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Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001

OUR PLANET EARTH

Counting down to environmental doom


An English friend, teasing, once asked whether Americans have a sense of irony. We certainly do, I replied, though perhaps less so than the English who, for generations, never saw the sun set and now live in darkness much of the year.

For Americans, the past two weeks have been a test of our ironic mettle, both bitter and sweet: flights caught and missed, CIA "blowback" and monumental heroism.

On Sept. 11, just hours before the world began to reel in horror and disbelief, the Asahi Glass Foundation sent out a press release announcing the results of its 10th Annual "Questionnaire on Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind." When I read the fax several days later and saw the time-date code, the irony chilled me.

Each spring, Asahi polls businesses, governments and nongovernmental organizations worldwide on various environmental issues. This year, the survey focused on global warming, water problems, endocrine disrupters and predictions for the global environment 30 years from now.

The questionnaire also includes an "Environmental Doomsday Clock." Respondents are asked what time they think it is, with midnight being humanity's darkest hour. Choosing a time between noon and 3 p.m. indicates one is "barely concerned"; between 3:01 and 6 p.m. that one is " slightly concerned"; between 6:01 and 9 p.m. that one is "fairly concerned"; and between 9:01 and midnight that one is "extremely concerned."

These days, the environment is the last thing on most people's minds; but the survey asks respondents to choose a time that reflects their "concern for human survival prospects," and recent events give the question new poignancy.

This year's survey, though, was taken during earlier days of 2001, when the only looming threat was recession. It is not surprising, therefore, that the average time selected by respondents (684 replies received out of 3,938 questionnaires mailed) was just a few minutes into the "extremely concerned" quadrant, at 9:08 p.m. The sense of crisis in Japan (9:04) was less than that overseas (9:11).

The clock has shown little change over a decade. The first year of the survey (1992), the clock stood at 7:49 p.m., then ticked forward to 8:19 in 1993. Since 1994, the time has fluctuated between 8:47 (1994) and 9:13 (1996), staying on the dark side of 9 for the past six years, except in 2000 when the clock eased back to 8:56.

This year, corporations made up 13 percent of the respondents, local and central governments 34 percent, universities and researchers were 20 percent and NGOs 22 percent.

On the issue of implementing the Kyoto Protocol to counteract global warming, a majority of respondents in industrialized nations called for the "introduction of domestic systems assuring the achievement of reduction targets among developed nations."

Those in developing nations preferred "financial support from developed nations."

In Japan, the "greening of industry" got the most support, while overseas it was the "promotion of education and awareness training for the general public."

Respondents were also worried about endocrine disrupters -- human-made synthetic chemicals that disrupt the hormone systems of humans and animals and are thought to cause cancer. Of the possible responses, the vast majority worldwide chose: "It will be too late if we wait for scientific proof, so we should act prudently with regard to all synthetic chemicals," and, "We should establish a stricter testing system for . . . synthetic chemicals and publish the test results."

Only 2 percent of Japanese and 4 percent of those overseas did not sense "any urgent hazard."

Predictions regarding the state of our environment in 30 years were similar worldwide, with 68 percent of respondents believing that the situation will be worse. Overseas, global warming was cited most as a problem, while Japanese were most concerned about threats to biodiversity. All respondents were concerned about drinking water and food problems in the future.

Asked about "Changes in Lifestyle," respondents in developing nations most often called for the introduction of environmental taxes to effect change. Elsewhere, the majority said, "Make it easy for consumers to purchase green products."

In addition to conducting the questionnaire, the Asahi Glass Foundation also awards the Blue Planet Prize, an internationally respected award given to two individuals or organizations that have made outstanding scientific contributions to global environmental conservation.

This year's 10th annual prizes will be given to Sir Robert May, an Australian, for his work in "developing mathematical ecology and the fundamental tools for ecological conservation planning"; and Norman Myers of the United Kingdom for "being the first to warn of mass species extinction and for continuing to speak out about environmental problems."

May and Myers will receive trophies, certificates of merit and cash awards of 50 million yen each: welcome financing for those whose lifework attracts little public acclaim and insufficient funding.

As May told the Foundation when he was selected: "I can now concentrate on what I view as the most important environmental questions of our time. You are setting me free to do more in the next decade than in all my professional life to date."

No small gift for a world-renowned scientist in his late 60s -- and a blessing for the rest of us as well.

The Blue Planet Prize will be presented Nov. 15. The following day, the winners will give lectures at the United Nations University in Tokyo. For more information, visit the Asahi Glass Foundation Web site at www.af-info.or.jp Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com.


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