This article discusses major obstacles to this goal, describes a variety of motivational approaches toward reaching it, and proposes that we should view the achievement of sustainable living patterns as a superordinate goal--a war against the common enemy of an uninhabitable world.
A central topic of this Journal issue is sustainability, that is, the urgent need for us to use the Earth's resources in ways that will allow human beings and other species to continue to exist acceptably on Earth in the future. In 1987, the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (p. 363). Starkly stated, the issue is whether there will be a livable world for our descendants and other creatures to inhabit.
Dangers to Earth's Environment
As a prelude to the articles that follow, I will briefly summarize some of the current drastic dangers to the Earth's environment (see Oskamp, 2000, for details). Most literate citizens are at least somewhat informed about them, and media coverage and popular awareness are increasing, but people typically are not aware of their potentially cataclysmic nature. It is important for all people to become environmentalists and to work toward reducing the damaging impacts of humans on the natural environment. Among the most serious dangers to the environment are
* Global warming due to the greenhouse effect. When oil, gas, coal, or wood are burned, the carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) that is produced mixes into the atmosphere. This [CO.sub.2] and other greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation from Earth and thus reduce the amount of Earth's heat that is radiated into space, much as the glass roof in a greenhouse lets in warming sunlight but prevents warm air from escaping. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the amount of [CO.sub.2] in the atmosphere has been increasing very steadily and has reached levels unprecedented in geological history (IPCC, 1996). If this continues, the IPCC estimates that it will result in an average warming of the Earth's surface air temperature by about 3 1/2 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. This extra heat -- even an average increase of 1 or 2 degrees -- can change regional climates and disrupt agriculture worldwide. The polar regions are warming particularly fast, and a continuation of this trend will cau se extensive melting of the polar icecaps, resulting in raised ocean levels and consequent flooding of huge low-lying coastal areas in many countries (Hileman, 1999; Schneider, 1997).
* Loss of much of the Earth's protective ozone layer due to release of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). The extra ultraviolet radiation that penetrates the ozone layer causes damage to crops and skin cancer in humans (French, 1997; IPCC, 1996).
* Global climate change and great loss of biodiversity due to destruction of tropical and temperate rain forests (Bryant, Nielsen, & Tangley, 1997).
* Overfishing and exhaustion of all the world's oceanic fisheries and decreasing agricultural productivity due to many unsustainable practices. The world's grain production per person peaked in 1984, and the world's fish production per person peaked in 1989, and both have subsequently fallen by 7-8% (Brown, 1995, 1999). A likely future scenario is that increasing demand for food combined with a single summer's crop failure in one of the world's major agricultural nations will cause a dramatic escalation of world food prices and major famines in some nations.
* Acid rain, which damages forests and crops and also kills fish, plants, and other organisms in lakes and rivers (French, 1990; National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, 1991).
* Toxic pollution of air and drinking water supplies. This is a worldwide problem (World Health Organization, 1992) resulting from humans overtaxing Earth's life-giving resources of air and water and its capacity for absorbing waste products.
* Genetic and hormonal damage and cancer due to exposure to dioxin and other toxic chemicals. A new and little-known example is research showing a nearly 50% decrease in average sperm count observed in men worldwide during the last 50 years, apparently due to the widespread use of chlorinated chemicals all over the world in those years (Colborn, Dumanoski, & Myers, 1996; Wright, 1996). Similarly, the dangerous carcinogen dioxin is now building up to alarming levels in the body tissues of most Americans (Schecter, 1994).
The Centrality of the Social Sciences
In thinking about environmental problems such as these, it is essential for us to realize that they are not solely technical problems, requiring simply engineering, physics, and chemistry for their solution. There is a crucial role for the social sciences in these problems because they are all caused by human behavior, and they can all be reversed by human behavior. Another key point is that most of these problems are getting more serious each year, so it is urgent that we do much more to reverse them (cf. Oskamp, 1995a). In fact, United Nations estimates predict that 20% of the world's population (nearly 2 billion people) will become "environmental refugees" by the year 2020 because of environmental damage in their areas, destruction of cropland, lack of water, and so on (George, 1993).
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, focused world attention on these problems and agreed on a plan of action for addressing them, called Agenda 21. Progress on these goals is being monitored by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and by national agencies and citizen watchdog groups in many nations (Bartelmus, 1994). Progress has been sporadic, however, and slow at best, and the U.S. government has frequently played an obstructive role. For example, the 1997 international summit meeting in Kyoto, Japan, which was held to establish enforceable goals for nations to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are producing global warming, was impeded by U.S. government proposals that advocated minimal goals. As a result, it set only very weak and distant targets and established no enforcement mechanisms (Fishel, 1998; Lemonick, 1997).
Fortunately, opinion polls from many nations show that most people have high levels of concern for environmental problems. In the United States, proenvironmental attitudes hit an all-time high in the 1990s, and a large majority of people now call themselves "environmentalists" (Dunlap, Gallup, & Gallup, 1993; Kempton, …