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In saving the environment, one individual can make a big difference

The XVI International Botanical Congress that starts today at the St. Louis convention center spotlights the efforts of scientists all over the world to address a crucial issue: How will the world deal with the challenges that its growing human population will impose in the new millennium? The development of solutions to the world's environmental problems must rest partly on the shoulders of scientists, politicians, economists, bankers, engineers, businesspeople, for many kinds of commercial and public activity will be required. However, it is important not to loose sight of the key role that can be played by informed individuals -- by people like you and I. Often one person has made all the difference.

The Natural Step. In the International Botanical Congress's keynote address, to be delivered today, a Swedish cancer researcher named Karl-Henrik Robert will describe his efforts to forge a successful environmental coalition in his country. When he began his efforts in 1989, Sweden was riven by endless environmental debate. What Robert did that proved remarkably successful was to get the diverse interest groups to focus not on their differences, but on a few principles that everyone could agree on. Basically, he got leading scientists, environmentalist, and business figures to accept the principle that humanity's use of the environment ought to be sustainable. Private, commercial, and public activities should not use up unreplacable resources, not do harm that cannot be repaired. It seems a simple idea, "leave the world no worse than you find it," but it has powerful consequences, and its very simplicity gives it great power. Robert's principles, "The Natural Step," were delivered by the government, the Swedish Church, and major businesses in a booklet and audiocassette to every home and school in Sweden! They have had, and are having, enormous impact. By stubbornly looking for agreement, one individual, Robert, has made a huge difference.

The Nashua River. Running through the heart of New England, the Nashua River was severely polluted by mills established in Massachusetts in the early 1900s. By the 1960s, the river was clogged with pollution and declared ecologically dead. When housewife Marion Stoddart moved to a town along the river in 1962, she was appalled. She approached the state about setting aside a "greenway" (trees running the length of the river on both sides), but the state wasn't interested in buying land along a filthy river. So

Stoddart organized the Nashua River Cleanup Committee and began a campaign to ban the dumping of chemicals and wastes into the river. The committee presented bottles of dirty river water to politicians, spoke at town meetings, recruited businesspeople to help finance a waste treatment plant, and began to pick up garbage from the Nashua's banks. This citizen's campaign, coordinated by Marion Stoddart, led in large measure to the passage of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act of 1966. Industrial dumping into the river is now banned, and the river has largely recovered. Again, one individual made the difference.

Lake Washington. A large deep freshwater lake bordering Seattle on the east, Lake Washington became surrounded by Seattle's suburbs in the building boom following the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1953, a ring of 10 municipal sewage plants discharged their treated effluent into the lake. Safe enough to drink, the effluent was believed "harmless." By the mid-1950s a great deal of effluent had been dumped into the lake (try multiplying 80 million liters/day x 365 days/year x 10 years). In 1954, an ecology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, W. T. Edmondson, noted that his research students were collecting filamentous blue-green algae from the lake's waters. Such algae require plentiful nutrients, which deep freshwater lakes usually lack -- the sewage had been fertilizing the lake! Edmondson, alarmed, began a campaign in 1956 to educate public officials to the danger: bacteria decomposing dead algae would soon so deplete the lake's oxygen that the lake would die. After five years, joint municipal taxes financed the building of a trunk sewer to carry the effluent out to sea. The lake is now clean, thanks to the clear thinking and determined action of one individual.

In each of these three instances, the actions of one individual made a crucial contribution to solving an important environmental problem. These people were not saints or geniuses -- just people that saw a problem, and tried to fix it. The lesson for all of us is very clear: Informed individuals who want to make a difference, can.

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