T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E

Director, Missouri Botanical Gardens

Help Site Map Text Only

Introduction by Adele Simmons


Director, Missouri Botanical Gardens

Thank you for the very generous introduction. As the first speaker from the National Academy of Sciences, I want to say on behalf of the Academy how glad we are to have this forum taking place here today and what a wonderful start has been made.

In an effort to get at the strategic questions that we are confronting today, I want to set the stage a little bit. Then I will turn to my views of biodiversity, which has been so well discussed by the earlier speakers. I think it is important for us to talk explicitly about America's position in the world, by noting in the first instance that we are about four and one-half percent of the world population; and as we have been doing since the 1870s, we base our prosperity on about 25 percent of the world's economy. The only time at which we varied very much from that kind of proportion was in the 1950s. In those "Leave It to Beaver" days, we were able temporarily to benefit from about 40 percent of the world's economy, thanks to the dislocation that came about as a result of World War II. Unfortunately, some of our politicians seem to have fixed on the 1950s as a kind of dreamland to which we can return, and in which we will find the same kind of prosperity and easy living that we did then. I think you would have to be unconscious about the international scene to believe that we ever would be able to appropriate more than 25 percent of the world's economy that we depend upon now. If we do depend on 25 percent of the world's economy, does that not say something about USAID, international assistance, and international science and technology cooperation?

Despite the clear statements that have been offered us (and Brian Atwood just made a very fine one), America does not seem to be interested in improving its position as the lowest donor of foreign development assistance on a per capita basis of any industrialized country. In fact, we seem to be engaged in a mad rush to cut that low record of foreign development assistance still further.

How can the richest nation that has ever existed in the history of the world, not only the richest one that exists now, assume tacitly that our relationships with other nations are unimportant are not an essential ingredient for our prosperity and for global stability? It seems like it is not only short-sighted; it seems like it is nonsighted almost blind to the world's realities.

When one thinks about the national debate we have on matters such as our interrelationships with Mexico, one would assume that very few people have ever been able to look at a map of North America and understand that the United States and Mexico are managing their resources in a common way. Not only are they ignorant of that map, they seem to be ignorant of the cultural, financial, and personal relationships that exist between the United States and Mexico. They seem unaware of the absolute necessity for us to coordinate our strategies with Mexico if we are to find any success nationally or on a continental basis.

Even worse, we seem unable to assimilate the views of the world as our single planetary home that were beamed back to us from the Apollo space missions. Hearing the debate on policy that is going on at the present time, one would assume that America is spinning around somewhere out in space with a completely self-sufficient economy, not on one planet called Earth. One would assume that we somehow transfer in 25 percent of the Earth's economy, but we are untouched by the rest of the Earth and have no obligation or interest whatever in dealing with the rest of the planet. That is really incredible; but unfortunately, it is true.

How can we forget about population? At the time when our ancestors were building Stonehenge or the great pyramids, there were about as many people in the entire world as there are now in the State of Ohio. That was 6,000 only years ago, in a 4.5-billion-year world history. Yet, since the start of the industrial revolution, when there were not even a billion people in the world, we have rocketed on upward to 2.5 billion in 1950, and over 5.1 billion people at the present time.

The Cairo Conference on Population and Development (September 1994) concluded that if we were to join in a worldwide effort to supply contraceptives to the 300 million women in the world who want those contraceptives, there might be some hope of stabilizing world population at a level of less than 8 billion people, instead of 14 billion or some other unsupportable number. The way that we have dealt with that critical issue nationally is by the House of Representatives recently engaging in recision of $50 million of our assistance to the United Nations Family Planning Association.

Where is this nation going and how does it relate to the rest of the world? This is a serious question, and one that we can ignore only at our peril. We are the lowest-taxed country of any industrialized nation. Our individual tax burden is less than that of any other industrialized country in the world. The entrepreneurial spirit is set by our laws to be as free as it could conceivably be.

Despite this, we seem to think that we can solve the policy and fiscal questions of our country by lowering those already bottom-load taxes still further. Many of us live in the delusion that something like 15 percent of our national budget goes to foreign development assistance. The truth is, it is much less than one percent including military assistance.

One of the most important aspects of the world (and one that I hope would be central to our considerations here) is that which was first presented to us by Abdus Salam, the distinguished founder of the Third World Academy of Sciences. He pointed out that the developing countries of the world, with what now amounts to 78 percent of the world population, are home to only six percent of the world's scientists and engineers.

The industrialized countries of the world, which have shrunk from a third of the world population to a fifth of the world population today and will be down to a sixth of the world population by the year 2020, are home to 94 percent of the world's scientists and engineers. Combine that with the well-known fact that among developing countries there is a particular concentration of scientists and engineers in just a few countries China, India, Mexico, and Brazil stand out among them.

One can immediately see that for over half of the countries in the world for over100 countries there is virtually no scientific or engineering base at all. If there is no scientific or engineering base, how can those countries be expected on their own knowledge and in their own interest to cooperate with us in conventions, to manage their resources in a sustainable way, to comport themselves as responsible trading partners, and to avoid military action and promote resource-based economic and political stability or anything else?

I submit that building the scientific and technological base for the countries of the world is the surest way to build global stability. I submit that a country that has less than five percent of the world population but causes a third of the world's pollution and benefits from a quarter of the world's economy has the most direct imaginable interest in building the scientific and technical bases of those countries so that they can be stable. Not to do so is the surest folly. I regard the cuts in the U.S. Agency for International Development made by the present administration as a disaster, and the further cuts that are contemplated now as a further disaster.

Our country spends one-sixth of our gross national product for health care, and half of that is for the last year of a person's life. Our country sells itself gasoline at a 25 percent reduction in constant dollars from 1945 prices and taxes itself at the lowest level of any industrialized country. Our country will find true stability only by helping to build global stability. There is no other way. The times call the times cry out for a new way of thinking, and we are not exercising a new way of thinking. We are instead exercising a new intensity of selfishness. This simply is not going to get us, our children, or our grandchildren to where we want to go.

What about the environment? If you read the opinion and editorial pages in The Wall Street Journal, you would conclude that the world future will be determined by arguments between economics and the environment. Cut down those forests; get some money; pollute this area, get some more. What we forget is that on this planet we call home it is collectively the environment, the biodiversity, the organisms, the forests, the air, and the water that constitute the only place in which our actions can occur. This is all we have. The environment is what makes our planet live. It is what allows our planet to capture energy from the sun, transform that energy into chemical bonds in organisms that stabilize the soil, the water, and the air the resources that make human life possible.

The economic equivalencies that have been worked out in the United States, Japan, and Europe over the last few hundred years certainly show how commodities can be transferred from one form to another. How human societies carry out those transactions is not in any way equivalent to or competing with the need to sustain the environment, in which every single one of our activities must take place.

When we destroy the living capacity of the earth through our negligence, our shortsightedness, or our greed, there will be no more room for calculating economic equivalencies. There will be no more room for writing books or poetry. There will be no more room for music. There will be no more room for civilizations like that of the United States. We cannot prosper in a world that is devoid of life. We cannot endlessly go on with this false dichotomy. We desperately need a new way of thinking.

Biodiversity is the stock of life on which we depend. As Tim Wirth pointed out so eloquently, to say that the 21st century is the age of biology is to say that we shall be able to capitalize on biological organisms and on biological communities in the 21st century. Those of us who have considered the question seriously have concluded that up to one-fifth of our global biological diversity may disappear forever within the next 25 years. That amounts to two million species of organisms, most of which never would have been seen by anybody, catalogued, understood, sequenced, used, or prospected in any way.

It is basically a tragedy of our time that we pretend that ecological disaster is something that is going to happen in the future, when we are right now in the middle of an ecological disaster of a dimension that has not occurred for the past 65 million years.

Without recognizing these fundamental relationships, we cannot solve the problems of our economy. We cannot give ourselves more health. We cannot give ourselves more money. We cannot give ourselves more prosperity. As citizens of the richest nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth, we cannot make ourselves any richer by ignoring realities of our planetary home.

It is a time of extinction a time when as human beings we are unable to manage the biosphere properly. Why is it that in the middle of these times we cannot bring ourselves to take the question of biodiversity seriously? Biodiversity is the only sustainable resource that we have. To allow during our lifetime the extinction the permanent elimination of such a high proportion of what are, as far as we know, our only living companions in the universe is morally and ethically an unforgivable crime. From both an economic and environmental point of view, it is absolutely unforgivable that we in this generation are doing for one another.

As I stressed earlier, this wonderful country has fewer than five percent of the people in the world and a concentration of 25 percent of the world's wealth. We have the knowledge and the institutions to deal with the world's grandeur and diversity at a cultural, biological, and intellectual level. We must get hold of ourselves and develop a new way of thinking. We must begin to lay the foundations for stability now.

The world has not been managed in a sustainable way since at least the end of World War II. The loss of topsoil, changes in the environment, changes in water, alterations of the atmosphere, cutting of forests, loss of agricultural lands, and all the negative things that have happened since the end of World War II cry out for action and attention.

There is no more significant definition of national security than building a stable world in which we, our children, and our grandchildren can live in peace and exercise our human abilities. We must do so, and we must begin to do so now. I am delighted that at this forum we have the opportunity to make a genuine beginning. Thank you.

Return to Forum Homepage

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House
White House for Kids | White House History
White House Tours | Help | Text Only

Privacy Statement